On the road to tonight's Game 1 in Miami, the Mavs eliminated the five-time champ Kobe Bryant, the NBA's top draw for the last decade, and then Kevin Durant, the 6-foot-9 long-limbed forward with so much stunning potential that Dirk Nowitzki says the "future of this league is in his hands."
"This league is very top-heavy, obviously. Very, very good teams at the top with great players, so you’ve got to go through the best to obviously win the championship and we’ve already had a tough run to get through the West," Dirk Nowitzki said. "We made it through and now it gets even tougher against a very very good team with three superstars that can really defend. I think they showed that in the playoffs so far that they’re very good defensively. It’s going to be a challenge, but hopefully we’re up for it."
Dallas certainly has been up for the challenges, especially on the defensive end, against these stars. In the second-round series against the Los Angeles Lakers, Bryant averaged 23.5 points on 45.8 percent shooting -- and an abysmal 22.7 percent from 3-point range -- numbers any team will take any time. Kobe opened the series with 36 points, yet the Mavs managed to pull it out. His scoring totals then dropped to 23, 17 and 17 -- again numbers any team will take any time.
Durant opened the Western Conference finals with 40 points, but again, Dallas won the game behind 48 from Dirk Nowitzki. Durant was 10-of-18 from the floor in Game 1 and then never shot 50 percent again in the five-game series, finishing at 42.9 percent, well below his regular season and postseason field-goal percentages. He struggled beyond the arc at 23.3 percent, 20 and 10 percentage points down, respectively, from his first- and second-round shooting.
After Durant's Game 1 outburst, he never hit 30 points and in three of the final four games, the Mavs held him at least four points below his scoring average.
"We've had a tough road. I think we've embraced it. we wanted this," said Tyson Chandler, whose inside presence helped to keep Durant as well as second-team All-NBA point guard Russell Westbrook from penetrating the paint for easy baskets. "We didn't duck, we didn't dodge anybody. We played our basketball and it's been that way consistently throughout the year."
Now the Mavs face their toughest defensive test yet. How does a team guard James and Wade, two of the strongest, quickest and most accomplished finishers in the game?
"We're going to have to be aggressive," Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said. "We're going to have to be in position because when those guys are scoring the ball, penetrating, and getting to the free-throw line and getting other people involved in getting good shots, they are extremely difficult to beat."