Lee Jenkins: Judgment is rendered too quickly. The notion that the Mavericks were soft was nonsense. So was the idea that the Heat could not win close games. We knew the Mavericks could score, but they have improved their defense. We knew the Heat could defend, but they have solidified their rebounding. Both teams have consistently blown open fourth quarters, and in doing so, they've won every round with relative ease. One side will flinch in the Finals, but there's no evidence to project who that will be.
Ian Thomsen: Both teams were viewed skeptically -- the Heat hadn't proved they could play as a team offensively and the Mavs were known for postseason collapses. Each used the tough circumstances of these playoffs to prove that they're better than most people thought.
Sam Amick: Chicago center Joakim Noah said it best about the Heat after his Bulls fell in the Eastern Conference finals: "They're Hollywood as hell, but they're still very good." For all the hype and the antics surrounding this team, Miami coach Erik Spoelstra has instilled a fierce, defense-first mentality that complements its stars' incredible offensive abilities and has helped create a formidable foe. The Mavs are fearless fighters, which is something none of us were saying all that long ago. No lead is safe when they're on the floor, with ageless wonder Jason Kidd running the show, center Tyson Chandler anchoring the much-improved defense and Nowitzki playing like the future Hall of Famer that he is.
Chris Mannix: Honestly, I didn't know Nowitzki was this good in the post. He dropped 48 points on Oklahoma City in Game 1 and didn't attempt a three-pointer. He is so much stronger than he was five years ago and virtually impossible for most power forwards to stop. Like most people, I've been impressed by the Heat's ability to jell the way they have this postseason. They have been a little fortunate (Rajon Rondo's injury was big for them in the second round), but they deserve a lot of credit for figuring out how to play with each other and beating up on some formidable opponents.
Zach Lowe: About Miami, not all that much. The Heat were a fantastic team on both ends all season, and a small sample size of inept late-game shooting doesn't mean anything in the long run. The Mavs' offense has been a mini-revelation, and they have proved that they had another gear in reserve for the playoffs. They haven't changed their system in any significant way, but they've honed their focus -- by going to Nowitzki more, exploiting mismatches, milking what works and (perhaps most significant for the Finals) cutting their turnovers.
Jenkins: No team in the NBA can truly match up with Miami's wings, James and Wade, but the Mavericks could have more problems than most. Despite their age, they were able to hold up against Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant, but now they draw two transcendent slashers at once. If they can survive the James/Wade onslaught -- without top perimeter defender Caron Butler, who is still recovering from knee surgery -- defensive coordinator Dwane Casey will finally have to be rewarded with a head-coaching job.
Thomsen: Shooting. Both teams have players who can make shots under pressure. It's one thing to have that talent and another to make threes when it matters. Dallas can't win without strong shooting, and if the Heat's role players aren't converting open looks, then it will be asking too much of the Big Three to carry Miami to four wins.
Amick: It's more who than what for me, and that who is LeBron. This isn't 2007, when James' Cleveland running mates during his only other Finals appearance were guys like Larry Hughes and Daniel Gibson. And this Dallas team -- talented and deep though it is -- isn't of the same ilk as the championship-tested San Antonio team that swept Cleveland that year.
Mannix: Everyone knows Dallas can score -- it's averaging 99.7 points per game, No. 2 among teams in the postseason -- but the Mavs' ability to limit Miami's offense will be critical. Now, the Heat haven't been lighting it up: They are eighth in scoring (92.9 points). But the Big Three have played exceedingly well together the last two series, Bosh especially. A major key will be the ability of Dallas' defense -- particularly Kidd, DeShawn Stevenson and Shawn Marion, who will be involved in big individual matchups with Wade and James -- to keep the Heat stars to low shooting percentages.
Lowe: I'll go with the Mavs' three-point shooting. After torching the Lakers from deep, the Mavs slumped to 32.8 percent against a quicker and more coherent Thunder defense. Miami's defense represents another step up, and a Dallas team that prioritizes the three far more than in any recent season will be in trouble if it can't produce a bunch of points from long range.
Jenkins: James needs a championship in terms of quieting the media chorus that has hounded him for 11 months. But he will get one eventually. Nowitzki is 32, and though he shows no signs of slowing, much of his supporting cast is even older than he is. This is by no means Nowitzki's last chance, but with the Thunder emerging in the West, it is clearly his best one. Nowitzki has finally received recognition in these playoffs as one of the elite. A championship would ensure he never loses his standing again.
Thomsen: People will say LeBron can win in future years, but no one can guarantee the health of his teammates or the impact of the new collective bargaining agreement on Miami's roster. This is his eighth year and I can guarantee you he is obsessed with winning now. In his view, he has waited too long already. Nowitzki has to be viewing this as possibly his final shot at a title, knowing how difficult it is to reach the Finals. I'm sure he believes no one can want to win more than he does. But there is no doubt that more external pressure is on James to prevail, because of the expectations he has faced throughout his career.
Amick: Dirk needs this more because of this reality: One championship is all he needs. While James needs to win three, four, five or even six titles to achieve the kind of legacy he is pursuing, Nowitzki's narrative is much different. One title means he would have changed his own story, persevering through the Finals choke-job in 2006 against Miami to win it all at this late hour of his career with a gritty greatness we weren't sure the 13-year veteran had in him. James certainly needs to get his first title as badly as anyone in the league, especially since he's about to finish his eighth season. But the player with whom Scottie Pippen has decided we should compare him, Michael Jordan, was 28 when he won his first of six titles. James is 26, and the Heat will certainly be in this mix for years to come. Nowitzki's time is now.
Mannix: Dirk, easily. He's 32 and the clock is ticking. LeBron's "not one, not two, not three ..." speech put the pressure on him. But at 26, he's got a few years and a heck of a roster around him to collect his titles. Nowitzki's supporting cast is aging and the expected emergence of the Thunder and the likely resurgence of the Lakers means this could be his last shot at a title.
Lowe: I reject the idea that either "needs" a championship to validate his worth as a basketball player. Both are among the best the league has ever seen, and a ring will not change that. Winning a title is a team accomplishment, not an individual one, and depends a lot on luck, teammate quality, health and matchups. These have been the two best players in the postseason; haven't they proved their individual worth already? LeBron will have many more chances to win a title; Nowitzki may never have a better one. In that very obvious sense, Nowitzki may "need" this series more.
Jenkins: Dirk vs. LeBron. The Heat will throw a lot of people at Dirk -- Bosh, Udonis Haslem and Joel Anthony being the most obvious candidates. But at the end of the fourth quarter, it is hard to imagine we will not see James on Nowitzki, the confrontation everyone is waiting for. At 6-foot-8, James was quick enough to stay in front of Derrick Rose, and now we will see if he is rangy enough to alter Nowitzki's patented step-back fadeaway.
Thomsen: Dirk vs. LeBron. They're totally different players, yet LeBron will surely try to guard Dirk at times. There will also be times when they'll find themselves trying to outscore each other for the good of their teams. This Finals will showcase each at his best.
Amick: Dirk vs. LeBron. They might not actually square off against each that often, especially if Mavs small forward Marion can be aggressive enough offensively to force James to guard him. But it's rare that two stars with so much at stake meet like this, with Nowitzki desperate for his first ring to take his legacy to new heights and James needing his first championship because, well, the Big Three were talking about winning five or six last summer when they put this dream team together. Both are clearly the alpha-dogs for their respective teams right now, and seeing whose will and determination to win is greater should be fun.
Mannix: Dirk vs. Bosh. No one has been able to stop Nowitzki this postseason, and some pretty good defenders have tried. Bosh isn't known for lockdown defense, but if he can contain Dirk -- or at the very least, score with him -- Miami will have a big advantage.
Lowe: Chandler vs. Bosh. Chandler is an active help defender, and Bosh figures to have many chances to score if Chandler helps aggressively on pick-and-roll plays involving Bosh as the screener and on separate action involving LeBron and Wade. The Heat need Bosh to take advantage of these chances as efficiently as he did against the Bulls. Chandler needs to rotate like a mad man, stay out of foul trouble and hope someone has his back when he gets far from Bosh.
Jenkins:Jason Terry had the Larry O'Brien Trophy tattooed on his arm. Outside of Nowitzki, he is the longest-tenured Maverick, still haunted by the 2006 Finals and the first-round pratfalls that followed. Terry savors the big stage, and like Nowitzki, does not know how many more turns he will get. Although Terry does not start, he fashions himself a fourth-quarter closer, and he has scorched from three-point range in the playoffs. The Mavs will need to win this series from the three-point line, and so far Terry has owned the arc.
Thomsen: Can we call Terry a role player? If so, then his role as a scorer off the bench will be enormous in creating a thrilling Finals. I expect him to shoot very well.
Amick: Marion. Two games into the Oklahoma City series, his teammates and coaches accused him of being too passive. He responded in a series-changing way, giving Durant fits with his blanketing defense while scoring 26 points in the Game 5 finale. Marion's ability to stay engaged and force James into respecting his game on both ends will be huge. Nowitzki doesn't have a Wade, so he needs scoring help wherever he can get it. And considering no Heat player is better equipped to guard Nowitzki than James, the big German wouldn't mind if Marion was good enough offensively to keep that from being a viable option for Spoelstra.
Mannix: Chandler. Ask Durant how many times he saw Chandler's spidery body lurking in the lane every time he started to drive. The pressure will undoubtedly be on the Mavs' perimeter players to stop (or at least slow) dribble penetration, but it's Chandler -- the closest thing to a young Kevin Garnett that we have in the NBA -- who will be responsible for correcting their mistakes. He will likely get plenty of reps on Bosh, too, making his potential impact on the game immeasurable.
Lowe: The Haslem/Mike Miller pairing. They were huge against Chicago, allowing the Heat to play their five-man dream lineup consisting of these two and the three stars. The Bosh/Haslem combination allows the Heat to both stretch the floor and protect the glass, and Miller's versatility helps everywhere. Haslem is just finding his rhythm and Miller is dealing with thumb injuries, so we don't quite know yet how consistent they can be. Miller is especially crucial, because he's the place Dallas figures to try to hide one its so-so defenders. If Miller can punish Terry, Peja Stojakovic or J.J. Barea, the Mavs have a problem.
Jenkins: James is potent enough that he was going to eventually win a championship whether in Cleveland, Miami or Minnesota. To fully validate "The Decision," he has to win multiple championships, and build a dynasty in South Florida. If he can win in his first season, with a roster that was slapped together at the last minute, he will be well on his way. But I still say it takes three titles in Miami to match the impact he would have made with one in Cleveland.
Thomsen: It isn't. I always believed that he wanted to define himself on his own terms -- as a Magic-styled playmaker, rather than as a finisher like Jordan -- and that he needed star power around him in order to win, knowing that most champions have won because of their teammates. LeBron's problem last year wasn't based so much in what he was saying but rather in how he was saying it. If he wins the Finals, he will be credited once and for all with having a vision and seeing it through.
Amick: It's like your parents always told you: It's not about what you say, it's how you say it. I never had a problem with him leaving Cleveland, but the self-indulgent way in which he sent his message out -- not telling owner Dan Gilbert or Cavaliers officials what he intended to do and making them watch the embarrassing production on ESPN -- was classless. Winning a title doesn't change that.
Mannix: I never -- not once -- had a problem with LeBron's defecting to Miami. I, like many others, had a beef with the way he did it. It's not my place to tell a 26-year-old where to work or where to live. LeBron's a grown man and he can do what he wants. He just didn't need to kick, punch and elbow-drop Cleveland on his way out the door. Perhaps in the minds of some people a championship will validate his decision to play in Miami. Because if the Heat win a title this season, it could kick-start a historic run.
Lowe: No, and no.
Thomsen: I have no certainty whatsoever about this pick, which is why this has the makings of a terrific series. Dallas is just as competitive and driven as Miami, but the bigger question of whether Nowitzki is a better closer than James remains to be seen. The Mavs need strong ball movement early in the series to pry open their shooters around Nowitzki, because if they're blitzing from the three-point line it will be difficult for the Heat's defense to dominate. I'm looking for these teams to take turns excelling at what each does best. In the end I'm deferring to Miami's defense, home-court advantage and the pairing of LeBron and Wade to prevail in a tight Game 7.
Jenkins: Dallas has the better point guard, frontcourt and bench, with superior ball movement, three-point shooting and late-game experience. But Miami's transcendent wings of James and Wade present a near impossible matchup. The Mavs will find more ways to score against the Heat than the Bulls did, but they won't be as effective in slowing them down. Though Dallas has made significant upgrades since 2006, the Heat have made even more, and they are set to claim the first of what will probably be several championships with this group. Miami in six.
Amick: No matter how impressive Dallas' run has been, there are just too many "ifs" in this equation for me to see the Mavs winning. They can avenge their 2006 Finals loss to Miami if Nowitzki maintains his epic play, if their ball movement is so elusive and so flawless that they can avoid the ball-hawking LeBron and Wade on the perimeter and keep the sight lines open for their shooters, if they can count on Marion to not only slow James on one end but to score consistently on the other, and if they can force the league's most explosive transition team to walk it up the floor. Spoelstra is putting the ball in James' hands more than ever before, and with the way he's been handling it, we should be witnesses to his first championship ceremony very soon. Miami in seven.
Mannix: Many thought the Mavs wouldn't be able to defend Durant and Russell Westbrook in the last round, but Dallas did a pretty credible job on them. I think Kidd -- who has had a phenomenal postseason defensively -- will give Wade some trouble, and the creative coaching of Rick Carlisle will find ways to load up on LeBron and force him into difficult shots. Offensively, Dirk will have a field day on Bosh, Haslem, et al, and the Mavs' dynamic bench will win at least one game for them. Dallas in seven.
Lowe: Heat in 6. This will be the toughest series yet for each team, but Miami has all the necessary answers to beat Dallas. The Heat -- like the Thunder -- have talent on the wing, and in the backcourt that will give Dallas trouble. But the Heat's talent is on a different level than Oklahoma City's, and unlike the Thunder, they have the kind of big men who can punish teams for loading up on James and Wade. They have defenders to bother Nowitzki, the quickest rotations in the league to close out on the Mavs' shooters and the tools to solve their zone. A Mavs win wouldn't shock me, but Miami is better suited to beat them than any team they've faced so far. Heat in six.