- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 20, 2006

The Mavericks are now the ones on the edge of despondency.

They are now the ones with inadequate answers after dropping all three games to the Heat in Miami.

No one — absolutely no one — thought the Heat would win all three games there, especially after the Heat looked overwhelmed in the first two games of the NBA Finals.

This unexpected swing contradicts the conventional wisdom, as has been the case all too frequently in the playoffs.

Even in the largely predictable first round, the depleted Suns overcame a 3-1 deficit to the Lakers, the fashionable pick of many going into the series.

Who could have imagined the Heat being one win from the championship after watching their uninspiring actions in the first four games of their series with the Bulls?

The Heat are not a huggable team, not with their assortment of castoffs and geezers assembled by a coach who has been out of fashion since John Starks shot 2-for-18 in Game 7 of the NBA Finals in 1994.

Pat Riley has wobbled between dolt and genius in this series, according to those who extrapolate the outcome of one game, or two, and come to grandiose conclusions in order to be heard above the din of the 24/7 media marketplace.

Riley, win or lose, has been vindicated by the Heat’s resilient performance in the playoffs.

Riley dismantled a team that was only a Dwyane Wade injury from advancing to the NBA Finals last season. And he dismantled it by adding the questionable forms of Gary Payton, Antoine Walker and Jason Williams. And, of course, the opportunist in him overruled the decency in him in the poorly handled matter of Stan Van Gundy.

There is no evidence to suggest Van Gundy could not have led the Heat to this point, except Shaquille O’Neal wanted the championship validation of Riley on the sidelines and his wants no doubt have contributed to the Heat being where they are.

A satisfied player is always preferable to a questioning one.

As favorable as it now appears for the Heat, the lesson of these playoffs reveals that just when you think you know something to be true, the next game shows how little you really know.

The Mavericks are the apparent stronger team, if only because they were in position to win two of the games in Miami and the Heat performed abysmally in the first two games in Dallas.

This would suggest the Mavericks remain the favorite in the series, despite their 3-2 deficit. Their unproductive trip to Miami is concluded, and they merely have to defend their home floor to claim the NBA championship.

This is where the lesson of these playoffs is apt to intrude.

The Heat have not been especially impressive on the road in these playoffs at 4-6. But they don’t have be all that formidable on the road at this point to win the championship. They just have to muster one relatively complete effort to oust a team that was about six minutes away in Game 3 from closing the door on them.

The onus is on the Mavericks, and on Dirk Nowitzki in particular, going into Game 6 tonight.

The leading players of championship-seeking teams do not have to be compelling in each game.

But they usually must seize a game or two, as Wade did in Miami, to put their teams in position to win a series.

Nowitzki has done that in the previous rounds of the playoffs.

But now he is not driving to the basket or posting up smaller defenders as often as he did in the previous rounds, and that explains his sub-standard shooting percentage (37.3) in the series.

If Nowitzki can regain his equilibrium, the series will go to the Mavericks.

If not, O’Neal will be in a much more favorable position to deliver on his championship promise after being traded to the Heat two summers ago.

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