In Games 2-4, a potentially game-winning shot was in the air when the clock expired. In Game 5, the score was tied 100-100 with 3:00 left.
The Finals are rarely this competitive. There’s been a Game 7 only twice in the last 15 years -- Boston/LA in 2010 and Detroit/San Antonio in 2005.
A seven-game basketball series is like a championship fight: teams begin the series probing for weaknesses, then adjustments and counter-adjustments are made until one side is out of moves. And just like in boxing, styles make fights. While both Miami and Dallas are excellent defensive teams, each has a glaring defensive hole the other can exploit at will.
Miami's 3rd-ranked defense is anchored by their two perimeter superstars. LeBron James, at 6’9 270 with a 7’0 wingspan, and Dwyane Wade, at 6’4 220 with a 6’11 wingspan, have made multiple All-Defensive teams at the small forward and shooting guard positions. In many ways, the were put together to defeat Boston, whose two leading scorers are a SF (Paul Pierce) and a SG (Ray Allen).
They have two defensive vulnerabilities: seven-footers who can score on the block and point guards who can use their speed to create shots off the dribble. None of Miami’s main big men -- Joel Anthony, Chris Bosh and Udonis Haslem -- are over 6’10, while neither of their point guards -- Mario Chalmers and Mike Bibby -- have great lateral quickness.
Dallas’ leading scorer -- Dirk Nowitzki -- is a 7’0 with a near unstoppable back-to-the-basket game. And after Nowitzki, the Mavs with the highest playoff usage ratings are the 6’2 Jason Terry and the 5’11 JJ Barea.
In contrast, Dallas’ defense is built from the inside-out. Getting out of the West means defeating San Antonio and the Lakers, who have won 12 of the last 14 Western Conference titles. So the Mavs stocked up on low-post defenders, adding the 7’0 Brendan Haywood and the 7’1 Tyson Chandler in the last two years and paying them nearly $20 million this season.
But because neither Terry or Barea is a natural point guard, Dallas has to play a small back-court to close out games, usually the 33-year old Terry and the 38-year old Kidd. That leaves room for only one stand-out perimeter defender in their end-of-game line-up, so if a team has two offensive-minded wings, the Mavs have to assign the oldest guard in the NBA to one of them.
Since Barea’s insertion into the starting line-up in Game 4, Dallas’ best two perimeter defenders -- Shawn Marion and DeShawn Stevenson -- have played a total of three minutes together. That’s left Kidd alone on an island against the best shooting guard of his generation.
So where Dallas is most vulnerable defensively, Miami has a first-ballot Hall of Famer. And in the one spot in the line-up where the Heat don’t want the ball, the Mavs have a first-ballot Hall of Famer of their own.
As a result, neither team is ever out of a game, not when they can always count on Wade or Dirk to create an easy shot or force a double-team. Wade has averaged 28 points on 58% shooting in the series, while Dirk scored the Mavs last 9 points in Game 3 and last 12 in Game 4.
It’s a striking contrast to last year’s Boston/LA Finals, which was evenly matched because both teams had elite defensive stoppers for the other’s main offensive weapons. LA won Game 7 83-79, shooting 41% to Boston’s 32%, with 2010 Finals MVP Kobe Bryant shooting 6-24 and 2008 Finals MVP Paul Pierce shooting 5-15.
To return to the boxing analogy, Boston and LA were counter-punchers who couldn’t get a clean shot at each other. Dallas/Miami is Mickey Ward vs. Arturo Gatti, two guys with no choice but to step into the center of the ring and throw hay-makers for 10 rounds. They’re leaving everything on the floor -- in the 92nd game of the season, LeBron played an incredible 46 minutes, while Dirk, Kidd and Chandler all played 40.
These Finals have the whole package: an insanely competitive series (with 4 out of nearly 1,000 points being the difference) that features a staggering amount of talent involved on both sides (3 Hall of Famers in the prime of their career) playing for broad historical stakes. The story-lines write themselves: a chance for redemption for the oldest team in the NBA, looking for a title after 11 straight 50+ win seasons and a chance for vindication for the most hated team in the NBA, who could begin a dynasty of their own.
And if you listen to some in the media, that barely scratches the surface: “The history of every sports championship is until now athletes melding together in pursuit of a common purpose. LeBron James is in danger of ruining that, and thereby must be stopped from winning. This is not simply Mavs vs. Heat. This is the ideal of sport. We are all Cleveland.”
You’ve got to go all the way back to the Lakers-Celtics and Lakers-Pistons Finals in the 80’s to find something as compelling as a Game 6 and 7 in Miami. The final round looms, and every player involved will have to dig deep, deeper than they ever have before, to answer the bell and go once more into the center of the ring.