NBA Finals: Mavericks vs. Heat

It feels like 2006 all over again. The Dirk Nowitzki-led Mavericks against the Dwyane Wade-led Heat, duking it out for the Larry O'Brien Trophy.

The biggest difference this time around? Wade will be bringing two superstars with him (LeBron James and Chris Bosh) instead of just one (Shaquille O'Neal).

Our five-man panel explains how things are going to play out:

1. More surprising run to Finals: Dallas or Miami?

Henry Abbott, TrueHoop: The West was a two-horse race heading into the playoffs: Spurs or Lakers. The third-place dark horse was the Thunder. Many picked Dallas to bomb out early. A few weeks later, the Mavs are 12-3, in the Finals, with one loss in the last month.

Alfredo Berrios, ESPN Deportes Los Angeles: Dallas. At times, the Mavericks looked like a middle-of-the-road team that had lost its groove when Dirk Nowitzki got injured and Caron Butler went out with a bad knee. But Dallas got unexpected help from a couple of rejuvenated veteran players: Peja Stojakovic and Shawn Marion. Add an explosive J.J. Barea, and they breezed their way into the Finals. Miami, on the other hand, was expected to win it all but hit some snags along the way. The Heat also had Philly in the first round, one of the easier seeds.

Zach Harper, Daily Dime Live: It has to be Dallas. It's not really a knock on Dallas, either. I just think people assumed the Lakers were a lot more together and capable of turning it on than anybody else in the West. With Miami, not many people wanted to admit it, but this team has been good enough in the East for months now.

Beckley Mason, HoopSpeak: Miami has been my favorite to reach the Finals since July. I picked Dallas as my favorite to be upset in the first round. One for two isn't bad, right?

Marc Stein, ESPN.com: The Mavs. They didn't collapse after blowing that 23-point lead in Game 4 in Portland. They needed only four games to broom the Lakers aside and usher Phil Jackson into retirement. Then they won two more road games in Oklahoma City to finish off the Thunder in five games. Surprise, surprise, surprise.

2. More difficult road to Finals: Dallas or Miami?

Henry Abbott, TrueHoop: The Bulls were the best team not to make it, and I've never seen a team play defense like the Celtics did and lose. The Heat had the toughest road.

Alfredo Berrios, ESPN Deportes Los Angeles: Dallas again. The Mavs had to go through the Blazers, a team they had problems with in the regular season, and the Lakers, a team that was favored to be back in the Finals and had beaten them 2-1 in the season series. True, the Lakers showed some symptoms of problems against the Hornets, but nonetheless they were defending champions. Miami still had the Big Three, especially Chris Bosh, who has showed sparks of the player he can be, and he did in the playoffs.

Zach Harper, Daily Dime Live: Miami had the more difficult road to the Finals. Not so much with opponents because I think the Blazers-Lakers-Thunder path is about the same as the Sixers-Celtics-Bulls road. Miami was under a much bigger microscope in these playoffs, and the Heat didn't have home-court advantage in the conference finals. They put the pressure on themselves and still won.

Beckley Mason, HoopSpeak: I'd take the Heat even if they had played only crushed cupcakes before colliding with the Bulls. No team puts more pressure on its opponents or asks more mentally and physically than Chicago does. Well, no one except Miami .

Marc Stein, ESPN.com: Dallas again. You can't diminish the way Miami dismantled Boston and Chicago, but the fact that the Heat got a virtual first-round bye against a limited Philly team swings this for the Mavs. I also would argue that sweeping the Lakers, as broken as they might have appeared, is still harder than the Mavs made it look, especially when you remember that the first two games were in L.A.

3. More impressive postseason so far: Dirk Nowitzki or LeBron James?





Henry Abbott, TrueHoop: LeBron James. It's very different, but virtually a tie on offense. On defense, James is -- on many plays -- the best defender in the NBA.

Alfredo Berrios, ESPN Deportes Los Angeles: With a few exceptions, Dirk has had the playoff series of his career. He's been spectacular, with a 28.4 ppg average and two 40-plus games versus the Thunder. LeBron, on the other hand, has always been impressive in the playoffs. Elias Sports Bureau had a nugget that sums it all: 19 playoff games since 2006 in which he has been the outright leader in points, assists and rebounds.

Zach Harper, Daily Dime Live: As much as I want to say Dirk, the fact that LeBron had to guard Paul Pierce and Derrick Rose in the past two rounds while performing as well as he did on offense is just more impressive. LeBron held Rose to 1-for-15 shooting in Games 4 and 5 of the ECF. It's impossible for me to dismiss that, even for Dirk's greatness.

Beckley Mason, HoopSpeak: My favorite thing to watch in this playoffs has been Dallas' ball movement and execution. What's so startling is how quickly teams can disrupt that flow when Dirk goes out. I admire James' toughness and affinity for trench warfare basketball, but I'm mesmerized by Dirk's ability to seemingly float the pressure and intensity, raining down flaming jumpers.

Marc Stein, ESPN.com: LeBron has never played better for longer. But these Mavs, remember, are doing this with a model that history says doesn't work: One certifiable franchise player surrounded by a committee of quality specialists. Nowitzki might be the only player in the league who can make this model work. So, when you measure the load Nowitzki shoulders on a nightly basis, then factor in the efficiency at which he's been operating this postseason, even the new jumper-draining LeBron would have to say it's the 7-footer in Dallas.

4. Most impressive revival: Marion, Chandler, Stojakovic, Haslem, Miller?

Henry Abbott, TrueHoop: I've used "Shawn Marion" as a synonym for "bad contract" in print several times this year. I have already apologized to his agent for that.

Alfredo Berrios, ESPN Deportes Los Angeles: Taking into consideration the full season: Tyson Chandler. The Mavericks wouldn't be in the Finals if he weren't on this team, as he had a year that no one expected. He had close to a double-double season, statistically speaking, and became a leader within the team. And all of this from a guy neither the Hornets nor the Bobcats wanted a year ago.

Zach Harper, Daily Dime Live: Chandler has had the most impressive revival. He was really bad the past two seasons and wasn't even filling his role all that much. With Rick Carlisle's tutelage this season, he's helped turned a lot of old, slow veterans on Dallas into an excellent defensive unit. Maybe the Team USA experience helped him find what made him valuable before.

Beckley Mason, HoopSpeak: Mike Miller because he had just as much impact as Udonis Haslem or Marion did in the conference finals but is even more injured than his fellow former Florida Gator. Miller hit big shots, shut down Kyle Korver and grabbed a ton of impressive rebounds in traffic. And he did it all with thumbs so injured that he experiences serious pain just catching the ball.

Marc Stein, ESPN.com: Marion's work as a defensive stopper has been huge for Dallas. He's starting to rediscover his offense, too, thanks to a low-post game he has worked hard to develop in his later years. But Haslem is right there in terms of impact. With Haslem healed, Miami suddenly has some semblance of a bench … and an unquestioned infusion of toughness.

5. More likely to win: Dallas or Miami?

Henry Abbott, TrueHoop: Heat in 6 because they play much better defense. However, I'm aware that a team with the Mavericks' size and shooting is a constant threat to make this pick look idiotic.

Alfredo Berrios, ESPN Deportes Los Angeles: A lot of people see this series as one favoring the Heat. But the Mavs have showed in their playoff run that they can come back and have cast aside the choker image carried over the years. Plus, I like their bench, one of the top-scoring benches in the league. Miami has the Big Three, but LeBron James has still to prove that he can win a championship, and he will, but not this season. I'm going against everyone and picking the Mavericks in five games.

Zach Harper, Daily Dime Live: Really don't have any idea which team to pick. There is nobody on Miami who can check Dirk, but there isn't anybody on Dallas who can check LeBron and Wade. We just saw that two stars are better than one in Miami's last series. I'll go with Miami in 6.

Beckley Mason, HoopSpeak: Miami in five. The Heat will ask the same troubling questions of Dallas' older, slower players the Thunder did, but they won't crumble like Oklahoma City did -- twice. Miami has the home court and a coach who can keep up with Rick Carlisle, who will have his work cut out for him protecting Nowitzki from the James/Wade and Bosh pick-and-rolls.

Marc Stein, ESPN.com: Miami is the favorite this time, but I'm going with the last-chance band of 30-somethings from Dallas in six. LeBron will prove me and a nation of skeptics wrong if he can keep draining 3s and midrange J's, but the Mavs are the hungrier, smarter, deeper team. They might be the healthier team, too, if Wade's problems in the Chicago series were health-related, as some suspect. Although the Heat's defense is ridiculously good, they haven't seen a team with the offensive variety and ball movement that Dallas can generate. The sense here is that Nowitzki and Jason Kidd won't allow Dallas to let this opportunity slip.

ESPN.com and the TrueHoop Network
Marc Stein writes for ESPN.com. Henry Abbott writes for TrueHoop. Alfredo Barrios writes for ESPN Deportes Los Angeles. Zach Harper and Beckley Mason write for the TrueHoop Network.
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