I’m hearing the Dallas Mavericks – and the Miami Heat, for that matter – saying all the right things, but when all the smoke clears from their collective hot air, what I see is the fact that the 2005-06 NBA Finals are, for all intents and purposes – over.
That’s right – finished, done, ended or complete – whatever synonym you want to use, I say the Miami Heat are officially toast. Oh, I know the Mavs still have to win two more games to hoist the championship trophy, but I see that as a formality that is only a matter of when, not if.
“We haven’t really done anything,” Mavericks all-star forward Dirk Nowitzki said. “We won two games at home. We know they are a different animal at home. Shaq and Dwyane, they are going to get their troops ready to play.”
While Nowitzki is partially right in his assessment that the Heat will be a different team at home, he is certainly downplaying the Mavericks’ convincing victory in game one and dominating win I game two. What the Mavericks have accomplished is the fact they have sent a message to Miami that they are the more talented – and better-prepared – team in this series, both offensively and defensively.
On a night when three-time finals MVP was held to the lowest point total of his playoff career, Dallas got one incredible performance from reserve, Jerry Stackhouse and several other above average performances from some of their other role players – and Nowitzki, who has yet play what I would call his “normal” game.
“We feel that this is an opportunity for us,” Stackhouse said. “We want to do all we can to prepare ourselves to be able to fulfill a dream of ours, and fulfill the dream of our city. We’re one more step closer to that.”
While Stack is correct about being one step closer to lifting the championship trophy, what none of the Mavericks talked about was their total domination of O’Neal and the overall defensive prowess that they have displayed since the series opened last week.
When O’Neal scored on the Heat’s very first possession while being fouled, it immediately appeared as if the Heat were going to feed the “big fella'” early and often. However, when O’Neal missed the ensuing free throw – and then went 20 1/2 minutes without another basket – the tone of the game was set in a concrete mixture that would not be changed for the rest of the game.
Miami head coach, who I feel has been out coached by counterpart, Avery Johnson, didn’t hold back any punches in his assessment of his team’s play.
“We need to get him the basketball, but this game was about another team’s competitiveness and energy,” Miami coach Pat Riley said. “They doubled him every single time he caught the ball.”
After going 1-for-9 at the free throw line in the opener, O’Neal went 1-for-7 in this one – and took just five shots all night. Now, let me say that, although I have never been a huge Shaq fan, I have never seen any opponent defend him like the Mavs have in the first two games of this series. Complicating matters is the fact that the Heat don’t have any consistent outside shooters to relieve the low post pressure that O’Neal is facing every time he touches the ball.
O’Neal was so frustrated after the game that he was fined $10,000 for failing to appear in the postgame interview room, and the Heat were docked $25,000, the NBA said. Not only are the Mavericks stopping O’Neal, they are also doing a more than credible job on the Heat’s best player – Dwayne Wade – who was hounded into another sub par game and a difficult 6-for-19 shooting night.
Not only did the Mavs defend like there was no tomorrow, but they were much better offensively in this game than in game one – where Nowitzki and the multi-faceted, Josh Howard combined to make only 7-of-28 shots combined.
Although Nowitzki had 26 points in this one on 8-for-16 shooting and Howard scored 15 of his own, it was Stackhouse, who put on a Reggie Miller-like performance by scoring 10 points in the final 1:19 of the first half, that give the Mavericks the momentum – and motivation they needed to realize that they were in fact, a much better team than Miami.
In 190 career playoff games, O’Neal has finished with a single-digit point total just three times, but has looked quite pedestrian in both games of this series. Game 3 is Tuesday night in Miami and a two-game deficit has only been overcome twice – by the Boston Celtics in 1969 and the Portland Trailblazers in 1977 – in NBA finals history.
Even though Miami is squarely behind the eight ball now, they are still putting up a bold front.
“This series is far from over,” the Heat’s Antoine Walker said. “We know that, and hopefully they know that. We’re a veteran group of guys. A lot of us have worked our whole career to get to this point, and we ain’t going to lay down now.”
Whether they lay down or fight their hearts out, I believe the only question left to be answered is, ‘How many games?’
I suspect that, by this time next week, the Heat will be trying to figure out where it all went wrong while the Mavs are riding off into the sunset with their first championship trophy.