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Saturday, June 3, 2006
Updated: June 8, 1:06 PM ET
Shaq, Riley familiar faces in new-look Finals

Associated Press

Dwyane Wade and Dirk Nowitzki are in the NBA Finals for the first time.

For Shaquille O'Neal and Pat Riley, it's just another June.

There will be plenty new -- and a dash of old -- when the Dallas Mavericks and Miami Heat open the NBA Finals on Thursday night in Dallas.

Both teams will be making their Finals debut, the first time that has happened since Milwaukee beat Baltimore in 1971.

Dallas, which joined the NBA in 1980, has been waiting longer. Miami showed up eight years later. But for O'Neal and Riley, the Finals are definitely a matter of been there, done that.

O'Neal won three titles in four appearances with the Lakers, and he also got to the Finals in 1995 with Orlando. In his second season in Miami, Shaq would love to add another ring.

"We just don't want to make it to the Finals," he said. "We want to win."

Riley's done plenty of winning, including four titles with the Lakers. He's also lost his share, including four fruitless trips to the Finals.

And just when it looked like he would never win one in Miami, he drafted Wade, traded for O'Neal and made a number of moves -- including putting himself back on the bench this season -- to surround them with talent.

"We've had a lot of near misses, unlucky bounces, suspensions. We've had very good teams that I thought were championship contenders," Riley said. "But ever since Shaquille O'Neal showed up on the scene, this team has been a legitimate contender, and we have put pieces around him. Obviously the drafting of Dwyane Wade and what he's become has sped the whole process up."

Dallas coach Avery Johnson is no stranger to the championship round, either. He hit the series-clinching shot when San Antonio beat New York for the 1999 title, and the coach of the year has had an excellent postseason with the adjustments he made against the Spurs and Suns.

"He's been great," Nowitzki said of his coach. "He's brought some defensive intensity, and he brought us to the Finals. We're glad he's with us."

The Mavs have a superstar in Nowitzki and a number of athletic players around him. After outlasting the defending champion Spurs in the second round, Dallas earned its shot at a title by beating Phoenix in six games in the Western Conference finals.

The Mavs are one of the few teams with enough depth and balance to match up with both O'Neal and Wade -- part of the reason they've had so much success against Miami.

The Mavs swept the season series -- including a 112-76 rout on Feb. 9 -- and have won 10 of the last 12 meetings. Nowitzki averaged 25 points in the two victories this season.

But the Heat are a much different team than the one that struggled against top competition this season -- and nothing like the team Dallas beat 103-90 in November. O'Neal was out with an injury and Riley hadn't yet replaced Stan Van Gundy on the bench.

Now, the Heat are getting plenty of help from the players Riley brought in, such as Gary Payton and Antoine Walker, for this moment.

"Of course, everybody's watching the playoffs. We're still basketball fans and we're paying attention," Nowitzki said. "Shaq and Dwyane, obviously they play at their level, but it's their role players that play really well -- the Walkers, the Paytons -- they play really well, they're making shots and playing at a really high level defensively."

The Mavs host the first two games before the series shifts to South Florida for Games 3-5.