Tuesday, June 6, 2006 Updated: June 8, 1:10 PM ET
Mavs' advantages outweigh Heat's hot play
By Marc Stein ESPN.com
DALLAS -- Pat Riley says there will be no told-you-so's leading into these NBA Finals, no blogging back at his critics, no discernable delight on his face no matter how long that line is for crow servings.
Not even when he runs into the biggest alleged Heat Hater in all of cyberspace.
Want to know why?
I've got three theories:
1. It makes Riles an even bigger success to get back to the Finals via the high road.
2. Vengeance is already his for getting the Miami Heat this far, when I and so many others said he couldn't, but mere vindication is not nearly enough to satiate Riles.
3. Riles knows, deep down, that the four wins he still needs to capture the championship he craves so badly will be tougher to score than any of the tough stuff Miami has just achieved.
Now, then, is not the time for gloating.
Not when Riles knows that beating the Dallas Mavericks would be considered an upset and not just in Las Vegas.
Not when Riles knows that "Mavs in six" is the appropriate forecast after adding up all the variables in this matchup.
The Heat actually have done some amazing stuff lately, not just tough stuff. After showing such little interest in the regular season that even Riles occasionally hit them with jabs -- he openly suggested in February that maybe "I'll just wait for the playoffs to start" along with his cruising players -- Miami suddenly meshed in the 87th game of the season. Heat players say that a humiliating Feb. 9 loss in Dallas was the turning point of Miami's season. I say it was the sideline dispute between Dwyane Wade and Gary Payton in Game 4 of the Chicago series. That was the first real fight the Heat have shown all season and they're a unified 10-3 since, buying into the boss' authority from that moment and eventually stripping away the last veneer of Detroit's Eastern Conference dominance.
Pat Riley has taken the Heat to unexpected heights.
Riley's revenge -- making all this click in the playoffs when things looked so bleak for so long -- doesn't change the fact that home-court advantage is just the first of Dallas' many advantages.
The Mavs have the toughest player in the series to guard: Dirk Nowitzki. Neither Udonis Haslem nor James Posey can do it without serious help.
They have quality platoons to send at Wade (Josh Howard, Adrian Griffin and Marquis Daniels) and Shaquille O'Neal (Erick Dampier, DeSagana Diop and DJ Mbenga starting in Game 5).
They have slashers and drivers (Howard, Jerry Stackhouse and Devin Harris) and another good shooter (Jason Terry) to (A) capitalize on the double-teams Nowitzki is sure to draw and (B) cause defensive, stamina and foul-trouble problems for Shaq by attacking the rim and quickening the pace.
They have more wild-card looks to throw at Miami, like playing Keith Van Horn and Nowitzki together to try to pull O'Neal away from the rim and keep Alonzo Mourning rooted to the bench.
Dallas also has a coach, incidentally, who reaches his players as well as Riley does, even though Avery Johnson has 20 fewer seasons of experience.
Now this is certainly not the same Heat that, after that debacle in Big D, prompted me to call them "soulless." Riley's reaction to that defeat seemed like an awful lot to ask for at the time -- "What we need is for people to change their whole approach to the game," he said -- but he made it happen within three months. His juice guilted Shaq into dropping about 30 pounds or 30 more than he was willing to shed for Phil Jackson. His undeniable credibility convinced Antoine Walker, Jason Williams and Posey finally to embrace the limited roles he envisioned for the three main arrivals from last August's mega-trade. Riley's fortune, meanwhile, is that Wade and O'Neal suddenly zoomed to a Kobe-and-Shaq level against the Pistons, which would seemingly undo Miami's underdog status if they can maintain it.
I just don't think they can.
This series will be played at a speed that drains Shaq's effectiveness. I'm also figuring that Howard's length and activity will nag Wade more than this flu he can't shake.
The Mavs, furthermore, are better equipped than anyone Miami has seen in the playoffs so far to expose the two biggest weaknesses these Heaters have been dealing with since Riley re-did the roster:
• A shaky perimeter defense that exposes Shaq to extra fouls trying to protect the rim.
• A lack of consistent perimeter shooting to space the floor for Shaq and Wade.
I suspect that Riley had accounted for all of the above when he told reporters in Miami the other day that he'd be "relieved" to win it all for the first time since 1988 as opposed to delirious with joy. (Shaq and Zo insist that the 61-year-old has mellowed, but only so much apparently.)
I'm guessing that vindication is even harder for Riley to contemplate, given how many excruciating disappointments have piled up in his decade-plus on South Beach.
Three consecutive playoff exits to the Knicks. Four first-round eliminations in the span of six seasons. Mourning's kidney failure. A 25-57 season followed by Riley's resignation just days before the following season followed by his controversial return to the bench to replace Stan Van Gundy about a month into this season.
Losing to the Mavs couldn't be as difficult as any of that, since Miami has never been this close to the parade Riles promised back in 1995. But a Finals defeat would undoubtedly stay with him far longer than any gratification he'd get from gloating now.
That's not a prediction.
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.