NBA Finals heat up Thursday

The playoffs began nearly a month ago with a field of 16 teams hopeful that they would still be playing late into June. But, as the NBA Finals are set to kick off on Thursday, there are only two teams left standing. The Dallas Mavericks and Miami Heat have outlasted and outplayed the remainder of the field to earn the right to play on the biggest stage the NBA has to offer, all for a chance to hoist the championship trophy at season’s end.

At the beginning of the NBA season it would have been completely reasonable to snicker at the prospect of either the Mavericks or Heat appearing in the Finals. Neither team has ever advanced past their respective conference finals series, making it practically impossible to think that this was the year they would both make a run at the title.

Both squads have had their fair share of question marks prior to and throughout the season. The most pressing issue for Dallas has been the toughness of their star power forward Dirk Nowitzki, which has been challenged over the last few years. The seven-footer has caused headaches for numerous coaches around the league, including his own coach at times, because of his tendency to settle for midrange jump shots rather than using his size to dominate in the paint.

For Miami, the concerns that have been prominent all season long have been the health and age of their own big man Shaq and the acquisitions that Pat Riley made last summer. Each team had to work through and overcome these problems to find themselves in contention for the title.

During the season and especially during the playoffs Nowitski has quieted the critics with one fabulous performance after another. Instead of being considered just a deadly shooter he has elevated his game to the next level, forcing many to believe that he is on the verge of superstardom. He has accomplished this primarily by limiting the number of fadeaways and jump shots he fires every game and choosing to cause even more trouble for opposing teams by extending his game to the paint. The most significant change to Nowitzki’s game is that he has developed an array of post moves that he uses frequently to exploit his opponents’ weaknesses.

When this season began, Shaquille O’Neal, a three-time NBA champion and three-time finals MVP, was supposed to be washed up. While everyone around the league presumed this to be true, someone forgot to inform Shaq and his teammates. Sure he was injured this season, missing more games than he would have when he was younger. But the Heat survived without the contribution of the former MVP, staying competitive mainly due to a stellar season by their flashy guard Dwayne Wade and a great supporting cast.

Shaq and the Heat had the perfect scheme to utilize the big man to his fullest extent. When it wasn’t completely necessary to play full-speed, like during the regular season or early rounds of the playoffs, Shaq would provide a significant contribution but would ultimately allow Wade and company to carry the team to victory. Shaq was still energized and the Heat advanced further and further in the playoffs.

However, when the Heat really needed Shaq to perform like he did for so many years in Los Angeles and Orlando, they had faith that he would deliver. One of those instances occurred in game six against the Pistons on Friday, when Wade was slowed by flu symptoms and it was a must-win game for Miami. Shaq responded with his finest game in these playoffs, scoring 28 points and snagging 16 rebounds.

Riley, team president and now also head coach due to Stan Van Gundy’s early exodus, acquired many former star players before the season. These players include the extremely loud Gary Payton, Jason Williams, defensive specialist James Posey and former Celtic and Maverick star Antoine Walker. These players were supposed to be too egotistical and selfish to play together.

But it appears that Riley knew what he was doing all along. Payton and Williams have provided stability at point guard, while Posey has been the lockdown defender that he was envisioned to be and Walker has provided the Heat with a third scorer to compliment Wade and O’Neal. These players will certainly play a substantial role in Miami’s bid to walk away with the championship.

This series should be exciting since these teams have some of the toughest players in the league to match up with. The Heat have the powerful Shaq and speedy Wade, while the Mavs have, in Nowitzki, a seven-footer who often plays like a versatile two guard. So, the key to the series is going to be which team can benefit the most from these mismatches.

The Heat are going to have trouble containing the Mavericks’ lengthy and agile seven-footer simply because every team in the NBA does. Their most reasonable options are using Udonis Haslem or James Posey to guard Nowitski, though each scenario has its problems. What Haslem lacks in the speed and quickness to guard Nowitski, Posey lacks in size.

Another mismatch will be the Mavericks trying to guard Shaq. Desagana Diop will probably be better suited to guard Shaq than Erick Dampier because of his overall size and shot-blocking ability. Just like Nowitzki and the Heat, the Mavs shouldn’t expect to completely contain Shaq because he will find a way to make his presence felt.

While Shaq and Nowitzki will certainly be important to the outcome of the series, the key will be whether the Mavs can contain the Heat’s other superstar. Wade, who averaged a shade over 27 points per game this season, will be the difference-maker in the series because the Mavs don’t have an answer for him. They can try Josh Howard or Marquis Daniels, but although these players possess the height necessary to stop Wade they will have trouble matching his quickness and elusiveness for the whole series.

Dallas was victorious in both of the meetings during the regular season, even winning by a margin of 36 points in February. But this time it will be different. It’s actually very simple: the Mavs have one superstar and the Heat have two superstars. If Nowitzki has a poor shooting night the Mavs don’t have an established star to rely on.

Jason Terry has become a legitimate option and Jerry Stackhouse is a proven scorer, but they will have trouble picking up the slack. The Heat’s superstar duo has demonstrated that they can compliment each other very well. If Shaq is having a tough night from the field D-Wade is expected to compensate with an enormous scoring night, and vice versa.

These teams are very evenly matched, so it should be a series filled with last-second finishes and close games. But Miami should prevail and win this series in six games, making Wade the first player from the star-studded 2003 draft to win a championship. Also, with the win, Shaq will have proven to his former counterpart in Los Angeles and critics around the league that questioned the dominance of a supposedly poor-conditioned O’Neal that he doesn’t need Kobe Bryant to win a championship.

At the beginning of the season the Mavs and Heat weren’t expected to be playing in the NBA Finals right now. But both teams have corrected some of the problems that have plagued them in recent years and now appear primed to walk away NBA champions. It should be a thrilling, star-filled series with one of these first time Finals participants being crowned as world champions.