Steve Aschburner
Friday April 10th, 2009

Thirty-four months have elapsed since the 2006 NBA Finals, just shy of the three-year statute of limitations at which we in the sports world click-and-drag the "recent past" folder into the one marked "ancient history." So now's the time to look back at that championship series between the Miami Heat and Dallas Mavericks, two teams that have packed an awful lot of living into the period since.

Why 2006? Well, things haven't changed all that much for the teams that competed in the two Finals that followed. The 2007 participants are still factors heading into this year's postseason; Cleveland's back as a bigger, stronger, better and more serious contender, while San Antonio's limping along as a proud warhorse underestimated at any opponent's peril. The 2008 series, meanwhile, feels like it took place weeks ago rather than months, with both the Celtics and the Lakers eager for a rematch -- and the NBA and TV network honchos praying for same.

The 2005 Finals clash between San Antonio and Detroit, by comparison, seems almost sepia-toned now by the dog-years pace of sports. That series took place pre-Hurricane Katrina, we hadn't yet been subjected to Deuce Bigalow and Larry Brown had two fewer head-coaching stops on his résumé.

That makes the 2006 Finals our Goldilocks edition, just right for revisiting in the context of 2009. It was, first and foremost, something of a respite from all those Lakers and Pistons and Spurs teams that had populated, even dominated, the proceedings in the preceding years. Both franchises were making their first and so far only trip to the Finals. Dallas was two years removed from the Steve Nash era, one year beyond Don Nelson, smack in the prime of Dirk Nowitzki's career and temporarily rewarded with $10 million in luxury-tax savings after cutting loose veteran Michael Finley via the one-time amnesty clause. Miami was three years into its Dwyane Wade phase, taking the next envisioned step after Pat Riley's 2004 acquisition of Shaquille O'Neal. Riley was back, too, his hand on the rudder for a 41-20 regular-season finish after Stan Van Gundy (59-23 in 2004-05) started 11-10 and got tossed overboard.

Now move ahead 34 months, when both the Heat and Mavs are wrapping up interesting, if not exactly upper-echelon, seasons. Both have overachieved in light of some October predictions that had Dallas slipping out of the playoffs entirely and Miami staying a lot closer to its last-place finish last spring. There could be something to learn from seeing where these squads were then and gauging where they're headed now.

Here, broken into some key categories, is a glimpse at how the teams got from here to there, or rather, there to here:

Nowitzki has been an under-the-radar stud, averaging 25.7 points this season, his highest total since 2005-06 and, at age 30, the third best of his career. Since a three-game stretch in late February in which he totaled just 40 points, Nowitzki has averaged 27.8 points while helping Dallas to a 13-8 mark. Wade, however, has put together easily the best of his six NBA seasons and, if not for LeBron James' work with the Cavs and the runaway by Kobe Bryant and the Lakers in the Western Conference, the Miami guard would be a gimme as Most Valuable Player. Advantage: Heat

Josh Howard's left ankle is still a concern. The injury will require surgery this summer and it cost him 11 games in March, during which Dallas went just 6-5. But the Mavs won four in a row upon his return. He gives them defense (seven steals vs. Utah on Wednesday), help on the boards and a slashing presence, ingredients that, after some bumpy times, he grasps now for their importance. "I think they're feeding a lot off me," Howard said the other night. Sometimes it takes bumps in the road to figure out you're the X-factor. Miami, by comparison, has no sidekick for Wade. Shaq is gone, Jermaine O'Neal hasn't filled that role and Michael Beasley isn't ready yet. What was "15 Strong" during the 2006 championship run is pretty much one-man-band stuff now. Advantage: Mavs

Just going by development and growth together, Dallas boasts the more veteran and cohesive roster; five players -- Nowitzki, Howard, Jason Terry, Erick Dampier and Jerry Stackhouse -- remain from the 2006 club, and the first four are still vital to the rotation. In Miami, only Wade and Udonis Haslem remain from that championship roster. Some of the replacement pieces have been upgrades, but they haven't experienced the playoffs as a unit yet. Advantage: Mavs

The Heat can claim two of these, after swapping Shaquille O'Neal for Shawn Marion and then Marion for the other O'Neal. Jermaine has been good for slightly more than 13 points and five boards since arriving, pretty low-impact stuff, but there are plenty of Miami fans who saw Shaq as the culprit in the team's slide from 52 victories to 44 to nine by the time he was traded to Phoenix. Meanwhile, Jason Kidd proved to be no elixir for Dallas last February, as the Mavs were little changed after acquiring him from New Jersey. But the veteran has looked rejuvenated lately -- he had 19 points and 20 assists in the Mavs' spanking of Phoenix last weekend and is the West's reigning Player of the Week -- and it's no coincidence that Dallas seems to be peaking along with him. Advantage: Mavs

Beasley, thanks to the short hand that might be applied later in, and after, his career, could end up with quite the reputation as an impact rookie. After all, the last time an NBA team went from 15 victories to a playoff berth was in 1968-69, when the San Diego Rockets added newcomer Elvin Hayes. By added victories, Miami and Beasley, the No. 2 selection last June, already have surpassed San Diego's 22-game bump. They have surpassed the 23 victories by which Dallas improved after drafting Kidd in 1994, though Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's 29-win improvement in Milwaukee in 1969-70 looks safe and David Robinson's 35-game impact in 1989-90 on San Antonio surely is. Beasley hasn't been as involved as any of those rookies, but he has come on recently, making a case for minutes and even a starting spot while Haslem has been hurt. Let's not forget point guard Mario Chalmers, a No. 34 afterthought on draft night but a first-round-caliber contributor this season. And Dallas? The Mavs have made just one first-round pick (Maurice Ager in 2006) since Howard arrived in 2003. Advantage: Heat

Rick Carlisle is taking his third franchise into the postseason and, heading into this weekend, was 86 games over .500 in seven regular seasons. Critics in Dallas have praised him for being flexible where Avery Johnson was headstrong. Miami's Erik Spoelstra might get more votes than Carlisle in Coach of the Year balloting and has his superstar's unadulterated support, but he still is new to this, especially at a playoff pitch. Advantage: Mavs

Unless they move up in the final week of the season, the Mavs are facing a No. 1-vs.-No. 8 first-round clash with the Lakers, a matchup only those on Mark Cuban's payroll would give them a realistic chance to win. Miami is on track to meet Atlanta in a far more manageable 4-5 series, and the Hawks' youth (despite the bravado shown against Boston last year) suggests a shot at second-round status for Wade & Co. Advantage: Heat

So there it is, a breakdown according to seven categories, with Dallas eking out a 4-3 victory. There are those who will say the 2006 Finals might have ended up that way, too, if only, y'know, the Mavs hadn't blown that 89-76 lead halfway through the fourth quarter in Game 3 ... and Wade hadn't shot 73 free throws over the series' final four games ... and the whole thing actually had gone to a seventh game.

Seems like a long time ago. Seems like yesterday.

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