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Wednesday, June 21, 2006
Nowitzki: How Miami shot us down

By Marc Stein
ESPN.com

DALLAS -- The sad reality for Dirk Nowitzki is that folks probably won't remember the drive and free throw in San Antonio ... or the 50 points he hung on Phoenix ... or that early rumble down the lane Tuesday night and the lefty flush that finished it.

They are mostly going to remember the finish.

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Watch a replay of Game 6 Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN Classic.

They will inevitably remember that 2-0 lead Nowitzki's Dallas Mavericks seized in their first NBA Finals and everything taken away from them thereafter by the new, worthy champs from Miami.

"If we win that [Game 3], the series is probably pretty much over," Nowitzki said. "Maybe [we] were starting to celebrate too early, or ... I don't know what happened.

"That was a tough loss that really changed the momentum of the whole series. After that, they got confidence. They played a lot better afterwards. Everybody kept making shots."

The metamorphosis of the Heat from regular-season underachievers to postseason kings advanced to such a stage that, by this Game 6, Miami really was an everybody. The Mavs weren't simply dealing with their Dwyane Wade problems.

They had Alonzo Mourning problems, Udonis Haslem problems, even Antoine Walker problems.

For all its speed and depth and youthful athleticism, Dallas found itself playing catch-up on too many fronts after its 14-point lead got erased by halftime. The Heat had become everything Pat Riley -- and pretty much only Pat Riley -- imagined when Wade and Shaquille O'Neal were surrounded by a group of cantankerous vets last August. By the end of this 95-92 clincher on the Mavs' floor, Miami truly looked like the league's best team.

It was the Mavs who couldn't keep up.

"You know, really, I didn't plan on giving this speech," said Mavs coach Avery Johnson, not quite believing that he had just been ushered into summer with his first four-game losing streak of the season.

The Mavs did figure they'd have to deal with more beyond-his-years brilliance from Wade, who duly delivered 36 points and 10 boards in the clincher to complete his Finals MVP runaway. You can forgive Wade's two late misses from the line -- even though they gave Jason Terry a chance to force overtime with a triple that rimmed out -- when you realize how much he's doing in Year 3.

Leading the way, in other words, for famous names like O'Neal (now 4-2 instead of a pedestrian 3-3 in his trips to the Finals) and Mourning (a first-time champ along with Gary Payton) and even Riley (after a torturous 18-season drought) to spruce up their legacies and hush the skeptics who've doubted them.

"He really won them the championship," Nowitzki said of Wade. "From Game 3, when we were up [13], he just took over."

"He just took it to another level," Riley concurred, somewhat astonished himself by Wade's own transformation after what the coach described as "two difficult games" for No. 3 to open these Finals.

"You all witnessed it," Riley continued. "You all watched it. Players like that are very hard to come by, and to watch them grow right in front of you ... I've never had a player like this."

Of course, Wade becomes even more dangerous when Riles has several players hurting the Mavs, as seen in this farewell to 2005-06. The Heat's outside shooting was woeful, as Miami's many critics promised it would be all season, but the defense was the real difference, so stout that the errant 3s (2-of-18) didn't matter. Miami gradually snuffed out Dallas' will to attack after so many smart folks in this game believed beforehand that the Heat had no chance against the Mavs' perimeter speed.

The Mavs made the mighty Spurs play at their quickened pace and showed they could run with the Suns when they had to do, but Dallas' Game 6 attempts to push the tempo lasted about a quarter. The Heat weathered Nowitzki's aggressive start and, largely because of vicious resistance at the rim from Mourning, stopped the run just like they did in the Detroit series. The hosts then reverted to their unwanted past and proved too willing to work from the outside, even though any Miami foul would have put Dallas on the line for the final 7:06 of regulation.

"We really sped the game up from the beginning, and that's what really got us the lead," Nowitzki said. "[But] once we play against their set defense, they are really, really good. They just clog up the paint. They've got great shot-blockers in there. Then you're forced to shoot jumpers."

The Mavs were likewise forced to accept that, whatever your view on all the Game 5 officiating controversies, mounting pressure got to them once the series shifted to South Florida. There were three close games in these Finals -- by margins of two, one and three points -- and the younger team lost them all.

Even after finally breaking through against their rivals from South Texas, Dallas clearly still has plenty to figure out. High on the list is dealing with rising expectations, which only swelled after a 2-0 lead was so nearly stretched to 3-0. Fact is, as Nowitzki admitted, "Nobody really expected us to come out of the West." That apparently made toppling San Antonio, massive as it seemed at the time, somehow easier than finishing off the hungrier Heat.

The Mavs, at 2-0 up and 89-76 ahead in Game 3, were supposed to steamroll these guys. The farther away they fell from a steamrolling, Dallas' confidence problems snowballed.

"The good teams and the great players get stronger from defeat," Terry said after his roller-coaster playoffs ended on a major downer: 7-of-25 shooting in support of Nowitzki's 29 points and 15 boards.

"For us, I would say a great season is actually winning it," Johnson added. "But whatever the step below that is, that's what we've done. [In October] we talked about aiming high and winning a championship. We didn't talk about getting here. But this was a tremendous learning experience for our players and coaches. You can't really get this good on-the-job experience until you're here.

"Like I said early on, I don't think when the season started anybody picked Dallas and Miami to be in the Finals. So take your hats off to them. We've had a lot of highs and a lot of lows. You guys have seen me at my best and at my worst this series. I just think [there's] no excuses. They deserved to win, and we'll come back."

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.