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Heat vs. Mavericks shapes up as highly competitive Finals

One of the best things about this rematch of the 2006 NBA Finals between the Heat and Mavericks is the credible arguments on behalf of each team. Who is the more valuable player, LeBron James or Dirk Nowitzki? Does Miami have the edge because of the star power among James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, or does Dallas hold an advantage based on depth of talent across the rotation? Will the Heat defense dominate the series, or will Nowitzki prove impossible to guard?

We're used to watching athletes on display in the open floor, but in this series it's going to be fun seeing James, Wade and their teammates sprinting crosscourt defensively in pursuit of the ball to close out on the Mavs' three-point shooters. They're going to try to force the ball out of Nowitzki's hands, and Dallas will respond by moving the ball around the horn to scorers who must be respected. After 10 to 15 seconds of passing Nowitzki should be open again, shouldn't he?

Miami is likely to attach a variety of defenders to Nowitzki, starting with Chris Bosh and shifting to Udonis Haslem and even James, which will be especially interesting. The problem with a LeBron-vs.-Dirk matchup is that it prevents James from roaming to help teammates defensively and block shots off the ball. But there were times in the Eastern Conference finals when it made sense for LeBron to shut down Derrick Rose, and there will be times in the fortnight ahead when we'll probably see him trying to do the same to Nowitzki.

The Bulls missed a lot of layups trying to finish in the paint against Miami's voracious shot-blockers -- LeBron, Wade, Joel Anthony, Bosh and so on. But here's another difference that suggests we'll see a highly competitive series: The 7-foot Nowitzki has the length to finish inside, and he also knows how to draw fouls and go to the line. His low-post play has been a major improvement since '06. Now when the Mavs need to regain the pace of the game, they give it to him on either side of the floor, where he's able to either pass to the open man or back in for spin drives, outrageous turnaround jumpers or free throws.

Dallas is shooting 46.3 percent from the field and 38.8 percent from three-point range this postseason, ranking among the top three in both categories. The Mavs will need strong shooting from Nowitzki, Jason Terry, Jason Kidd and others in order to overcome Miami's defense and home-court advantage.

How will the Mavs stop Miami? Consider the big difference in defense: Miami has held opponents to 41.9 percent in the playoffs (second only to Indiana's defensive work in the opening round against Chicago), while the Mavs rank 11th at 44.6 percent. They're going to miss the injured Caron Butler, who would have helped Shawn Marion against LeBron. But if Marion suffers foul trouble -- which is going to be unavoidable in a couple of games -- the Mavs will still be able to shift DeShawn Stevenson onto James.

Stevenson can be a credible defender against Wade, and Kidd will help guard him, too. The Heat will be counting on Bosh to carry his momentum from the Eastern finals and attack Nowitzki offensively.

Tyson Chandler and Brendan Haywood have an advantage in length at center, but Dallas isn't anything like the shot-blocking team that Miami is.

It's too easy to say this comes down to the Mavs' offense against Miami's defense. That view doesn't account for the Heat's wealth of scoring options -- their three stars and surrounding shooters in Haslem, Mike Miller, Mike Bibby and Mario Chalmers. Both teams are capable of prevailing, but Miami is better able to have its way at both ends of the court, given its defensive power and the crunch-time shot-making of LeBron and Wade.

I'm guessing Miami exercises its home-court and defensive advantages to win Game 7 in what will be a tightly contested series.

The questions are fabricated, my answers are for real.

"How does a young star make the kind of improvements that aren't noticed until May? The conference finals turned out to be basketball at a much higher level.''-- K.D., Oklahoma City

Kevin Durant, do not despair. You and your team are in terrific shape. There are complaints about the judgment of Russell Westbrook, but it's not so easy being a young point guard in the conference finals. Derrick Rose was MVP, and even he had problems making plays for himself and others at this late stage of the playoffs.

You've lost to the conference champion the last two postseasons. Anyone who thinks your best players won't respond in a positive way to this loss is missing the bigger picture. You are far from reaching your peak, as is Westbrook, as is James Harden, as is Serge Ibaka. Kendrick Perkins will be better next season. Let's remember it wasn't even one year ago that Perkins underwent major knee surgery, and that extra recovery time along with a training camp with your team will make a big difference. You could enter next season with the same roster and yet have a much better team.

"Am I allowed to ask the same question as K.D.?''-- D.R., Chicago

Derrick Rose, your team needs to develop a star shooting guard. It can't just be a guy who knocks down open shots, either. It needs to be an outright star who can compete with you against the stars in Miami -- someone who can create his own shot under pressure from the three-point line or driving to the basket.

Luol Deng is making big money, but his play on the court is not the problem. He performs in all sorts of important ways at both ends, which means that if you're able to add a star scorer in the backcourt, Deng will become your No. 4 option -- which will be very good. A shooter in the backcourt will not only provide easy baskets but will also pull a defender away and space the floor for you to exploit. And if the new guy is athletic enough to score off the dribble, he'll be able to defend, Tom Thibodeau will see to that.

Now good luck finding that guy.

"Why has everyone been so upset? General managers are replaced all of the time in this league.''-- P.A., parts unknown

Paul Allen, I'm not one of those who is saying you won't be able to hire an excellent replacement for Rich Cho after you unexpectedly (and without credible reason) fired him this week. As long as you're willing to pay big money for a talented executive, someone good will be willing to work for you.

But how could you create the appearance that you care so little for the most important matters? Cho did a good job for you under difficult circumstances. There were several courses of action to explore when Greg Oden and Brandon Roy suffered knee injuries early in the season, and the right move was never clear until Cho pulled it off -- he traded for Gerald Wallace to improve the roster and define its identity as a hard-working team in the image of coach Nate McMillan. Given the limited assets at his disposal, it is harder to imagine a better midseason trade for your team. But your personal relationship with him trumped all.

You are obligated to fire someone who does bad work, and to create hope and incentive for the successor to perform better. But if you fire someone who performs well, then you're telling Blazers fans that the GM's job performance is less important than his relationship with the owner. Does that mean you're asking the fans to subsidize your relationship with the GM? In return for all of the money they're paying to attend your games, they have a right to believe the GM is working on their behalf as much as yours, and that they and you share the same priorities. What a bummer for them to be proved wrong.

I can't believe you revealed yourself to be so self-indulgent. I keep thinking you had to have a better reason than has been given, or there is something I'm missing. But if you'd had a better reason, I'm sure we would have heard it by now.

Mike Brown, new coach of the Lakers. The clue of Brown's arrival came when GM Mitch Kupchak spoke of hiring a younger coach who could stay with the Lakers for a long time.

It is entirely fair to question Brown's game management in the playoffs over his final two years with Cleveland. Every coach faces these inquisitions. But let's be reasonable about it: Isn't it likely that Brown is going to keep improving as a coach based on those experiences? Just because it didn't work out for him last time, does that mean it won't happen for him next time?

This is a guy who as a rookie head coach turned LeBron into a defender, established the Cavaliers as a defensive team and turned rosters that were being renovated every six months into title contenders that won 127 games over his final two years. I would say that was a good start, and it promises even better things as he grows older and learns from each experience. That's how it played out for his mentor, Gregg Popovich.

Brown also was condemned for letting assistants draw up plays in the huddle, but didn't Doc Rivers do the same thing defensively while letting Thibodeau and Lawrence Frank run the defense? No one complains as long as the results are good.

It looks as if Brown's staff may include Tim Grgurich, who is currently assisting Mavs coach Rick Carlisle, and Italian coach Ettore Messina, a charismatic coach who will bring new ideas to both ends of the floor. That means right away he'll have the makings of a strong staff that can build relationships with Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Ron Artest, among others.

I understand the criticism, but I view Brown as a big winner with big upside. I didn't think the Lakers would be interested in him because I didn't imagine they would be so open-minded in their approach. They hired the best young candidate on the market, and as a franchise they are stable enough to withstand the early questioning that is sure to follow Brown throughout next season (if there is a season).

It's going to take some time for him to augment the Lakers' style with new principles at both ends of the floor, and he's likely to face the same kind of second-guessing that greeted Erik Spoelstra throughout this season. Spoelstra's development of his team may offer some kind of lesson for critics to keep in mind as they're watching Brown manage the Lakers next year.

Recent NBA champions. Since the modern era that began with the arrival of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird in 1979-80, a limited number of teams have hoarded the championships. The Mavericks will be seeking to become the ninth franchise to win a title in the last 32 years, which shows how difficult it is for an outsider to break into this club.

1. Lakers: 10 championships2. Bulls: 6T-3. Celtics: 4T3. Spurs: 45. Pistons: 36. Rockets: 27. Heat: 18. 76ers: 1

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