The Mavericks are returning to the arena where they surrendered a 2-0 lead in the 2006 NBA Finals, and that's not a bad thing. Without those events, Dirk Nowitzki may not be in the position he is in today.
That loss turned him into the leader of an underdog Finalist that needs one more victory to win the NBA championship. Since that loss, Nowitzki has transformed himself from a perimeter shooter to become the most dangerous postup threat in these playoffs (Zach Randolph of Memphis is right there with him, but lacks Nowitzki's versatility to all areas of the floor). When Dirk returns to Miami, will Nowitzki be haunted by memories of five years ago? I doubt it. Instead he's going to feel strengthened by all of the hard work and growth that was inspired by that 2006 defeat.
And yet, winning a single game in Miami promises to be the most difficult achievement of his career. The Mavs appear to have figured how to attack the Miami defense -- they're beating it with counterpunches, by sidestepping the closeout defenders and moving inside to attack. But the shots may not fall at the 56.5 percent rate of Game 5, and the Mavs may not make 13-of-19 threes in a closeout game on the road. They needed all of those threes in order to pull away in the final 86 seconds Thursday to seize their 3-2 lead in the series.
Miami hasn't shown that it can win a shootout. The Heat have scored in double-digits only four times (including once in overtime) in 20 playoff games. They've come a long way in their first season together, but most of that growth has happened at the defensive end. Now they must galvanize in order to prevent Dallas from turning its Game 5 breakthrough into a season-ending trend.
The Mavs are showing the importance of time spent together. Just a year ago they were exposed in a first-round upset by a Spurs defense that forced the ball out of Nowitzki's hands while preventing Jason Terry and Jason Kidd from shooting open threes. The addition of Tyson Chandler has improved their defense enough to create early offense and set the Heat defense on its heels, and the unlikely contributions of 6-foot point guard Jose Barea have made all the difference. He and Terry were able to slash through the halfcourt to create opportunities for themselves and others. It didn't look like it was working earlier in the series, but the years their key players have spent together in Dallas helped them play through the early games of this series when the shots weren't falling. They kept at it because they believed.
If Game 6 Sunday (and Game 7 on Tuesday) are dominated by the team play of Dallas, then Miami can't win on those terms. The Heat need exceptional performances from Dwyane Wade, who suffered a left hip contusion that limited him in Game 5, and LeBron James, whose recent doldrums have become a national story. He is to these Finals what Magic ("Tragic") Johnson was to the 1984 Finals, when he wasn't up to the high standards created by the victorious Celtics.
Johnson used that '84 loss to elevate his game and win three of the next four titles. James doesn't want to go through another summer of blame and pain. Over the last four games -- including three Miami losses -- he has totaled six points in the fourth quarter. The player who has the skills, athleticism and size to do anything on a basketball court has looked as if he doesn't know how to attack.
It's hard to explain until you think about how Nowitzki didn't know how to prevent Miami from sweeping the final four games of the '06 Finals, or from avoiding first-round losses in three of the next four years. Most players never are able to position themselves as leader of a NBA Finalist, and fewer are able to turn that opportunity into a championship. It took Nowitzki five years to develop the skills of leadership that he appears to be applying so easily now. And even now the job isn't done. If he doesn't win another game this season, then he'll be viewed as another great player who wasn't quite great enough.
Coming into this series, my best guess was that Dallas would take a 3-2 lead back to Miami, at which time the Heat's two dominant stars would fight as they've never fought before while squeezing out wins in Games 6 and 7. Now Wade is unhealthy, and James is underperforming.
But someone in the next game or two is going to have to do something he has always wanted to do. Wade has been in this situation and prevailed. But neither Nowitzki nor James have ever triumphed. Which one will elevate in response to the demands of this moment? As competitive as the first five games have been, this Finals is about to become better than ever.
The questions are fabricated, my answers are for real.
"Any idea where a 'one-dimensional' prospect like me -- according to all my critics -- might end up in the draft?"-- J.F., Salt Lake City
Jimmer Fredette, I believe the conventional thinking is all wrong about you. The impression is that many teams -- especially your local Utah Jazz -- are scared to draft you, out of fear that fans will demand you to play a bigger role than you deserve.
I don't understand this view as the NBA moves toward a potentially devastating lockout. If a work stoppage careens into next autumn and the season starts late, then fans are going to be critical of the NBA and its players. Every team is going to wish it had a Jimmer Fredette -- a rookie who had nothing to do with the terms of the collective bargaining negotiations -- who can represent a fresh start and create excitement among fans. Who cares if you don't turn into an All-Star? So long as you can make shots and help soothe bad feelings, you will be worth your rookie wage.
Any team that views you as a bust with no NBA future is a team that shouldn't draft you. But most teams are going to judge you as possessing offensive strengths and defensive weaknesses, and in this draft there are very few unblemished prospects. What you have going for you is an ability to create interest, and in the current labor environment there are very few draft picks with greater value. I promise you are one player that will not slide.
"How can a league that has so much going for it even think about shutting down next season?"-- J.F., Anywhere, USA
Joe Fan, there are hundreds of millions of you around the world who are paying attention to the NBA. If there is an extended lockout, I am going to be very interested in your reactions. Will you be understanding and forgiving because you love the NBA and want to see where this sensational season has left off? Or will you be so incensed by the league's disrespect toward you that you will be slamming the door shut and not answering when the league comes knocking to ask you to come back?
Right now I can't begin to predict how you will respond.
"What are the chances I get traded sooner than later?"-- M.E., Oakland
Monta Ellis, the Warriors are interested in exploring a variety of options to improve. Is it going to be easier to make a major trade before the lockout or afterward? If next season is shortened then teams will have very little time to acquire new players and remake their rosters. That's why a team like yours may want to make a deal sooner than later -- because it may be too difficult to find a trading partner after the lockout.
Brian Shaw. Consider this résumé:
A former NBA point guard who played in 127 postseason games and won three championships.
An assistant coach who contributed to two recent championships.
A leader who earned the respect of both Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal.
And yet Shaw is still on the market. Among potential rookie head coaches there can be no one more capable.
I understand why the Lakers wanted to move in a different direction. They wanted to be less dependent on the triangle offense, and they hired a young coach in Mike Brown who won 127 games over the final two years of his own debut tenure with Cleveland. Brown has many redeeming qualities, so that makes sense.
What I don't understand is why other teams aren't dying to invest in Shaw's knowledge. Many experienced NBA head coaches are still trying to learn many of the lessons that he experienced first-hand with the Lakers. How does a coach develop a partnership with the star? Shaw saw how Phil Jackson managed his relationships with Shaq and Kobe, before and after their breakup, and Shaw himself was positioned to build on his relationship with Bryant had he been elevated to head coach by the Lakers.
Shaw was on Frank Hamblen's staff when the Lakers lost 48 games and missed the playoffs in 2004-05. He helped develop their young team over the next two years despite a series of alarming playoff losses, he was in the middle of their championship runs over the past two seasons, and he saw what went right and wrong this year.
There are a variety of strong candidates on this job market. Some have the head-coaching experience that Shaw lacks. Mark Jackson, hired recently by the Warriors, has charisma as well as a long-time record as a winning NBA point guard playing for a variety of coaches. Kevin McHale, recently hired by the Rockets, is an inspirational guy with an innate understanding for player development. I understand different teams will be seeking different kinds of leadership.
But Shaw's background is universal. He won championships as a player and as an assistant, he understands player development and most of all he knows how to develop relationships with star players. It's a funny thing -- funny for everyone but Shaw himself -- that the rare array of qualities sought by every team are not only available, but have not yet been snapped up.
First-time champions. Here I'm focusing solely on players who have won, or have been capable of winning, an MVP award in their career. Either Dirk Nowitzki or LeBron James will join this short list of breakthrough winners over the last three decades.
2008: Kevin Garnett, Celtics
2006: Dwyane Wade, Heat
2000: Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal, Lakers
1999: Tim Duncan, Spurs
1994: Hakeem Olajuwon, Rockets
1991: Michael Jordan, Bulls
1989: Isiah Thomas, Pistons
1983: Moses Malone and Julius Erving, 76ers
1981: Larry Bird, Celtics
1980: Magic Johnson, Lakers