- Tim MacMahon, ESPN Staff Writer
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DALLAS -- For coach Erik Spoelstra, the Miami Heat’s annual trip to Dallas is a reminder of a title lost and lessons learned.
The 2011 Mavs, who remain the only team to beat LeBron James’ Heat in a playoff series, might have delayed a Miami dynasty. Or maybe Miami doesn’t win the last two titles unless the Mavs’ upset forced the so-called superteam to address its flaws and improve its game.
Spoelstra firmly believes that the Mavs pushed the Heat to greater heights.
“That was a very humbling experience for all of us,” Spoelstra said after the Heat’s Tuesday morning shootaround. “We had to reinvent ourselves. We had to be honest with ourselves that we had to improve, that the game that we were playing was not good enough. That might not have happened if we would have had success that first year, but we came back more committed to doing things differently.”
That started with James, the scapegoat of those finals after the Mavs made him look like a mere mortal, holding him to 17.8 points on 47.8 percent shooting during the six-game series. The Mavs executed a genius defensive game plan, with Shawn Marion and DeShawn Stevenson doing outstanding individual jobs guarding James, who was turned into a passive facilitator for much of those Finals.
No player in NBA history has been as heavily criticized during an offseason, which happened to be extra long due to the lockout. James took advantage of that time to fix a hole in his game the Mavs exploited.
“LeBron really set the tone that offseason during that lockout, coming back and really improving his post-up game that allowed us to play inside-out,” Spoelstra said. “While we were still unconventional and positionless, we were still able to play a power game, and that was a big part of his development.”
In doing so, James borrowed liberally from Dirk Nowitzki, the MVP of those finals.
James has added a one-footed fadeaway -- a shot he calls "The Dirk" -- to his arsenal. Mavs coach Rick Carlisle has also noticed James using "another Dirk shot," a wrong-footed runner, with success.
“He keeps adding things and the great ones do," Carlisle said. Dirk has over the years. [Larry] Bird every summer would go home and he’d come back with one thing that was a counter to the other things he did. And James is doing the same thing. You got a guy with that kind of ability and he keeps adding skill sets to his skill set, it makes the guy a breathtaking player.”
Of course, breathtaking was the bare minimum expectation when James took his talents to South Beach. He was considered by many to be an underachiever of epic proportions after he failed to earn his first ring in 2011.
However, the Heat make no excuses about the 2011 Finals. Dallas deserved to win that series despite not having nearly as much starpower.
The Mavs consistently outplayed and outsmarted Miami in crunch time, with Jason Kidd distributing, Nowitzki and Jason Terry hitting daggers and Tyson Chandler and Marion anchoring the defense. An aging Mavs team took advantage of its last legitimate shot to win a championship, stunning a Heat squad that had celebrated like champions when James and Chris Bosh arrived in Miami the previous summer.
“That pain, we’ll never forget that,” Spoelstra said. “That was a long offseason. We’ll never forget that. Walking in this arena, we’ll never forget that.
“I don’t look at the banner. I just remember memories. It was great competition at its highest. They played an exceptional series. They really did. Every time that we had an opportunity to seal a win, they seemed to make more plays down the stretch, both ends of the court. I’ll always remember those plays going down the stretch.”
The Heat used that anguish as fuel while winning back-to-back titles. A big part of their challenge this season is trying to maintain the same sense of urgency while trying to extend their championship streak.
“Disappointment in coming up short builds a lot of your character.” Bosh said. “And it’s the same thing with these guys from ‘06 to 2011. That group, they played with pain. And it’s a major, huge difference getting back there. They had more urgency than we did because they understood it a little better. And they played a great series.”