MIAMI -- The NBA has seen behind the curtain, removed the mask. For all of their nine-figure contracts, for all of their All-Star appearances, MVP trophies and off-the-wall athleticism, the Heat are beatable. Not by a collection of stars or a group of gifted me-first players. But by a team.
No one is going to debate whether the Mavericks are more talented than Miami. Their point guard is 38 and on the back end of the back end of his career. Their superstar has taken countless public floggings for a presumed soft game and failure to come up big in the clutch. Their second-best sub is an undrafted free agent who only tops 6 feet with two-inch lifts in his sneakers.
Dallas can't win a street-ball tournament. But the Mavs can win an NBA championship. They can because they have 15 players who trust each other, trust the coach, trust the system. They have 15 players willing to mold their games to fit what the team needs. They sacrifice when they need to, step up when others cannot. Rick Carlisle has played with Larry Bird, coached a pair of 50-game winners in Detroit and a 61-win team in Indiana. He calls this Dallas club "the most special team I have ever been around."
"It's just a great team," Heat forward Chris Bosh said after Dallas won its first title with Sunday's 105-95 victory in Game 6.
And Miami, at this point, is not.
"You're remembered for what you did at the end," Dwyane Wade reminded us in 2007, when frustrations over Dallas' kvetching about the officiating in the '06 Finals boiled over. His target was Dirk Nowitzki then; those words are applicable for LeBron James now.
The self-styled King began the biggest game of his career 4-for-4, finished 9-for-15 and spent too many minutes looking disengaged in between. "Sometimes you got it, sometimes you don't," was James' answer to questions about his performance after the game. But there is no disputing that Miami's best stretch was a 14-0 second-quarter run sparked by Eddie House, a surge that erased a 12-point deficit and came with James chewing his mouth guard on the bench.
Too often, Miami abandoned any semblance of a team game in favor of selfish, one-on-one play. Dallas smirked when Wade and James careened into the teeth of its zone defense, taking charge after charge, forcing 11 turnovers between them. The Mavs' schemes weren't complex. They simply kept defenders in front of Wade and James and sent help -- usually in the form of Tyson Chandler -- when they got in the paint.
"They don't stay in the zone too long," Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said. "But it's enough to get you a little bit out of your rhythm, a little bit out of your comfort zone."
Unquestionably, the Heat made significant strides in their first year as an NBA superpower. They shook off a 9-8 start, blocked out the media firestorm that waited for them in every city and breezed through the Eastern Conference playoffs with startling ease.
"This group has been through a lot this season," Spoelstra said. "It was a hard-working, lunch-pail-type group that came to work every day to try to chase down this dream."
But any coach will tell you the road to being good is smoother than the one to being great, a path Miami now finds itself traveling. On ESPN's pregame show, Hall of Fame forward Chris Mullin reminded us of something we shouldn't forget: Multiple Finals trips may seem like a foregone conclusion for this Heat team, he said, but you don't know what the future holds. You don't know if Wade's battered body is going to continue to support his kamikaze style of play. You don't know if a tighter salary cap will choke any chance of Miami's luring the thirty-something ring chasers to South Beach.
What we do know is that there are heavyweights lurking in both conferences that aren't afraid of the big, bad Heat. Chicago won 62 games with its baby-faced roster and now has the experience of a conference finals appearance under its belt. Boston will be back, and Kevin Garnett and Co. circle games against Miami on their calendar. New York, Philadelphia and Atlanta have had their moments against the Heat, too.
In the Western Conference, Dallas can coax another few years out of its aging roster. The Lakers expect to rebound from this season's ugly finish. Oklahoma City has a frighteningly deep and talented team that is still years away from hitting its prime. Miami will be the favorite in many preseason publications, but in no way will the mere passage of time resolve all its issues.
That requires work. Teamwork. There's a reason the Thunder are on a steady rise. During summers, Kevin Durant organizes workouts in Oklahoma City that have near-perfect attendance. To grow, James, Wade and Bosh must shelve dreams of a Hollywood persona and worldwide fame and commit themselves to the team. The Heat spent few days together before the start of training camp this season, a decision that may have ultimately been costly. The NBA season starts in July, not October, a lesson this Big Three would be wise to learn.
In many ways, this series was a message to the rest of the league: Assemble your team wisely. There will be another free-agent free-for-all in 2012, when Dwight Howard, Chris Paul and Deron Williams could create the next seismic shift in the NBA landscape. Teams like New York, New Jersey or the Lakers could take their cues from Miami and throw fat contracts at a couple of players and fill in the roster with spare parts.
Or they could find players who fit. Dallas did, and now 15 players who never hugged a Larry O'Brien trophy have an experience that will last a lifetime.