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Mavs face tall task on home court


The two opening games of the Finals have confirmed what we knew already. We knew Miami was more athletic and superior defensively, and we knew the Dallas was the more cohesive team based on its years together and its refusal to give in this season as it has so many seasons before.

We knew both teams were hungry -- the Mavericks because their best players have spent so many years seeking a championship, and the Heat because their stars' only reply to the criticism and scrutiny of the last 11 months is to win a title this year.

The Mavs' 15-point comeback in the fourth quarter of Game 2 served to escalate the series in a dramatic way. Miami has been the better team for most of the eight quarters, yet the Mavs now hold the home-court advantage. The question is how long will they be able to retain it?

The most obvious prediction is for them to split Games 3 and 4 in Dallas, because the Mavs are unlikely to sweep their home games based on the run of play so far. It's likely to come down to a crucial Game 5 that Dallas must win in order to take a 3-2 lead back to Miami.

The Mavs can find plenty of room to grow in their games at home. They can start by holding onto the ball and avoiding a recurrence of the 20 turnovers that led to 31 points for Miami in Game 2. They were stubborn in continuing to believe in themselves even as Miami put together a 13-0 run in the fourth quarter; in the games ahead, Dallas must turn that stubbornness into patience. Attack the basket if only to continue to draw fouls, and control the boards as the Mavs did by 41-30 on Thursday.

The radical swing in their play -- from a team that flowed to a team that couldn't develop a decent shot in the final minutes -- rejuvenates the questions that dogged the Heat for much of the regular season. Who are they in this initial year of getting to know one another? Based on their work in the fourth quarter of Game 2, have the Mavs figured out how to break up Miami's nascent teamwork and turn defensive stops into quick scores at the other end? Or will that collapse galvanize Miami to build on its play of the first three-plus quarters?

"I thought we were doing a good job," said Dwyane Wade. "They had 73 points with [7:14] left in the ballgame. We put ourselves in a great position.

"Offensively I thought we did a great job of getting turnovers and rebounding and getting out in transition and getting easy baskets. That's how we were able to get the lead. Most importantly, the reason we had that was because of our defense. And the reason we lost the game is because of our defense."

Their defense suffered because of poor offense and turnovers that put Dallas in the open floor. Amid questions of whether Chris Bosh should have been covering Dirk Nowitzki on his game-winning drive, the Heat may decide to trump the debate by assigning the job to LeBron James -- a matchup of strength vs. strength. No one should be surprised if LeBron requests the assignment.

While the Mavs have positioned themselves to win the title by protecting their home court, the truth is they still have a lot of work ahead before they've established their style of play. Look for the Heat to respond to their disastrous loss by seeking to maintain a defensive focus throughout each game, as they were able to do with increasingly reliable success throughout their previous two rounds. The difference, however, is that Dallas is healthier, younger and deeper than the Celtics were, and deeper with shooting options than the Bulls were. They may be able to counterpunch better than any opponent Miami has faced all season.

An interesting week in Dallas lies ahead, with a lot of questions to be answered.

To Shaquille O'Neal, Esquire. When people suggest Shaquille O'Neal will renege on his retirement and come back after the lockout, my reply is to say as politely as I can that such predictions are ridiculous. This immensely accomplished player who is used to making $20 million annually is going to be willing to risk injury and play through pain at a salary that is 5 percent of his going rate? So that he can play 18 minutes and score seven points per game when he's healthy enough to play? I just don't see it.

Shaq was an amazing talent. His size and agility were unrivaled in the history of the game -- as much as I would have liked to have seen Arvidas Sabonis before injuries ruined him in his 20s, I can't imagine that he could have competed athletically with Shaq -- and he was an excellent passer with a genuine feel for the game.

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When he acknowledges that he could have accomplished more -- had he not missed so many games, had he made more free throws and so on -- Shaq is pointing out what helped make him successful in the larger sphere. He was human. People understood him.

This was an amazing achievement from a man who bore little resemblance physically to his millions of fans. How could they begin to see the game through him? Audiences have always been fascinated by dominant centers, but they tended to not be loved because they were misunderstood.

But people grew to understand Shaq. His sense of humor and his frailties (itself an unlikely word to use for someone so intimidating) made a real person of him, and he worked hard to let people know that he was more than a player.

Would his coaches have preferred him to be more of a focused, ruthless dynamo who maxed out his basketball potential? Of course that's what they wanted. But he was a product of his time. The NBA became a global entertainment industry and Shaq was the last big man to make low-post play entertaining. The good thing is that he won't be vanishing, not after spending the last two decades in preparation for a life after basketball. I wouldn't be surprised if he rented himself a bus, announced he was running for president and made Charles Barkley his running mate. Why not? He has always been big enough to do whatever he wants.

The questions are fabricated, my answers are for real.

"What advice would you please have for a rookie point guard from Spain who has never been to Minnesota and doesn't know what to pack?" -- R.R., Barcelona

Ricky Rubio, if it's true you're signing with the Timberwolves, then you might want to wear layers when you go outside next winter (if there is a next winter in the NBA) and it might help to invest in four-wheel drive, because snowstorms are rarely an acceptable excuse for missing practice.

You will be the most scrutinized NBA import since Yao Ming, with everyone dissecting your athleticism and shooting. Boston's Rajon Rondo has done well without the deep shooting, and you don't need a 3 1/2-foot vertical leap to beat your man off the dribble. You will need discipline to ignore the skeptics, but something tells me that several years of playing through the intensive pressures of the Spanish ACB and Euroleague will help you make this transition more easily than most rookies your age.

"Why do people complain about my shooting stroke? They're trying to make me feel like I'm Dennis Rodman with the ball in my hands." -- S.M., Dallas

Shawn Marion, if you had changed your stroke, would you have made more than four All-Star Games and averaged close to 17 points per game over your 12-year career? Those are hard numbers to beat, and you probably would not have beat them after radically changing a stroke that has worked so well for you. Jamaal Wilkes was your opposite -- he shot from behind his head, as opposed to you shooting from your chest -- and he did very well too.

"Is there any hope of avoiding a lockout over the next month? Under these circumstances it's difficult to make plans." -- R.R., Barcelona

Ricky Rubio, I am going to allow you to ask a second question because it's a good one.

This week commissioner David Stern made it sound as if negotiations were on a promising -- though admittedly long-shot -- track to resolving the labor crisis before the upcoming deadline. I'm certain he's right that both sides understand a deal needs to be made sooner than later, and that compromise will be harder to come by once a lockout has been imposed July 1. But I still have a hard time believing the players will accept the hundreds of millions in cutbacks sought by the owners, and that the owners will be willing to accept anything close to the status quo in exchange for avoiding the lockout. Stern was trying to establish a promising tone for the upcoming talks, but the facts as viewed by each side are likely to stand in the way of an agreement anytime soon.

The top dozen centers. The first four take care of themselves ... but sorting the rest is not so easy.

1. Bill Russell 2. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 3. Wilt Chamberlain 4. Shaquille O'Neal 5. George Mikan 6. Moses Malone 7. Hakeem Olajuwon 8. Willis Reed 9. Bill Walton 10. David Robinson 11. Patrick Ewing 12. Dave Cowens