Down to The Wire

The mad-as-hell Mavs, the superstar heat of Dwyane Wade and a fascinating coaching duel between masters old and new drove the best postseason in a decade toward climax
June 25, 2006

Over two decadesof coaching stratagems at your disposal, thousands of offensive possessions todraw upon, a multitude of options from which to choose. But sometimes it's bestto not be too smart, which was the case for Pat Riley at the end of Game 5 ofthe NBA Finals. ¶ Get the ball to Dwyane! Get the ball to Dwyane! ¶ That's whatthe Miami Heat coach told his team in a timeout with 9.1 seconds left in themost crucial of situations: overtime, series tied 2-2, Heat trailing 100-99.Sometimes it's that simple. Get the ball to Dwyane. The Heat did as instructed,and Wade, resembling a thief fleeing from the police, dribbled around andthrough four Mavericks defenders, drew a foul, then canned two free throws thatgave the Heat a remarkable 101-100 victory.¶ "Besides Dwyane," Rileywould say afterward, "we did not have a second option." ¶ Though Miamiwould still need one win in Dallas to earn Riley his seventh ring, ShaquilleO'Neal his fourth and Wade his first, there could be little doubt, regardlessof how the series played out, who would be remembered as the most dominantforce of the most captivating NBA Finals A.J. (After Jordan). More thananything this series has been about the ascension of Wade into that selectstratum of NBA superstars. In the middle three games in Miami, all Heat winsafter two depressing defeats by an average of 12 points in Big D, Wade made 38of 77 shots and 42 of 52 free throws. When all else failed-and even when itdidn't-Riley would plant Wade on the perimeter of a 1-4 alignment and just tellhim to do his thing. When Doug Collins was coaching the Bulls in the late '80s,he once described an end-of-the-game play he ran for Michael Jordan like this:"That was get Michael the ball and everybody get the f-- out of theway." So it has been with Wade. On Sunday's climactic play, Wade told Rileyin the huddle that he wanted to go left, so Riley told O'Neal to move to thatside of the floor to set a pick. That was pretty much the extent of the futureHall of Fame coach's involvement in that play.

Afterward theMavericks weighed in with a few of their own D Wade-MJ comparisons, though of afar less flattering variety. Noting that Wade attempted the same number of freethrows (25) as the Mavericks team in Game 5, reserve guard Darrell Armstrongcomplained, "This kid is getting calls Michael Jordan never got. The kidspins, fades away, we don't touch him, and he goes to the line? Incredible.What does the NBA want? Ratings? Is that what this is about?" Immediatelyafter guard Devin Harris's last-second half-court heave bounced off the top ofthe backboard, Mavs owner Mark Cuban was in front of commissioner David Sternshouting profanity-laced insults about the officiating.

Charges thatcertain players get special protection are part of the league's lore, and Wadedoes fit the profile of an anointed one. It is nearly impossible to get theHeat guard to say something colorful, but it is also difficult to get him tosay anything arrogant or caustic. The league will take that trade-off any day.About the only edge that crept into Wade's voice showed up after Game 4, a98-74 Heat rout, when he was asked if he was surprised that the Mavs weredaring him to shoot jumpers. "I think they said I can't shoot, right? Sowhy would they contest my shots?"

Even after theMavs' three-game meltdown, nobody doubted that they could get their actstraightened out back in Dallas, where Cuban, who wore a Jerry Stackhousejersey on Sunday night in honor of the feisty forward who was suspended (andquestionably so) for Game 5 after a flagrant foul on O'Neal in Game 4, wouldpull out every scoreboard gimmick to fire up the home crowd. Stackhouse'sreturn to the lineup would be treated like Eisenhower's return home after WorldWar II. 'House supplies much of the Mavs' newfound fighting spirit (anotherlegacy of this postseason). Sometimes literally so. During a Dallas-Utah gamelate last season, Stackhouse and Jazz rookie Kirk Snyder got into it, promptingStackhouse to promise Snyder he would "kick [his] ass" later. Sureenough, when the game was over, 'House requested practice sweats from a Dallasequipment manager, found Snyder in the tunnel that led to the players' lot,bloodied his face with a couple of well-placed punches, returned to the lockerroom and reemerged a few minutes later nattily attired, as always, in asuit.

Even withoutStackhouse, the Mavs did show some fire and brimstone on Sunday, somethingcoach Avery Johnson had found lacking after their Game 4 disaster. Thefollowing day he moved his team from their Four Seasons digs in Miami to amodest hotel in Fort Lauderdale and assigned roommates for everyone. The mindreels at the thought of the bedtime conversation between the heavily tatted,jeri-curled Marquis Daniels and Pavel Podkolzin, the 7'5" native ofNovosibirsk, Russia. Or the mental burden on Armstrong, who claimed he wastortured by Nowitzki's love of rap-German rap! To an NBA player accustomed tofive-star isolation, having a roommate is equivalent to 40 lashes and 24 hoursof Dr. Phil.

The hotel switchwas a psychological ploy out of the Riley book. The difference between thecoaches is that Johnson is far more lively than Riley and consistentlyoutperformed His Mousseness at the pregame and postgame microphone. Televisionpackagers are missing a great opportunity if they do not pursue Avery for whatwould be a certain daytime hit-"Judge Johnson," the alliterative andfar more entertaining replacement for Judge Judy. Set it in a courtroom in NewOrleans, Johnson's hometown, where his distinctive Louisiana patois would bemost engaging as he pronounces judgment, with a mixture of anger, sarcasm andhumor, on a hopeless parade of defendants.

But if the41-year-old Johnson has outentertained the 61-year-old Riley, he has certainlynot outcoached him. Indeed, if the Heat get the needed win in Dallas to bringthe franchise its first championship, Riley will, like Wade, find himselfanointed-or, in his case, reanointed-as a coaching alchemist who, through forceof personality, the weight of his accomplishments and some savvy X-ing andO-ing, extracts gold from unpromising raw materials.

With a game stillleft to win, Riley would not say whether a Heat title would be sweeter than hisprevious ones in L.A. He tries to keep references to the '80s to aminimum-"Players don't want to hear how you did it back then," hesays-but he can make a historical point digitally. "You look in thathuddle, you see the ring on his finger," says reserve forward James Posey,"and that's even more motivation to go out there and get it done." Onesuspects a Heat title would mean more to Riley than any of those he won duringShowtime, the last in 1988. There were always whispers that his success inLaker Land was the product of his team's talent rather than of his coachingacumen. If Riley were to bring Miami its first title, his stamp upon this onewould be indelible, both as architect (as president, he added some seeminglydisparate pieces in the off-season) and coach, but mostly as coach.

"Pat hasalways made it clear to me that whatever title he had, he always thought ofhimself as a coach," Heat owner Micky Arison said last Saturday. "Inever forget that." Riley has called upon every weapon in his substantialgamesmanship arsenal, both in these Finals and throughout the season. During ahuddle in the fourth quarter of Game 3, for example, Riley wrote season on hiswipeboard and told the team, "This is our season we're playing for. Everypossession, every play has to be ours." The Heat stoutly held on to a leadin a tense 98-96 victory. With veteran players such as O'Neal, Posey, AlonzoMourning and Gary Payton, Riley frequently asks them for ideas.

Riley has pulledsome big moments, in particular, out of the declining Payton, who has seeminglymade no more than a half-dozen shots in this postseason. (He was, in fact,averaging 6.0 points per game) Several of them, however, have been daggers,including the Game 3 game-winning jumper (his only shot of the game) and adriving lefthanded layup (the shot banked so high off the backboard it almostwent over it) that gave Miami a 99-98 lead in overtime on Sunday.

Riley has alsoshown unwavering confidence in point guard Jason Williams and small forwardAntoine Walker, both of whom he brought in before this season amid thehead-shaking of NBA observers. Sometimes Williams and Walker are, indeed,dueling dunderheads, as in the third quarter of Game 4 when Williams eschewed awide-open layup to pass to O'Neal on the sequence that ended with Stackhouse'sbulldozing Shaq to the floor and Walker's dashing in with false bravado butenough menace to draw a technical foul. But even that worked out forMiami-Stackhouse got hit with a flagrant foul, Shaq made two free throws, and'Toine didn't have to fight anybody.

Things were notlikely to go so providentially for the Heat in Dallas. Riley controls theatmosphere in Miami, where his favorite Springsteen tunes blare over the soundsystem and where, on Sunday night, he trotted out Clarence Clemons, thesaxophonist from the E Street Band, to blow the national anthem. Dallas'sAmerican Airlines Center is Cuban's house. No Boss, just boos. No Clemons, justcowboys.

But Riley had aweapon the Mavericks didn't have, even in Dallas. He could get the ball toDwyane.

SI.COM

Full coverage of Games 6 and 7 of the Finals, plus thePlayoff Blog, at SI.com/nba.

TV packagers are missing a great opportunity if theydo not pursue Avery for what would be certain daytime hit, "JUDGEJOHNSON."

"WADE is getting calls MICHAEL JORDAN never got.  What does the NBAwant?  Ratings? Is that what this is about?"

"My daughters tackle me harder when I come home," said Shaq ofStackhouse's Game 4 foul. "It actually felt pretty good to get hit likethat. THANK YOU, JERRY. Appreciate it."

 

PHOTOBOB ROSATO (INSET)BIG D Back home Shaq was the force he had not been in Dallas. PHOTOPhotograph by John W. McDonoughUNTOUCHABLE While Nowitzki (41) was struggling in Game 5, Wade got star treatment from the refs, going to the line 25 times. TWO PHOTOSBOB ROSATO (JOHNSON); JOHN W. MCDONOUGH (RILEY) NEW GUY, OLD TRICK Johnson (top) took a page out of Riley's book by taking his team on a "field trip" after losses in Games 3 and 4. TWO PHOTOSBOB ROSATO (TERRY); JOHN W. MCDONOUGH (WADE)TOP GUNS Jason Terry (left) looked like a strong Finals MVP candidate with 35 in Game 5 until Wade broke out his Jordan act. PHOTOPhotograph by Greg NelsonSHAQ TACTICS O'Neal was sent flying on this foul in Game 4, ruled flagrant, but it was Stackhouse who ultimately took the bigger hit, getting suspended for the following game.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)