DALLAS -- The mere mention of what the Dallas Mavericks can achieve Sunday night had Keith Van Horn tapping his right sneaker on the home team's floor.
Second game, first priority
"Let me knock on some wood," Van Horn said.
That was Van Horn's way of conveying that he didn't want to get even one step ahead of himself when taking questions about the possibility of Dallas seizing a 2-0 lead in the NBA Finals.
Van Horn is a nine-year vet. He was the lone Mav with Finals experience before Thursday's Game 1. He has also been monitoring these playoffs closely.
In other words . . .
He's well aware that 2-0 series leads have been rather scarce this postseason.
In the six series played since the first round was completed, only one home team was able to win the first two games: Detroit went up 2-0 on Cleveland. Yet even that series went seven games.
The other five were all 1-1 splits when the series shifted for Game 3: Miami-New Jersey, Dallas-San Antonio, Phoenix-Los Angeles Clippers, Miami-Detroit and Dallas-Phoenix.
The Mavs have been on both ends of the 1-1 split since their opening-round sweep of Memphis. In Round 2, Dallas pounded host San Antonio in Game 2 after a fall-from-ahead loss in Game 1. In the West finals against Phoenix, perhaps still emotionally rebounding from its seven-game epic with the Spurs, Dallas folded in crunch time of Game 1 at home before rallying to win the series in six.
You can expect Mavs coach Avery Johnson to put extra (loud) emphasis on the opportunity this Game 2 presents as part of his overall campaign against overconfidence. An emerging priority for Johnson and the Mavs is tuning out the local talk-radio chatter, with fans around town increasingly convinced that a 90-80 victory in Game 1 -- in which Dirk Nowitzki and Josh Howard failed to score 30 points combined -- represents a sure sign that Dallas will win this showdown of Finals first-timers.
"In the Finals especially, a 2-0 lead is so valuable," said Mavs assistant coach Del Harris.
Because of the format.
Heat coach Pat Riley feels the same and spoke out against the 2-3-2 model that was introduced for the 1985 Finals, replacing the 2-2-1-1-1 format used during the first three rounds of the playoffs. Riley argues that a 1-1 split isn't even as good as it looks in the earlier rounds for the team that has the middle three games at home, noting that only one home team in 20 years has won those middle three games: Detroit in 2004 against the Los Angeles Lakers.
"If you get one game on the road, then you think you're going to win it all at home . . . and you usually end up going back for Games 6 and 7," Riley said.
Van Horn wouldn't be hooked into a deep dissection of the merits of 2-0 vs. 1-1. He simply sounds relieved that, in these Finals, Dallas hasn't yet had a helpless feeling when it sees O'Neal.
Shaq was in his most fearsome Finals form in 2002 when L.A. swept Van Horn's New Jersey Nets, averaging 36.3 points and 12.3 rebounds. "He was really dominant," Van Horn recalled Friday. "The thing about it was, we did feel like he was making all of his free throws."
O'Neal actually shot 66 percent from the line in that series -- 45 for 68 -- but you can understand the sentiment. The Heat would have gladly taken 6-for-9 in Game 1 from the 34-year-old, who instead shot 1-for-9 at the stripe.
Free throws, though, aren't O'Neal's only problem. If the Mavs can continue to keep their centers out of foul trouble and force the ball out of Shaq's hands with a variety of double-team looks, as seen in Thursday's opener, chances are O'Neal won't approach his '02 level more than once or twice over the course of seven games.
It's the Heat's intention to route the ball through O'Neal far more often in Game 2 after Riley announced Friday that Shaq "didn't get it enough." It's the Mavs' intention to counter with a faster pace to drain O'Neal's energy -- something they didn't create enough of in their 10-point triumph -- and keep changing the coverages Shaq sees. That keeps O'Neal from having a natural feel for where the defenders are, as he had against predictable Detroit in the East finals.
"They just did what they're supposed to," Shaq said of the home team seizing a 1-0 lead.
Not entirely so.
Dallas won't be able to say so publicly unless it can pack one of those increasing rare 2-0 cushions for the trip to South Florida.
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.
AP Photo/Eric Gay
Heat coach Pat Riley and guard Dwyane Wade compare wingspans Friday. Wade had 28 points in Thursday's loss, giving him 1,092 in his playoff career. He now has the most postseason points among players' first three NBA seasons, topping Elgin Baylor's 1,089.
Should have known that Jason Terry was in control of the moment when he came flying (like a 747) off the bench for the pregame introductions. JET (Jason Eugene Terry) was so relaxed he was doing the airplane in the NBA Finals. "Just like a regular-season game," Terry said. "The goals are still ten feet, still 94 feet to both baselines." And the JET is still airborne.
Strange that a guy who played most of his NBA career in Atlanta, would handle the spotlight so well. Terry's won before, though. His team won two state championships at Franklin High School in Seattle, and then, with Mike Bibby and Miles Simon, his Arizona team won the 1997 NCAA title. So, according to Terry "You know, now in the NBA Finals, it's nothing different."
While the NBA Finals make some players tighten up, Terry's taking it all in stride and presumably filing another routine flight plan for Sunday night.
-- Chris Ramsay in Dallas
Now, for the fun part.
The first game of any playoff series tends to be pure vanilla, with teams trotting out their basic alignments and spending much of the game feeling each other out. That was certainly the case Thursday. Sure, there were a few wrinkles -- such as Miami's use of a zone for stretches -- but, by and large, Game 1 held little intrigue in terms of strategy.
Fear not, however, for things will change soon. With two off days in which to dissect more film and plot new strategies, both coaches could come back with much different strategies that shift the tide of the series on Sunday.
Certainly, that's been the case for Dallas throughout the postseason. The Mavericks lost the opening game in each of their past two series, only to come back in Game 2 with revamped lineups that ultimately led them to victory. Against San Antonio, it was Avery Johnson's daring switch to Devin Harris in the backcourt that helped the Mavs outpace and ultimately vanquish the defending champion Spurs. In the Phoenix series, Johnson inserted DeSagana Diop after he took a DNP in the opener, and he proved to be a defensive difference maker the rest of the series.
However, our eyes should be equally focused on Pat Riley. In general, it's the losing coach who has the most incentive to upset the apple cart, because he's the one whose Plan A didn't work. If that's the case here, the Heat coach should have several changes to introduce when he tries to even the series on Sunday. While Riley's team isn't as deep or flexible as Johnson's, giving him fewer options in this area, he still has several options to choose from.
The day after, Heat guard Gary Payton called Game 1 "just one of those games." Alonzo Mourning says better decision-making will be needed.
AP Photo/Eric Gay
On the day Germany opened its World Cup play with a win, Mavs forward Dirk Nowitzki gets in the spirit during Friday's practice.
Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry get all the attention, but the Dallas Mavericks' most important player on Sunday may not even be in the starting lineup. In fact, he's a player who hardly played at all in the final five games of the Western Conference finals.
That player is Erick Dampier, and he's important because he's the Mavs primary defender against Shaquille O'Neal. DeSagana Diop got the start on Thursday and may well do so again on Sunday, but Dampier saw the bulk of the action. He played 27 minutes against Shaq in Game 1, limiting him to 17 points, and figures to be the go-to guy against O'Neal in crunch time throughout the series.
That will put him in the crosshairs for most of the next fortnight, but especially in Game 2. Dampier will be forced to defend early and often, because the Miami Heat, to a man, spent Friday's media availability session saying they need to get Shaq the ball more.
"He didn't get it enough," was Pat Riley's blunt assessment after watching the tape Friday morning. O'Neal backs up that sentiment, reiterating the need to play inside-out that he repeatedly brought up in his postgame interview Thursday.
Bean (Houston): Hey Chris is it just me or does it seem like the Heat will not win no more than one game this series?
Chris Sheridan: It's just you, Bean. That was only one game Thursday night, and the Heat are a lot better than what they showed. To me, they lost that game late in the first half when Riley benched Shaq with two fouls and Miami let Dallas close the half so strongly. I think you can expect them to go to Shaq a lot, lot more Sunday night, because they're going to need to ride him more in this series than they did in the Detroit series when Wade carried them. It's going to be a long series.
Chris Sheridan: They're both coming back, but they've both lost quite a bit. Gary was just plain awful against Terry last night, leaving him open time after time for those jumpers that killed the Heat. Alonzo gave them nothing, too, but he doesn't think he's anywhere close to done, and he wants one more contract for the big bucks.
Stephen R. Covey, who is a prolific writer on personal development, makes a point in one of his books that really hits home: "The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing."
Every team has a "main thing" that emerges as its strength. Coaches preach about their special "main thing" during practices and timeouts. If the team wants to play at its best the players must strictly adhere to it, especially in crucial playoff times.
The "main thing" for the Miami Heat is keeping the big fella down low and running the offense through him when Dwyane Wade is not driving the ball. Even if you know nothing about basketball, you would have been able to recognize what Miami's "main thing" was in the first quarter.
The Heat initially looked unstoppable, and frankly they were. No one, including Josh Howard, had any chance of staying in front of Wade. He made the opening period look like a layup drill. In addition, every time they threw the ball to Shaquille O'Neal and Dallas trapped him, the Heat either got a layup on a drive to the basket or a standstill open 3 on an inside to outside pass (the best 3-point shot in basketball). If the trap did not get there in time, O'Neal would power his way to the basket. This is smashmouth offensive basketball and it is what constitutes the Heat's game.
However, the "main thing" escaped the Heat the rest of the night.
Ian (Lansdowne, PA): If you Mav fans think that Terry can score 30+ four times in this series, I have a bridge in Brooklyn to sell ya. Udonis and Posey are going to be in Dirk's grill all series long (you can see from Game 1 that Dirk does not like to be touched). Wade's turnovers are troubling though. You can't be considered a superstar player and turn the ball over as much as he does. Also, superstar shooters make their free throws, 6-10 from the line is abysmal. Nevertheless, if Terry's all you've got, it's going to be a short series for ya. Heat in 6.
Cody (Tempe): The Mavs had an ugly game, but it showed that they truly are the deepest team in the league. While Miami had a 6-7 man rotation throughout the evening, Dallas had a 10-man rotation. Dallas beating Miami at Miami's own game with a bad game by Dirk and J-Ho means this series will not be close.
Drew (Miami): Everyone needs to hold on before burying the Heat just yet. Remember, New Jersey handed Miami a huge loss at their building in Game 1, and Riley adjusted accordingly and never looked back. Likewise, Miami's dreadful Game 5 performance against Detroit, rotten foul shooting and all, was followed by a stout whupping in Game 6. The Heat may not win this series, but they will not roll over for Dallas either.