IN A FINALS FOR THE AGES, LEBRON AND HIS MIAMI MATES WILL BRING ANOTHER TITLE TO SOUTH BEACH
The least predictable and most competitive NBA season since Magic and Bird entered the league in 1979--80 has led to this—a classic Finals matchup between enormously talented teams who play vastly contrasting styles. I'm expecting a give-and-take, back-and-forth seven-game series. Whether it's the Heat or the Mavs that end up on top will hinge on these five basic issues:
Who is more valuable?
Dirk Nowitzki has carried Dallas with unparalleled shotmaking and free throw shooting while complementing his three-point ability with a talent for scoring, passing and drawing fouls out of the post. The Americanization of his game has practically been matched by the Europeanization of LeBron James's: Late in games throughout these playoffs James has transformed himself into a deadly long-range shooter, ruining the strategy of opponents who have dared him to launch from the outside. The matchup will escalate when the 6'8" LeBron guards the 7-foot Nowitzki.
Who is more physical?
The Heat's defense is undoubtedly superior, having limited opponents to 41.9% shooting in the postseason, compared with the 44.6% allowed by the Mavs' D. But Dallas can slow down Miami with physical play. Brendan Haywood, Tyson Chandler and DeShawn Stevenson are Eastern Conference--style defenders who know when and how to commit hard fouls. Even if James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are able to shoot a decent percentage, they're likely to feel some pain. The referees could turn this into a Miami rout if they don't allow Dallas to play with an edge.
Who is healthier?
Wade was bothered by a sore left shoulder and put up disappointing numbers (36.9% shooting, 15 turnovers) over the final three games of the Eastern Conference finals, though he did contribute some big plays late in games. Will his performance suffer as this series unfolds? Miami needs Wade at his best because he provides the Heat with a second MVP-caliber star—an advantage that even another command performance by Nowitzki might not negate.
Who will shoot better?
Miami is certain to double-team Nowitzki heavily, which means the other Mavs will have opportunities for open shots when the ball is forced out of their star's hands. Jason Terry, Jason Kidd and Peja Stojakovic are obvious perimeter threats; a key to the series will be their ability to convert those open looks before the Heat's explosively quick defenders can close on them. The Heat also have shooters—Bosh, Mike Miller, Mario Chalmers and Udonis Haslem—who must be respected, especially when Dallas shifts to a zone in order to protect the paint.
Who is hungrier?
The Mavs are driven by owner Mark Cuban, Nowitzki and Kidd, who have all failed in the NBA Finals and will be viewing this as a once-in-a-lifetime chance to win it all. But this is all-or-nothing as well for Miami—even though James, Wade and Bosh are in their 20s, they don't want to spend a long summer hearing critics say they weren't as great as they made themselves out to be. They set the highest standard by prematurely celebrating their union as free agents last summer, and everything about their effort throughout this season shows they've been serious about fulfilling that potential immediately.
By the skinniest of margins the edge goes to Miami, thanks to its home court advantage, its defensive superiority, the experienced star power of James and Wade and, above all, the impact of LeBron in every area of the game. Even so, the Heat won't separate itself until the final minutes of a thrilling Game 7.
WADE AND SEE Will the Heat guard's sore left shoulder prevent him from making big plays in the Finals?