Heat vs Mavs again, and Miami more than Wade now
An unstoppable one-man show against Dallas five years ago, Dwyane Wade is bringing LeBron James and Chris Bosh to the rematch.
And the Miami Heat, who celebrated like champions last July, can throw an even bigger party if they can beat Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavericks again.
In the first season with their Big Three, the Heat welcome the Mavs back to Miami on Tuesday for an unusually early NBA finals, the first in 25 years that will begin in May.
The Heat clinched the first of multiple finals appearances that were forecast for them last summer, when James and Wade led a late rally to beat Chicago 83-80 on Thursday, setting up another series with Mark Cuban's team.
''There's no sense of relief right now,'' James said. ''We still have lots of work to do. We have a little bit of time tomorrow to go over what we accomplished. We don't take for granted this win and being Eastern Conference champion. We have a lot of work to do still and we look forward to the challenge.''
Miami won in six games in 2006, when Wade's magnificence and the Mavs' meltdowns gave the Heat their first title. Hard times followed for the Heat, including a first-round exit last season, and Wade warned he could leave last summer as a free agent if the Heat didn't surround him with more talent.
He was just fine on his own in 2006.
Single-handedly turning the finals around after Dallas won the first two games and took a double-digit lead late in Game 3, Wade scored 42, 36, 43 and 36 points in the final four games.
Constantly attacking the rim - and getting some help from some questionable officiating, the Mavs felt - he attempted 46 free throws in the final two games, shooting to superstardom after averaging 34.7 points, 21 more than his closest teammate, and winning the finals MVP award.
The Mavericks became only the third team to blow a 2-0 lead and lose the finals, and their woes went well beyond the court. Cuban was fined $250,000 for his outbursts at a referee and Commissioner David Stern during Game 5, and they looked like a group on a chaperoned field trip when they changed hotels halfway through the middle games after then-coach Avery Johnson decided the temptations of South Beach were too distracting.
Speaking of South Beach, what a turnaround for the Heat since James announced he was taking his talents there in his heavily criticized TV special last July.
Following an occasionally rocky regular season, they ended Boston's reign as Eastern Conference champion in the second round, then ousted a Chicago team that had best record in the NBA.
''We've never turned our back on each other,'' Wade said. ''That's why we're able to come back from games like this, because we believe in each other.''
James and Wade have been spectacular, especially down the stretch, and Bosh has had his moments, but the player of this postseason so far has been Nowitzki.
He averaged 32.2 points in the Mavericks' five-game victory over Oklahoma City in the West finals, with a pair of 40-point games and only two missed free throws in 61 attempts. Now he gets an opportunity to make up for the biggest disappointment of his career, when he shot just 39 percent in the 2006 series while often defended well by Udonis Haslem.
Nowitzki and Jason Terry are the only Mavs still left from that team, and part of a group that counts Jason Kidd, Shawn Marion and Peja Stojakovic among the veterans hoping this is their chance to finally grab a ring.
''Been trying to get back to this stage ever since and fell short a bunch of times,'' Nowitzki said. ''But yeah, this is a bunch of veterans who want to play and are unselfish.''
Or it could be the first title for James and Bosh, who decided joining Wade in Miami was the quickest route to a championship instead of staying put for more money in Cleveland and Toronto.
The Heat were criticized for the way they put the team together, their pep rally celebration that followed, and became perhaps the league's most-hated team outside their home arena.
But nobody can argue with the results, as Pat Riley constructed a team that defends well to keep the Heat in games, and has two top closers in Wade and James to pull them out.
''This isn't our goal,'' Bosh said. ''We just wanted to show how mentally tough we are and show that we're not done yet.''
With both conference finals ending in five games, the NBA finals will move up. The championship round hasn't started in May since 1986, when Boston beat Houston. The Heat will host the first two games before the series shifts to Dallas for the next three, if necessary.
Brian Mahoney on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/Briancmahoney