Admit it. This is not what you were expecting from the NBA Finals.
Sure, Miami was bound to be here. Boston was too old and injured. Chicago had promise, but when the Bulls mustered up 75 points in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals, it was clear the Heat’s Big 3 would be one of the final two.
But Dallas? Come on. San Antonio won 61 games in the regular season. The Spurs have more than a little experience panning for Larry O’Brien gold. And of course, there are the two-time defending champions in Los Angeles. When the NBA’s engraver gets bored in the fall, he etches L-A-K-E-R-S on the base of the trophy. There’s a pretty good chance he won’t have to redo it in the spring.
This matchup between the Mavericks and the Heat is about expectations. Miami has been trying to live up to some big ones since LeBron James arrived on a one-way flight from Ohio. Dallas has been trying to live them down at least since their 2006 Finals loss to a different Heat squad, if not longer.
The last time the Mavs missed the playoffs was after the 1999-2000 season. That’s some pretty impressive consistency, but perfect attendance in school doesn’t mean you get straight A’s, and Dallas is still title-free after all these years. But here they are in the NBA Finals, dueling the Heat to a draw in four somewhat sloppy, but superbly exciting games.
Maybe it’s the fact that the clumsy, televised unveiling of the new Heat lineup made it easy (and fun) to root against Miami this season. Or maybe it’s just Dirk Nowitzki’s time. Whatever the reason, it has suddenly become cool to appreciate Dallas’ Big 1 and his many talents. The Mavs’ sweet-shooting seven-footer is like David Robinson, pre-Tim Duncan. Everyone liked Robinson and his excellent game, but the dreaded “can’t-win-the-big-one” label was starting to settle in until Duncan arrived and bailed him out.
As Nowitzki’s playoff appearances have piled up and the championships haven’t, he too has taken flack. In the past few years, the Mavs have been viewed as non-threatening, pedestrian playoffs participants. And Dirk’s reputation as the can’t-get-it-done guy has been growing, even though he’s the only reason Dallas has ever been close to getting it done.
But now, after winning a must-win Game 4 (no NBA team has ever come back from a 3-1 Finals deficit), Nowitzki has a chance to change all that. If the Mavs manage to win it all, Nowitzki playing through a fever to beat the Heat will become the stuff of NBA lore.
Meanwhile, the Heat are dealing with expectations of their own. In Cleveland, LeBron James had a reputation for not closing out big games, but this season his solid postseason performances were starting to seem routine. Then in Game 4 he put up a stat line that didn’t require all of your fingers to tally.
Yes, Dwyane Wade has been predictably terrific and Chris Bosh has looked steady and sometimes stellar for most of the postseason, but Miami’s burden is about much more than just individual performances. This team was orchestrated for an immediate title run. It’s the NBA’s version of Manifest Destiny. Anything short of a championship will be a stinging embarrassment punctuated with “pride goeth before a fall” pronouncements from across the land.
Don’t expect James to have any more 8-point, 4-turnover nights, but if he does, Dallas will likely go home with the title, and Dirk’s post-season reputation will change while LeBron’s stays the same for at least another year.
Game 5 is tonight in Dallas. It took some unexpected developments to get here, but now expectations are very high.