I have a feeling about these Dallas Mavericks. I think it's finally their time. I know that's not the prevailing sentiment. The general consensus seems to be that the Miami Heat have finally figured out how to play together, how to finish close games properly, how to handle animosity they brought upon themselves with LeBron James' decision-with-a-capital-D and the absurdly premature, over-the-top welcoming celebration they threw for themselves that featured smoke and lasers and platforms rising up out of the stage and pretty much everything except
I have a feeling about the Mavs and it's not because I don't much care for the way the Heat put this all together, although it's true, I don't. I think the Mavericks will win the NBA title not because of anything the Heat have done or not done, and not even because of Dallas forward Dirk Nowitzki, who is having a postseason for the ages, averaging 28.4 points in the first three rounds while shooting 51.7 percent from the field and an amazing 51.6 percent on three-pointers. (Yes, I realize James hasn't been too shabby, either.) Nowitzki presents unique matchup problems for Miami, but the Mavs will win not so much because of what they get from him, but because of what they get from everyone else.
A championship trophy is coming to the Metroplex because of the contributions Dallas gets from all the other pieces -- including Jason Kidd, Jason Terry, Shawn Marion, J.J. Barea, Peja Stojakovic and DeShawn Stevenson -- of an offense that has been a finely tuned perpetual motion machine for most of the postseason. The Mavs have scored an average of 111.2 points for every 100 possessions in the playoffs, the highest offensive efficiency rating of any team in the postseason and seven points better than Miami's.
An offense that's clicking can really demoralize an opponent, and we've already seen evidence of that. There was a sequence in Dallas' second-round sweep of the Lakers in which it became obvious that the guys in purple and gold just couldn't bring themselves to chase the Mavs around anymore. It came in the fourth quarter of Game 4, when Kidd fed the ball to Nowitzki in the post. Nowitzki was quickly met by a double team, and he passed the ball back out to Kidd.
The Lakers' Shannon Brown raced to close out on Kidd, who was open at the three-point line for an instant. Kidd quickly whipped the ball to Marion, who was open for a split-second longer, but when the defense rotated to him he immediately relayed it on to Terry, who was so wide open that he looked like a guy at the YMCA who was waiting to get in the next game.
Ideally, a defender would have rotated over to cover Terry, open shooter No. 3, but no one did. It was as if the Lakers were saying, "You know what? Enough already. Go ahead and shoot it." After being left so open for so long that he could have relaced his sneakers, Terry casually drilled yet another three-pointer.
The emphasis has been mostly on defense in these playoffs, and rightly so, since no one gets very far without playing serious D. But sometimes offense can take the heart out of an opponent, too, and the Mavericks' free-flowing, deep-shooting attack has been doing exactly that. It's easy to dismiss it as solely a product of German engineering -- all Nowitzki all the time -- but the Mavs are much more diversified than that.
"They don't just shoot it," said Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks, whose team lost to the Mavericks in the Western Conference finals. "They share it, then they shoot it."
It won't take long for the Heat to see that the Dallas offense they're facing in the NBA Finals is the most potent, sophisticated attack they've dealt with in the postseason. Slowing it down won't be as simple for Miami as corralling the Bulls, who became awfully ordinary once the Heat choked off Derrick Rose's drives to the basket. It will be more challenging than holding down the Celtics, more of a grind-it-out team that lost a lot of its punch when Rajon Rondo's dislocated elbow reduced him to a one-armed point guard.
Of course, it's not as if the Heat won't put up any resistance. With James and Dwyane Wade, Miami plays exceptionally tough perimeter defense, although it has allowed opponents to shoot a surprisingly high 38.5 percent from the arc in the playoffs, a figure that Dallas has to find encouraging.
The Mavs' offense is a symphony of spacing and slashing, of ball movement and bombs-away three-point shooting that can provide a different complement to Nowitzki every night. Dallas has a roster full of shooters who aren't All-Stars (at least not anymore, in Kidd's case), but who are all capable of making a defense pay for focusing too heavily on Nowitzki.
"You look at our box scores a lot of times and you'll see six, seven guys with anywhere from seven to 12 points," Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said. "That's kind of the way we do things. A lot of times, it's not that we're running plays for specific guys. We're moving and making decisions and finding the right guys at the right times."
It's an approach that only works if no one is obsessed with the stat sheet. The Mavs have assembled a group of veterans around Nowitzki who have had their share of individual glory, like Kidd, Terry, Marion and Stojakovic, and are more interested in capping their careers with a ring than with the scoring totals next to their name.
"There's nobody with an 'I-gotta-get-mine' mentality," Terry said. "We want to get you to where you're stretched out as a defense, chasing the ball, because nobody wants to chase forever. Sooner or later, somebody's going to be open, and we don't care who it is."
Nowitzki's ability to go one-on-one and create his own shot against any defender is a great safety blanket for the Mavs, and he will surely have to show off that ability at times if Dallas is to win the series. But most of the Mavs' points come out of the flow of the offense, whether it begins with a him involved in a high-pick-and-roll that causes a defensive switch and eventually creates the open shot, or with Dallas spreading the floor and allowing someone -- often Barea -- to drive and kick the ball out to the shooters who are arrayed around the arc.
There's something else in the Mavs' favor -- the rite of passage that nearly all NBA champions have to endure. History indicates that champs have to suffer a postseason failure or two before they finally break through, and Dallas, with its history of heartbreak, has certainly fulfilled that requirement. The Heat are clearly unlike any team that has come before them, so maybe they can clear a new path to a title. But that's not the feeling I get. My feeling says Mavericks in 7.