There's nothing like starpower when it comes to the NBA Finals. In the great 1980s we were treated to three Celtic-Laker matchups featuring Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. Michael Jordan picked up the torch from Larry and Magic. Then came Shaquille O'Neal, Tim Duncan and Kobe Bryant.
When the Heat and Mavericks finally get started this week, there's going to be a lot of focus on LeBron James and Dirk Nowitzki. Both have been to the Finals once, both losing in disappointing fashion.
The notion of LeBron vs. Dirk as a focus of this series is a little weird since LeBron's teammate Dwyane Wade is an NBA megastar who's actually won a championship and been MVP of the Finals. Too bad. This thing is going to be promoted as LeBron vs. Dirk because it's a better storyline: It's a matchup of NBA MVPs who still don't have rings.
Let's start with LeBron. Only 26 years old, he's already being mentioned in "best ever" conversations. Former Bull Scottie Pippen went off the rails last week and said that LeBron might be better than Michael. We all know this was insecure Scottie's way of reminding us that "Michael couldn't have won without me," but it gathered headlines, nonetheless.
"I'm not better than Jordan,'' LeBron offered last weekend.
Thanks, your humbleness.
James is savvy enough to know he can't put himself in the pantheon with his own words. He needs to win some championships. He needs to prove he can finish like Michael and Kobe. So far this spring, he's getting the job done. He destroyed the Celtics and Bulls with late-game daggers. Miami's closing runs vaporized a Boston team laden with Hall of Famers. Then it happened again when the Heat ran away with Game 5 of the conference finals in Chicago.
Nowitzki did the same thing to the Lakers, then the Thunder. He hit ridiculous shots in crunchtime. Off-balance. Step-backs. There is no blocking a 7-footer who can drain the basketball from international waters. Dirk demonstrated toughness and clutch play many of us hadn't seen. Then he dissed the conference trophy celebration, turning his focus to the series that matters.
Like LeBron, Dirk has only one experience in the Finals and it wasn't good. In 2006, Nowitzki's Mavericks took a 2-0 lead on the Wade-Shaq Miami Heat, then blew a 13-point lead in the final quarter of Game 3 and got erased in four straight games. German-born Dirk didn't shoot particularly well in the final games and was immediately labeled "too soft," which is code for "too European.''
James, meanwhile, has emerged as a complete player in these playoffs. He's become Miami's lockdown defensive player He's guarded Paul Pierce, Rajon Rondo and Derrick Rose. In the Finals, he might wind up guarding 7-foot Dirk.
"Whatever it takes,'' said James. "If I need to guard him throughout the course of the series, I will. It doesn't matter to me.''
Nowitzki turns 33 on June 19. He has been in the NBA since 1998. This might be his last chance to cement his legacy.
Nowitzki has a big fan in Dallas coach Rick Carlisle. Throughout these playoffs, Carlisle has been saying that Nowitzki is one of the 10 best players in the history of the NBA.
Hmmm. Scottie Pippen isn't the only NBA guy prone to hyperbole.
Top 10? Let's see. Let me first go to the Bill Walton list. Big Red says there's a standard seven: Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Oscar Robertson, Bird and Magic. This would leave the other three spots for folks like ... Bob Cousy, Jerry West, Bob Pettit, Elgin Baylor, John Havlicek, Julius Erving, Hakeem Olajuwon, Kobe, Shaq. Others might lobby for Duncan and someday soon, if he wins championships, LeBron James.
But Dirk? Really, Rick? This reminds me of when former Celtic Cedric Maxwell told us that Dirk is a better player than Larry Bird. Maybe that's just Max's way of pulling a Pippen and saying, "Larry needed Chief and Kevin and me.''
All great players need other good players to win championships. Nobody gets there alone. Dirk and LeBron have never tasted champagne, but one of them is going to be awash in the bubbly sometime in the next couple of weeks and then we can let the legacy arguments begin anew.
LeBron has played eight NBA seasons. Dirk has been in the league for 13 years. Both are championship-starved. Both need a ring to solidify their place in the list of NBA all-time greats. LeBron looks like he's going to be in the Finals several more times. But this might be Dirk's last roundup.