Miami's newest morticians bought Dallas' old and creaky unit a fitting casket with a 92-84 win that was more hideous than Hollywood. In a relentless battle of elite defenses, the Heat landed a devastating blow that makes Game 2 a must-win situation for the lower-seeded Mavericks.
The players from both benches clanked their way through a grotesque evening one not-so-distant observer appreciated more than any other. As Pat Riley watched both aggregations hover around 38 percent shooting, he had to think of his power-proficient New York Knicks bruisers more than his high-powered L.A. Lakers offensive juggernauts.
Did James Worthy, Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar ever manage to execute defense this stifling? Unlike Patrick Ewing, LeBron James and Chris Bosh are poised to leave this fight with the hardware that would transform their reputes.
One team has framed this postseason as a farewell tour. Unlike Cher and Kiss, the Mavericks cannot expect to return next year. The bandwagon will empty as quickly as its seats sold out if Mark Cuban's gang exits this tussle empty-handed.
The other team hopes to stick around late into the decade. Brouhaha and applesauce follow the Heat everywhere the Three Me-Egos and a scrutinized and maligned supporting cast go. The NBA's sassed up, super-hubris version of Justin Bieber is ready to make South Beach smile.
The Mavs have tried to lock Dirk Nowitzki out of numerous gyms to no avail. James seems to have a key to every yacht in Miami.
Jason Kidd uses aplomb and savvy honed from a lengthy career to find his teammates in the right spots. He sometimes kills so quietly his sneak attack would blindside a mouse. Dwyane Wade glides to the rim with panache and sizzle. The volume of his paint forays could cause the members of an Ozzfest headline act severe hearing damage.
Not even a macho wrestler would dare mess with Tyson Chandler around the basket. The Heat frontcourt cogs not named Bosh are still trying to shake a reputation as a pushover group.
They'll meet in the ring again Thursday night, and the two coaches will see, with the rest of a global NBA audience, what happens.
The contrasts do not matter anymore. Both ways win. Both squads refused to die in a pair of Game 4s and 5s, even when it felt safe to turn off the television and head for sleep. Those who caught Zs didn't catch four final periods and some extra-minute sessions packed with stirring, stunning rallies
The Mavs finished off the Thunder last week and now must tend to unfinished business with the Heat down 0-1. Miami's trio promised seven or eight titles during a lavish summer celebration and now need just three more victories to get that first one.
Rick Carlisle considered LaMarcus Aldridge, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook impossible covers. His gift now, and his mandate: game-plan against two of the best all-around basketball players in the world. He must figure out what Tom Thibodeaux could not—a plan to neutralize James and Wade's impact when a contest gets tight.
Accounting for third wheel Chris Bosh, who stumbled through a 5-of-18 night, will not be a picnic, either.
Carlisle has some serious work to do. The Three Me-Egos combined for 65 points. If Dallas does not plan to top 85 the rest of the way, that will become a serious problem.
James tallied 24 points, nine rebounds and five assists. Wade totaled 22 points, 10 rebounds and six assists.
Erik Spoelstra had to fend off Doug Collins' 76ers">Philadelphia 76ers, take down the reigning East champion Boston Celtics and dispatch the top-seeded Chicago Bulls sans home-court advantage. The present he'll unwrap as this match unfolds: a German superstar with unlimited range that has come back like the Terminator plowing through a police station window in a Corvette. Yeah, limit him.
Nowitzki was a pedestrian 7-of-18, but he converted all 12 of his freebies en route to 27 points and eight rebounds.
Through it all, Riley had to chuckle in his prominent but less public role as team president. His sturdy, sagacious salesmanship turned a pipe dream into the NBA's latest nightmare reality. His interrogated protege, Spoelstra, has the Heat on the brink of a title that seemed far away after a rough 9-8 start in late October and November.
As the most hyped free-agency class ever hit the market at midnight, July 1, The Godfather on South Beach lurked in the shadows with an offer James and Bosh couldn't refuse.
He had planned his pitch for years, but his prospective customers were interchangeable. It could have been Amar'e Stoudemire, Nowitzki or the crestfallen Carlos Boozer. Riley always believed his 2010 summer haul would convince Wade to stay put.
A few years ago, a coach with five championships stared at a box score as if it was a demon and bewailed his awful squad's march to 60-plus losses. The Heat, just two years removed from a thrilling 2006 title, finished with 15 wins and drained dignity.
The Armani-clad Riley, then, was happy to let Spoelstra take over a train wreck. He retreated to the relative safety and the solace of a cushy front-office gig to work his backdoor magic.
The man's genius has endured, and Tuesday was one more notch in a legacy that may soon rival the executive curriculum vitae of Jerry West.
Riley overpaid Shaquille O'Neal for a several-season mercenary mission he had to know would end in despairing, ravaging fashion. Miami's first banner rendered that trade a lopsided triumph in favor of the Heat. A few campaigns later, when Shaq had returned to his out-of-shape, merciless verbal rampaging ways, the coach and president produced divorce papers as quickly as the organization had rolled out its Big Diesel-sized welcome mat.
He spent those lean years gutting a talent-challenged roster in preparation for a shopping spree to upstage the women of Sex and the City. He peddled draft picks and dead-weight veterans, acquired a compost pile of expiring contracts and did everything else possible to create the mammoth cap space that allowed the Three Me-Egos to convene.
He flipped Shawn Marion and Marcus Banks for Jermaine O'Neal and Jamario Moon and assembled a misfit inventory with Wade and spare parts. That Spoelstra coaxed 43 and 47 victories out of those groups was a testament to his sideline adroitness.
When suitors lined up in July to woo a cadre of sexy NBA bachelors, Riley approached James and Bosh with a tantalizing proposition: come to Miami and become the 21st century versions of Johnson and Worthy.
He hustled an ambitious conception that has become a haunting and harrowing hurdle for the league's other championship hopefuls to climb. The Mavericks will need more than just dead-eye shooting to eke out four wins against the ruthless Heat.
Riley sold Showtime to his star trio. It doesn't matter now that the final product restrains more than it runs, and grinds more than it guns. Miami is spectacular, and its three best players remain unguardable in the open floor.
Dallas' confounding zone and its veteran ball-handling forced Riley's creation to score another way. Mario Chalmers chipped in 12 points, Mike Miller drilled a pair of three-pointers, Udonis Haslem added seven points and the Heat reserves out-dueled their Mavericks counterparts 27-15.
If that unexpected bench drubbing continues, Dallas will lose in four or five contests.
It should also plant fright and anxiety in the minds of Riley's peers. If Miami can take a 1-0 Finals lead with a scoreless, defenseless, one-dimensional Mike Bibby starting at point guard and crypt kicker Juwan Howard delivering 7:37 as a backup big, how much better can the Heat become with a superior help staff?
James logged 45 minutes and Bosh and James each provided 38-plus minutes. Riley will rank lessening that workload as a chief priority after the looming lockout, and it is difficult to believe that he will not find some way to do it.
If he led the biggest free-agency coup in basketball history, what will stop him from securing one or two more impact contributors? It will take more than a zone defense or a work stoppage to derail Riley's vision. A lot more.
The Mavs learned as much in the series opener. Even while abusing the rims and yielding too many high-percentage looks, the Heat figured out how to clamp down, dig in and collect another W.
James, Wade and Bosh will keep coming, even if Dallas doesn't. The opponents may have changed from round to round, but Miami's approach, much like Riley's plan, has not wavered.
Late in the fourth quarter, Marion sought a momentum-altering bucket, but Wade flew in to swat the jump shot into the first row. Somehow, Miami gained possession, even when it was not clear at first glance that Marion touched the ball last before it skipped out of bounds. Game over.
Dallas hung around long enough to endure a deflating slew of rim-rattlers from James. Wade caught fire, and Chalmers was a second-half catalyst.
Even if it was not Showtime, it worked. Riley sought to put 29 other franchises in his presidential chokehold the previous July, and his squad sits three victories away from strangling the Mavs in the first chapter of that quest.
After Game 1, Dallas was gasping for air and grasping at straws to explain a night of misfires and missed opportunities.
Making more shots and playing better seems simple enough, but Carlisle's squad must also overcome the unavoidable truth that Riley's colossus can get better.
Even with a bevy of design flaws and weaknesses that appear exploitable on the surface, the Heat have become the Death Star 2.0. The fictional character Darth Vader did not oversee the completion of the perfect intergalactic weapon of mass destruction.
He should have phoned Riley.
It was just one game, but it feels like much more. A few breaths might save the Mavericks, but it might make Miami's killing machine even deadlier. The last thing a smart assassin needs is more time to extend his plan and his reach, one painstaking victory at a time.