Can Dirk Nowitzki lead the Dallas Mavericks against the Miami Heat and claim the franchise's first ever NBA Championship?
Both teams are now ready for the heavyweight rematch of the 2006 Finals and a shot at basketball immortality.
Game 1 of the NBA Finals starts Tuesday, 5/31 at 9:00EST on ABC. Here is a breakdown of what you need to know before the opening tip.
Dwyane Wade, 2006 Finals MVP
The 2011 NBA Finals between the Miami Heat and Dallas Mavericks carries much more history than just a rematch of the 2006 Finals.
Ever since Dwyane Wade led the Heat's furious and unprecedented comeback to claim the Larry O'Brien Trophy, Dirk Nowitzki and Co. have been plotting their revenge.
However, the battle wounds these two franchises have inflicted upon each other run much deeper than the '06 Finals.
Since the 2006 championship run by the Miami Heat, the Mavericks have won the last 10 games during the regular season home-and-away series each year. This season, the Mavericks won both games against the Heat (one each in November and December). As Jason Terry noted, "We hate the Heat...every time we played the Heat it's always been something special, even in the regular season."
The Mavericks dominated the Heat in both games mainly due to strong performances by Dirk Nowitzki, but looking to these games to help make a prediction would be ill-advised.
Before losing to the Heat in 2006, the Mavericks had easily won the past four regular season meetings—that ended up being meaningless.
In the two matchups this season, the Heat were far from the team they are today.
Miami's offense at the time was still being run by starting point guard Carlos Arroyo, who was eventually waived in favor of current starter Mike Bibby.
The Heat were coming off three games in a four day stretch for both of the regular season matchups against the Mavericks.
Miami was without Udonis Haslem or Mike Miller, both of whom have been crucial in their playoff run.
The Heat were still discombobulated when it came to chemistry. They had only been playing together for a couple of months and had yet to find their identity.
In addition, Erik Spoelstra was under heavy fire by the media. Many people were questioning his coaching ability and whether or not he could control and lead this star-studded team. Rumors of Pat Riley returning to the head coaching helm were rampant. Things only got worse when LeBron James shoulder-bumped Spoelstra during a timeout when they were playing the Mavericks in Dallas.
Bottom line: The Heat were far from the team they are today.
On the other hand, the Mavericks were also a far different team. They still had Caron Butler in the rotation, who was key in slowing down the Heat's perimeter offense.
The Mavs were also without Peja Stojakovic, who had just been traded to Toronto before the first game.
J.J. Barea was in a shooting rut, and Shawn Marion was still on the bench. Brendan Haywood was unhappy that he was benched in favor of Tyson Chandler, and was not playing near his potential.
Basically, the Mavericks were far from finding the special rotation they use today—the one that has given them their best results during this post-season.
Both teams were very, very different.
Both teams are very, very different from 2006 as well. There are many different faces on each team since '06, and with them come some fascinating stories.
Udonis Haslem, Dwyane Wade, Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Terry and Darrell Armstrong (now an assistant coach) are the only remaining players from the 2006 Finals.
Erick Dampier was the Mavericks' starting center in '06 (uh oh) and is now a backup for the Miami Heat (uh oh).
Does anyone remember the DeShawn Stevenson-LeBron quarrels when the Wizards and Cavs used to have that heated Eastern Conference rivalry? Stevenson and James exchanged many jabs back in 2008—at one point Stevenson even called LeBron "overrated."
Don't think for one minute that the self-proclaimed King has forgotten about this. Knowing LeBron and his well-documented insecurity (see Twitter @KingJames), this past beef between the two could surface rather quickly and add even more fuel to the fire.
Shawn Marion and Dwyane Wade were brief teammates in Miami a couple seasons ago. Marion was then sent out of Miami to NBA hell in Toronto.
Juwan Howard and Jamal Magloire were both former Mavericks.
Peja Stojakovic and Mike Bibby were teammates on those great Kings teams earlier in the decade and were robbed (see Tim Donaghy) of a chance to battle for an NBA championship. This year, both players were bought out as castaways by their respective teams (Peja-Raptors, Bibby-Hawks) and landed up in two great situations. Both players have been key in each of their team's respective playoff run, and will now face each other on the biggest stage of them all.
Miami has cited Udonis Haslem and his speedy recovery as an inspiration to the team. Dallas dedicated this playoff run to Caron Butler and cited his aggressive rehabilitation as inspiration to win it all. Both players are their team's inspirations, and they were former teammates many years ago in Miami.
Mark Cuban's pursuit of LeBron James this off-season was well-documented. Cuban was even fined at one point by the league for "tampering." In a couple weeks, either Cuban will feel even more regret for missing his chance at LeBron, or LeBron will feel the pain of ignoring the best owner in the league's offerings to join his franchise.
Ultimately, the Miami Heat and the Dallas Mavericks have changed drastically since 2006. Yes, the 2006 Finals is the biggest source of bad blood, but there are many more story lines and connections between the two rosters that make this series even more exciting and unpredictable.
Dirk Nowitzki goes to block Dwyane Wade's shot in their first meeting of the season back in November.
The different lineups, rotations and styles of play will dictate both teams' offense during this series. Both teams plays very differently, and whoever can control the pace will control the game.
Miami Heat's Offense:
The Heat's starting five is clearly superior to Dallas'. The Big Three of Wade, LeBron and....oh yeah, Bosh will be a lot to handle for the Mavericks' defense. The Heat will rely heavily on the pick-and-roll with Wade/LeBron and Bosh. This should create space for Bosh, but since Tyson Chandler is a far different player than Carlos Boozer (especially defensively), it will be interesting to see if Bosh can take advantage of the space Wade and LeBron are handing him.
When Bosh is off the floor, LeBron and Wade will handle the bulk of the offense through a more free-flowing and faster-paced offense.
However, combine Marion, Stevenson and Kidd with a healthy dose of zone, and Wade/LBJ will be relying on their shooters—James Jones and Mike Miller—more than any other time this postseason.
Mike Miller is struggling with an injured hand, and James Jones has been lost in the rotation since his 25-point outburst against the Celtics in the Eastern Conference semifinals. It should be very interesting to see if these shooters can step up and knock down the shots Dallas will be giving them.
The Heat's two best players are similar to those of Dallas's last opponent, the OKC Thunder, but they are much bigger. KD and Westbrook lack the size and strength of Wade and LeBron.
The Thunder had a lot of success going small against Dallas, forcing Carlisle to put Nowitzki to the 5. The Heat do have this option in their back pocket, and are much more comfortable running LeBron at the 4 these days. Look for the Heat to go small in spurts.
Dallas Mavericks' Offense:
Dirk, Dirk, Dirk.
The Mavericks will live by the Dirk, and die by the Dirk.
The Mavs must continue to do what they have done all season: Run the offense through Dirk Nowitzki each and every time he is on the floor.
Dirk will continue to run a pick-and-roll and screen-and-pop offense with either Kidd, Barea or his personal favorite, Jason Terry. This will be a deadly formula for the Dallas Mavericks as Dirk has been simply unstoppable this postseason.
When Dirk is off the floor, the Mavericks bench is far superior to Miami's. Miami's bench has has played well of late, but the Mavericks' bench is hands down the best in the NBA.
Scoring 86 points against the Lakers in Game 4 (Lakers only scored 86 total), the MOB (Mavs off the bench) put to rest the argument of which team has the best and deepest bench in the NBA.
The Mavericks will have to take advantage of their bench superiority against Miami: utilizing Peja, Barea, Terry and Haywood to their full ability.
When the MOB is on the court, look for the Mavs to push, push, push. Transition offense with LBJ/Wade on the bench is a great opportunity for the quicker Mavs to spread the floor without sacrificing any height.
In half-court sets, the MOB will run a lot of screens to allow JJ Barea to penetrate the paint and find open shooters for threes and jump-shots. Also, look for many isolation plays from the bench, hoping for Terry or Barea to dominate their matchup.
The Mavericks will also have to use their size to crash the offensive boards against the Heat. Whether it be the starters or the bench, the Mavs are a far bigger team than the Heat. If the Heat try to slow Dirk with double teams or zone sets, the offensive boards will be incredibly vulnerable.
The Heat will struggle controlling the boards even if they don't send double teams, but trying to control Dirk by sending an extra defender will make their struggles even worse.
Offensive rebounding, excellent three-point shooting and the MOB are the keys for the Mavericks to win this end of the court.
Tyson Chandler, the heart and soul of the Mavericks revamped defense.
The Miami Heat are yet to face a team as offensively unique as the Dallas Mavericks.
The big question here is who will guard Dirk Nowitzki? Chris Bosh, LeBron James, Udonis Haslem and Joel Anthony will all take their shots at trying to stop the best offensive player in the world right now.
Sending double teams at Dirk is an option, but not a good one. Dirk has proven over the past few years that doubling him only opens up the other offensively-gifted Mavericks. Another problem doubling Dirk will cause is offensive rebounding.
In the past, Erick Dampier has been the starting center for the Mavs, but he is not a threat even if his brick hands can corral an offensive board or two. However, Tyson Chandler is an animal and Shawn Marion knows his way around the rim.
Joel Anthony is a poor option since he's uncomfortable away from the rim and is slower than Dirk. Having Anthony chase No. 41 outside the paint only compounds the Heat's rebounding problems.
Chris Bosh is a worse option because, well, he is Chris Bosh. The guy makes Pau Gasol look like a US Marine on defense. Bosh doesn't have the physicality needed to disrupt Dirk's flow.
Miami's best option will probably be Udonis Haslem or LBJ. Haslem has had experience with Dirk, and if the officials allow him to be physical, he has a fighting chance to slow, but not stop, Nowitzki.
LeBron may do some good on Dirk because he is so athletic. However, athleticism is not what Dirk's game is built on. Yes, being a superior athlete helped stop super-athlete Derrick Rose, but Dirk works with finesse and strategy. LeBron will have to stay disciplined (which is hard for him) and exert a ton of energy to slow Dirk. Will LeBron be able to learn that you cannot block Dirk's shot and that you have to settle for slowing him rather than stopping him? Doubtful.
You cannot throw someone on Dirk who has no experience guarding him, even if it is LBJ. LeBron needs to save himself for the offensive end and simply doesn't have the energy to work every second on the defensive end only to have a 20ft fade-away hit in his eye time after time. If the going gets rough for the 6'8" LeBron, he won't have the discipline to slow Dirk.
Guarding Dirk Nowitzki is not flashy and the efforts won't show up in the box score—which may be a deterrent for LeBron.
But, if someone can slow Dirk, the Mavs will crumble. The Heat have a great perimeter defense, which makes their sub-par interior defense look a heck of a lot better. But once again, can they stop Dirk?
Where to begin?
Miami has so many weapons in their starting five it is going to be the biggest challenge to the Mavericks defense yet.
The Mavericks will have to try to take Chris Bosh out of the game first, before they set their sights on Wade and LeBron.
Taking out Bosh will be key over Wade and LBJ because ultimately, Bosh can be neutralized quite easily. The thing about Wade and LeBron is you cannot really stop them. Wade may have an off game, or LBJ may have some sort of hissy-fit, but that is on their own accord. The thing about Bosh is you can stop him.
If Tyson Chandler can bully Bosh and shut down Miami's pick and roll, the Mavericks have a great chance to win this series. Even if LeBron and Wade get theirs, which they will, that will not be enough to beat an incredibly deep Mavericks team.
Even though Bosh is chastised by the media (when he's not ignored), he will be the key to stopping the Heat. You stop Bosh, you stop the Heat.
Another thing the Mavericks have to be aware of is transition defense. If you can force the Heat to run a half-court set with a confused and disrupted Chris Bosh, you will see a lot of wild and unwarranted shots by LBJ. Transition D is just as important as stopping Bosh.
The Mavericks will also have to eliminate second chance points by rebounding a lot better than they did in the WCF. The Mavs saw their great rebounding rate diminish against the Thunder.
This was primarily due to the Mavericks going small with Dirk at the 5 as well as the defensive emphasis they had to put on the Thunder's shooters. Luckily for the Mavs, outside the Big Three, the Heat don't have the best shooters.
Another big problem for the Mavericks will be eliminating free points at the charity stripe. The Mavericks had a hard time keeping KD and Westbrook off the line in the WCF, and will be faced with the same problem with the Heat. If the Mavericks hope to win, they have to bank on not seeing as much Salvatore as they did back in '06, which will help in keeping the Heat off the line.
The Mavericks will have to use a lot of zone to slow down Wade and LBJ.
The Mavericks' zone is widely recognized as one of the best in the league. The 2-3 zone set will allow the Mavericks to use Peja, Terry and Barea on the offensive end, while not sacrificing anything on defense. The Mavericks can hide Dirk in the zone too, or simply put him on Joel Anthony where all he has to do is block out and roam.
As for man-to-man, the Mavericks will probably use Tyson on Bosh, Marion on LeBron (unless Stevenson has a 2008 trash-talking revival) and Kidd/Stevenson on Wade. Kidd has played well against Kobe and Durant, forcing them out of the paint during crunch time. If he can do that to Wade without hearing a whistle, the Mavericks will be successful. (Woo hoo Devin Harris trade!)
Ultimately, if the Mavericks can slow LeBron or Wade even the slightest bit, that would be a huge bonus. But once again, the main priority is going to be Tyson Chandler stopping Bosh.
Stop Bosh early, and stop Wade late. That's the formula.
Easier said than done?
Who is the best player in the playoffs right now?
Dirk or LeBron? Rattling off stats here is pointless. They are almost identical, with Dirk having the slight edge in Hollinger's PER.
LeBron is playing some of the best basketball of his life—on both ends of the floor. He matched up well against Rose since he could match his main weapon—athleticism.
LeBron held Rose to just above six percent shooting from the field when guarding him in the Eastern Conference finals. That is outstanding.
On the other hand, Dirk Nowitzki is playing out of his mind. The shots he is making are out of this world, and don't show up justly in the box score.
The degree of difficulty on his one-footed, twisting, fading, one-eyed shots are ridiculous. His success at the free throw line is unparalleled. Words cannot describe what he is doing—you'll have to watch for yourself.
Dirk Nowitzki can't be stopped, and is doing it all in crunch time. His will to win is something he has taken to another level completely.
Both players have had incredible performances, but Dirk Nowitzki is doing things we have never seen, and may never see again. He has the slight edge.
And in regard to which legacy needs this championship more, yet again it's Dirk.
Dirk has been in the league for 13 seasons and his team is built to win now. The veteran-laden Mavericks are getting older and their window is closing—this could be Dirk's last stand.
The Heat will continue to get better each and every year, luring FA's and using their Mid-Level Exception to build stronger support around the Big Three. The Mavericks may not be back to the Finals for quite awhile.
For Dirk, this is the only thing he is missing. He is trying to lead his franchise to its first ever NBA championship.
LeBron isn't even leading his team. The Miami Heat is Dwyane Wade's team; he is their leader, closer and consistently best player.
Forget the comparisons to Jordan. Even if LeBron wins seven rings (as he predicted) with the Heat, Wade will have eight.
Dirk needs this and may even want it more than LeBron, but that may not be enough.
Miami's coach Erik Spoelstra pleads with NBA Official Joey Crawford
The Heat have the better starting five, but the Mavs are the hotter and deeper team.
The coaching between the two teams is even; Carlisle is proven, and Spoelstra has come a long way, recently outdueling the NBA Coach of the Year Tom, Thibodeau.
Both teams are fairly healthy, excluding Caron Butler (Mavs inspiration) and Udonis Haslem being rusty (Heat inspiration). Wade's shoulder has also come into question lately as was worked on during every timeout in the last game of the ECF (plus he missed the Heat's team practice Saturday).
It doesn't seem to be a serious problem though—he's played through much worse before.
What will differentiate the two teams? Each team's story is totally different.
The Heat are team "Hollywood High" with their Big Three, who came together in the biggest and brightest way possible last summer.
They are here to win it, nothing less. Will they keep up with expectations?
The Mavs are the castaways and misfits. They came together slowly, keeping their veteran core of Terry and Dirk. Barea was too short; Kidd: too old (see Harris trade); Stevenson: too much of a head-case; Stojakovic: too worthless to keep (see Raptors buyout); Brewer: too worthless to keep (see Timberwolves buyout); Marion: too old with that contract (see Raptors trade); Tyson Chandler too injured (see failed physical); Dirk too soft (see '06 Finals).
This group has come together and proved everyone wrong thus far. They are hungrier, smarter and more disciplined. Will that be enough against a more talented team?
The Mavs have so many players that have logged 10+ seasons in the NBA without a ring. Now is their best, and possibly last, chance. Will they let this opportunity slip away?
This is the hard part. And the worst part.
Heat will win this series in six games or less. They have been a juggernaut lately and have a much more reliable offensive formula than the Mavericks do.
It will be hard to watch these hated NBA villains win this one.
However, the Mavericks have proved everyone wrong thus far...why not one more time? With the global NBA community behind them, who knows what could happen.
If they do win, I guess jump-shots win championships.