NBA Finals Preview: Dallas Uber Alles

Shaquille O'Neal is one of my favorite players of all time. The guy is incredibly media-savvy--his interviews have made me laugh out loud more than any other athlete. On the court, he is Wilt Chamberlain plus championship hardware, the most unstoppable force in the game for a decade. Plus, I've got a soft spot for him because he made me look smart for loudly defending him back in the day when everyone wanted to rip him for never winning the big one and concentrating more on movies and rap than he did on hoops (absurd of course, but so it goes).

But as much as the heart goes to Shaq, my head says this is the year the Dallas Mavericks grab the trophy, in anywhere from five to seven games--we'll split the difference at six, but it really could go up or down from there, depending on a bevy of factors. Here's my take on the climax to the most consistently exciting NBA playoffs since they expanded the format.

Dallas has been playing better competition. The West is better than the East once again, and the Mavs' sweep of Memphis, whisker-thin pulse-pounding classic versus the Spurs, and slow wearing out of the Suns has been more impressive than Miami's stop-and-go besting of the Bulls, steamrolling of the Nets, and mercy killing of moribund Pistons.

The Wheeze factor favors the Mavs. Yes, the Heat significantly upgraded their perimeter D versus Flip's wilting Bad Boys, but the shots were still there to be drained if the vintage Billups and 'Sheed had bothered to show up. And Dallas has got a rich gumbo of pick-and-roll components. The 7-foot Dirk, who used to just be one of the two or three best pure shooters in the league, now drives with grit, dishes with aplomb, and draws fouls with up-fake j's and hell-bent for leather penetration. The JET, Jason Terry, cashes out the open jumpers he gets going to his right while rubbing his foe off the screen. There are the pumpkin-headed, sweet-shooting Stackhouse and the slashin' assassin, Josh Howard. There's Devon Harris, emerging from his Badger hole this postseason. Even defensive specialist Adrian Griffin, and his pull-up, funky, left-handed mid-range, conjuring memories of the Knicks' Dick Barnett from waay back in the day.

The Heat are in the Finals because Riles got them to care about defense. Shaq is showing harder on the p&r than I've ever seen him work. The most astonishing thing about D-Wade versus the Pistons wasn't the acrobatic layups but the perpetual motion static-cling he put on Rip Hamilton in the pivotal Heat victories. And who was that version of Antoine Walker, who actually played stare-at-his-jersey-and-move-your-feet defense with transformative diligence versus both the Nets and Pistons?

Despite all of these things AND the occasional vision of Gary Payton slipping back on The Glove, I still don't see how Miami can defend Dallas effectively in the half court, let alone transition. Because when Shaq shows, these smart Mavs are heading for the rim, and then, inevitably, the foul line. Because the static that Wade gums into the offensive rhythm of his opponents will either wane with Dallas's depth--if Stack's jumpers aren't falling, Terry's will be--or sap him of some of his own point production (and that's assuming he recovers from this tenacious flu). Because in his past-prime-time mode, Payton's A-Game on D soon suffocates his own wind as much as the one being Gloved. And 'Toine will discover that neither Nowitzki nor Howard are as fortuitious a matchup for him as a gimpy 'Sheed or an overextended Tayshaun Prince.

The theory of relativity favors Dallas slightly. There are a trio of stone-cold studs in this series, and all of them will be fairly unstoppable. Yes, the Mavs have some big boys in Dampier and Diop to toss at Shaq, but does anyone think that's sufficient? Yes, Howard one of the league's most pliably efficient defenders--Steve Nash is still having nightmares over the second half of Game Six--but Wade has dismantled the best-laid plans of every postseason opponent with his gumby-bodied treks from the arc to the hoop--even Howard will be lunched with a frequency that will surprise him. And yes, James Posey deserves his strong defensive rep and Udonis Haslem is sweat-equity personified, but Nowitzki is physically bigger than both of them, and opening trap doors into new facets of his overall game that will take more than inordinate will power to deter.

Put simply, Shaq, Wade, and Dirk will all compile plenty of highlight-reel moments. But how well will each one perform relative to the previous series in this postseason? I think Shaq will find himself in foul trouble at least two or three times this series. I expect him to punish Dampier and Diop whenever possible, but if he's saddled with fouls and he's not hitting his free throws when they inevitably send him to the line, that dominance won't be as often as the Heat needs to counter Dallas's depth. As for Wade, not only will he discover that Howard is stronger than Prince, but that the deep-roster Mavs will rotate on D with more consistent energy than the depleted Pistons could muster. Against San Antonio, Dallas pretty much allowed Duncan to go off by eschewing the automatic double-team; they may likewise pick their poison that way with the Heat, and variously let Shaq rumble and Wade scamper while sealing off other options.

At the other end, Riley's best option on Nowitzki is probably Haslem, but wily Avery Johnson is liable to run enough high pick-and-rolls to pull Haslem away from the basket and let Dallas have a field day with putbacks on the glass and drawing penetration fouls. New rules or no new rules, grabbing rebounds still matters a huge amount in the playoffs, and the Mavs have outrebounded their foe in every game of their three series thus far (unless Phoenix broke the string in Game Five). If I were Riley, I might see if Walker still has a little defensive magic in him, and go smaller, with Posey on Howard. In any case, Miami can't win without Shaq and/or Wade having a big night, but the Mavs can triumph without Nowitzki going off. Dallas just has a better supporting cast, and that eventually is going to make the differnce.

X factors, from Z to A. When I think of the ways in which Miami wins this series, Alonzo Mourning is most prominent in the scenario. Zo is better than Dampier and Diop at both ends of the court, and if he's in his shot-blocking, intimidating groove, and his shot is falling to boot, Shaq's foul troubles and wretched free throw shooting will be mitigated, and the Diesel will be fresher too. I don't like to romanticize Zo's quest for a ring--he laid down when toiling for any noncontender these past few years. But now that he's this close, and with all he's overcome thus far, I have a feeling he might come up huge. Other potential X factors for Miami--meaning pleasant surprises--are Walker's defense, Jason Williams' court savvy and shot selection and accuracy from behind the three-point line, and, as always with Shaq, the referees interpreting contact in his favor.

For Dallas, there are many more possibilities, but Adrian Griffin is my sleeper pick for heroic duty. Already worn from Howard's dogging, Wade will pay a physical price for beating Griffin off the dribble, and at the other end, the Heat maybe should think twice about daring Griffin to beat them with his jumper as they double Dirk and the other shooters. If Griffin's confidence in his shot carries over from the Phoenix series, the Heat are in trouble. Finally, Dallas has gotten this far without Jason Terry finding his shooting zone for any extended period of time. Dude is due, and being guarded by Jason Williams helps pay the postage.

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