DALLAS -- The Dallas Mavericks aren't delusional. They're not gullible, either.
Howard joins Wade watchers
The Mavs don't go into these NBA Finals believing they can stop Dwyane Wade. They'd gladly settle for slowing him some.
The Mavs likewise won't let themselves get too giddy after seeing a sniffly Wade bring a box of tissues with him Wednesday when he plopped down at the dais for his first Finals interview session.
"We've got all these plans," Mavericks assistant coach Del Harris said.
"But you just hope."
Hope they work is what he meant.
Truth is, though, that Dallas does have a bit more than hopeful schemes and a prayer to throw at the flu-ridden Wade.
It has Josh Howard, too.
Which is significant because Wade himself has said that Howard harasses him as well as any defender in the league.
The harassment started in college, where Howard shadowed Wade in two Wake Forest-Marquette duels. Howard's team won in 2001; Wade's team took the 2003 rematch.
"We pretty much canceled each other out," Howard said Wednesday of the encounters.
Both were then selected in the 2003 NBA draft -- Wade by Miami at No. 5, Howard by Dallas with the last pick of the first round at No. 29 -- and now they'll be bumping into each other a lot over the next two weeks.
The Mavs, in their quest to keep Wade as far away from the rim as possible, are unlikely to start Howard on Wade. That job figures to fall first to veteran Adrian Griffin, with Marquis Daniels and the smaller-but-speedy Devin Harris also expected to get their turns. Dallas wants to make sure Howard isn't in foul trouble late, which is also why DeSagana Diop is likely to start at center ahead of Erick Dampier, whose bulk and experience makes him coach Avery Johnson's preferred center against Shaquille O'Neal.
You also can expect Dallas to mix its coverages, knowing that Wade, with frequent looks at the same faces, will gradually find holes in the defense no matter how good the schemes are ... and whether or not he's feeling ill. Don't forget that Wade shot better than 60 percent from the floor in the East finals against the vaunted Detroit defense.
Yet it's no secret that Dallas considers Howard, with his wingspan and athleticism, its best hope for one-on-one success against Wade.
This is not to say Howard is a defensive specialist, as he's often mislabeled. He can be a great stopper, but he's not there yet. Going into the playoffs, if you could have coerced Johnson into rating his individual defenders, Howard might have ranked fifth behind Griffin, Harris, Diop and -- no, this is not a misprint -- Dirk Nowitzki.
At present, Dallas most treasures Howard's slashing, offensive rebounding and off-the-ball movement.
"We're not sure yet what we have," Harris said when asked when the Mavs knew they had a draft steal, noting that Howard is in only his third season and blessed with the potential to do a lot more.
"And, again, he plays through pain constantly," Johnson adds, reminding that Howard overcame two awkward falls and resulting injuries in both legs to be a difference-maker in the Western Conference finals against Phoenix.
The two-pronged challenge in these Finals is that Howard, more than ever, doesn't have the luxury of focusing on defense. Dallas is 25-0 this season when he scores at least 20 points, including 6-0 in the playoffs.
That means, on top of the hopes that his length and activity can bother Wade, Howard is always being asked by reporters, teammates and coaches if he has four 20-point games left.
"You know I'm getting a lot of that," Howard said with a wide grin. "If I've got it in me, you'll see it."
As for his old college buddy...
"He gives me trouble, as well," Howard said, downplaying any suggestions that Wade is really worried.
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Heat center Shaquille O'Neal has a chance to pass Elgin Baylor's NBA Finals record of 19 30-point, 10-rebound games. O'Neal, already the only player in NBA Finals history to average 30 and 10 (32.6 PPG, 13.8 RPG), is three shy of Baylor's mark.
Stop us if you've heard this one before: The Dallas Mavericks have a really good point guard, but they might lose him at the end of the season when he becomes an unrestricted free agent.
And get this: The deciding factor in this case, too, may just be the number of years that point guard wants on his next contract.
Nearly two years after the Mavericks let eventual two-time MVP Steve Nash walk away, Jason Terry is in a similar place to where Nash was in 2004. And once again, there's no saying for sure what the summer will bring.
"They're very similar situations, and you can't overstate either of their importance to the Mavericks," Terry's agent, Dan Fegan, told ESPN.com Wednesday night on the eve of Game 1 of the NBA Finals. "Jason Terry is going to be one of the very top free agents on the market, and his performance in the playoffs has only cemented that position.
"Jason is two years younger than Steve was at the time, and we fully expect to get a five- or six-year deal," Fegan said.
No one is saying Terry is as good as Nash is, but two years ago no one was quite convinced Nash was the player he turned out to be. The Mavericks were unwilling in 2004 make the same six-year commitment to Nash that the Phoenix Suns had offered, so Nash took the money and ran out of Dallas -- a move that still ranks as easily the most questionable decision Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has made during his six years of ownership of the franchise.
One big difference this time: Fegan promised that he and Terry would not make as quick a decision as Nash did in the summer of 2004, when the bidding war between the Mavericks and Suns began and ended in a span of roughly 24 hours, if not less.
Fegan said Terry will take his time, no matter how many bidders come calling or how lucrative any particular offer might be. Cuban did not immediately respond to an e-mail seeking comment on Fegan's remarks.
"Steve made a quick decision. Who knows what would have happened if he had waited that out a little longer," Fegan said. "I don't anticipate doing anything rashly. We'll field all offers and proceed accordingly."
Of course he says that now, but what'll happen July 1 if the Atlanta Hawks suddenly want Jason back, are offering $9 million in the first year and want an answer in 12 hours?
That's what makes the free-agent season so unpredictable, and Terry's future will be one of the unsettled questions driving this summer's talent market. At 28, he'll have more long-term value than two of the other top floor generals on the market, Sam Cassell and Mike James, and his body of work in this year's playoffs, however inconsistent it has been, will make Terry a hotter commodity than any of the other free-agent PGs, including Speedy Claxton, Bobby Jackson and Marcus Banks.
-- Chris Sheridan in Dallas
Patrick (Austin, Texas): Why are so many people doubting the Heat? They are a very athletic team capable of keeping up with any team in the league, Shaq is still the best big man in the league, and Dwyane Wade pulled off a double-double even while he was being treated for dehydration. Maybe no one can contain Dirk Nowitzki but certainly no one can keep DW in check. In fact, give me one person who can consistently shut down DW. Heat in 6.
Mike (D.C.): The real question is ... is Dirk the real deal? Phoenix was beyond soft on defense. Tim Duncan was too hurt to play him. Let's see if he can score that many against a physical team. Until then I am not a Witnitviskness or whatever that stupid shirt said.
Ben (New York): Does anyone else actually think that Wade isn't the superstar he's made out to be? The year before the arrival of Shaq, he averaged eight points less than the year Shaq arrived. He also only had 1 double double, while he had 16 his next two years with Shaq. The Heat got just 42 wins the year before Shaq, but tacked up 59 wins the next year. Dwyane Wade's adequate shooting is no reason for his success. The dominant Shaq improves D-Wade and his team. Wade is a great player, but he's not all he's cracked up to be. Shaq is the reason they're in the finals.
Paul (Santa Barbara): The matchup problems for Miami seem endless. The most intriguing for me is the likely possibility of the Mavs going small, forcing Shaq to guard Dirk. What happens here? Does Shaq have to go out, because we all know how inept he seems when he's farther than 10 feet from the basket. As much as I want to see the big fella get low, slide his feet, get back on transition defense, and fill the break on the offensive end, I just don't see it happening.
Joe (Durham, N.C.): The Mavs have as much of a chance of beating the Heat in seven games as I do. It's a matchup nightmare for them. No one can guard Shaq and the Mavs will have to use their No. 2 option on the Heat's No. 1. And here's the scary part: If Duncan's average was 30-plus points and 11-plus rebounds a game, what do you think Shaq and Alonzo will do?
Thursday, June 8
Heat forward Udonis Haslem says trying varied defensive approaches on Dirk Nowitzki is the way to go. And so is putting their last meeting, a 36-point Mavs win, in the rearview mirror.
"[Dallas] put a pretty good whuppin' on us."
Heard a new Dirk Nowitzki comparison on the eve of the Finals.
Dirk and ... David Robinson?
Turns out there actually is something to it once you get past the fact that one is a German with an all-court game ... and the other is a left-handed center from the U.S. Naval Academy.
The similarity is that Nowitzki and Robinson were pushed by the same guy -- Mavs coach and former Spurs guard Avery Johnson -- to play and lead with more assertiveness.
"I think there was a time in Dirk's career where he wasn't really viewed as a physical player," Johnson said. "It was more of a finesse-type deal. And because of that, sometimes people want to throw out the 'soft' word. David obviously got a lot of that in his career [as well].
"I think in their own way, they were both able to share that label because they are -- they were billed as finesse players at their position. [But] I don't think finesse always is going to be associated with Dirk, because he's more of a post-up player now. He drives the ball to the basket, he makes strong moves and Dirk rebounds. Dirk is a very underrated rebounder, and you can't rebound the way he does without being somewhat physical."
-- Marc Stein
Interesting story in circulation about Rockets general manager-in-training Daryl Morey, who's often described as the NBA's answer to Billy Beane of the Oakland A's and "Moneyball" fame. Morey will meet several of his GM peers for the first time this week when he attends the annual predraft camp that has been moved from Chicago to Orlando.
The story: Houston owner Les Alexander, so determined to put a statistical ace in the Beane mold in charge of his basketball people, approached the real Beane first to see if he had any interest in trading baseball for basketball.
The Rockets, when rebuffed, then targeted Morey, who was working for the Celtics under Danny Ainge and in the same town where Theo Epstein took over the Red Sox -- and took them to a historic World Series championship -- with about as much experience as Morey has.
• This was the plan even before Dirk Nowitzki led the Mavericks to their first NBA Finals berth, but Dallas is understandably even more eager now to sign Nowitzki to a contract extension this summer.
Nowitzki has two years -- and $31.5 million -- left on his current deal, but he can opt out and become a free agent after next season.
Club sources indicate that inking the 27-year-old to a new deal, thereby ensuring he never gets to the opt-out point, is a top offseason priority for Mavs owner Mark Cuban.
Before the Finals get under way, now is a good time to take a quick look back and see who's stepped up thus far in the playoffs.
There's a fairly simple way to do this: Comparing a player's regular-season PER with his playoff PER. In general, most players see their PER go down a couple points in the postseason, because they no longer have the Hawks and Blazers to kick around. We've had a few notable exceptions, however, including a couple of players who advanced to the Finals.
Leading the way, no surprise, is Dirk Nowitzki of Dallas. His regular-season PER of 28.20 led the league, but in the playoffs he's been even better at 29.85. One key reason is rebounding -- Dirk's postseason rebound rate of 17.4 is way higher than he's ever done in a full season.
Two other Mavs have also stepped up -- forward Adrian Griffin and big man DeSagana Diop. While we're talking baby steps here -- Griffin from 11.55 to 12.41; Diop from 11.44 to 13.40 -- their ability to maintain their numbers against better competition has helped them leapfrog other players in Dallas' crowded rotation. Both are likely to be on the floor for the opening tip on Thursday.
Among those on the disappointing side for Dallas are Keith Van Horn and, believe it or not, Devin Harris. Van Horn returned from injury late in the San Antonio series and still seems to be getting his timing back, perhaps explaining his plunge from 13.77 to 8.25. Harris is surprising because he was a key to the win against San Antonio, but he has a good regular-season mark as his comparison (17.55), and he was bad enough against Phoenix that his playoff PER of 13.35 is nothing to write home about.
On the Miami side, only one player has a higher PER than in the regular season, and even the most ardent Heat fan would need several guesses before identifying that player as James Posey. In his case, a horrid regular season (9.82) was part of the reason. He's been a more consistent contributor in the playoffs (12.80), and like Nowitzki he can thank improved work on the boards. Posey has a higher postseason PER than the man he backs up, Antoine Walker.
No Miami rotation player dipped as far as Harris and Van Horn have for Dallas, but the biggest drop comes from Jason Williams. He was at 15.04 during the season, but despite his amazing Game 6 against Detroit, his playoff PER of 11.60 falls well short of what he did in the first 82 games. The Heat will need a much better effort from him to surprise Dallas in the Finals.
-- John Hollinger in Dallas