When Miami signed Chris Bosh and LeBron James in July last year, not only sports fans but the world sat up and took notice. The best player in the league changed teams of his own volition and took deserved heat (oww ... unintentional pun) for leaving his hometown club for beaches and booty. And rings.
When the Heat filled out their roster with a few role players - Mike Miller and Udonis Haslem - and a series of stiff big guys like Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Juwan Howard, Jamaal Magloire, Erick Dampier and Joel Anthony, they were the popular tip to make the NBA finals even though their squad wasn't originally built for this year. Their start was slow - what would you expect with three new major cogs? - but as the 2010-11 NBA regular season rounded to a close, the Heat had gathered speed to the point where they dominated East playoff opponents Philadelphia, Boston and Chicago.
Of Dallas, it seems only Jason Terry really believed the team was destined for the NBA finals. Their playoffs have been a symphony conducted by Dirk Nowitzki and with feature solos from Terry and mighty mite Jose Juan Barea. The squad, hard and veteran, have coped admirably with the loss of starting SF (and likely LeBron stopper) Caron "Tuff Juice" Butler. They ploughed through Portland, the Lakers and Oklahoma City on their way to the rematch.
Rematch, because the teams met in the 2006 Finals. Only four players remain from those squads - Nowitzki, Terry, Dwyane Wade and Haslem; but the hurt still encompasses the Mavericks organisation. Much of the backroom staff remains the same and it's an easy bet that Mark Cuban wants an NBA Championship so badly he can taste it. But it's not the popular rematch that league observers throught we were getting: before the playoffs started, most analysts predicted a Chicago/Los Angeles decider, harking back to the twentieth anniversary of their 1991 encounter, a series which launched "Michael Jordan ... oh ... spec-TACK-ular move", a rain of John Paxson threes and the last games in Magic's first Lakers stint.
Nobody wanted this finals match outside Florida and Texas because, quite simply, the Heat are the bad guys (see WWE Superstar Chris Bosh at 2:15 - so schlock it's funny) and Dallas, until the playoffs, were seen as the "same old" - a veteran squad with minimal personnel changes from an ultimately unsuccessful 2010 campaign. As rematches went, the ones people thought likely were Lakers/Bulls, Lakers/Celtics and perhaps even Bulls/Blazers. But not the Mavs and the Heat. That both clubs have managed to proceed to their current peak is testament that really, nothing beats experience - or all-timers playing out of their collective skins, as LeBron and Dirk have.
As much as the Heat are nigh-on unstoppable, the popular vote will swing to Dallas. For redemption (game six, 2006, the infamous game brought into question by disgraced referee Tim Donaghy), for popular star Nowitzki, who's dominated the Western Conference playoffs and cohort Jason Kidd who has toiled for seventeen years without a Championship. Finally, they'll be favoured just because they're not the Heat. The South Floridians became the league's arch-enemy so fast thanks to that gaudy opening ceremony and the kerfuffle surrounding "The Decision" that it would take another Kobe case to dethrone them. A ring would start the process, but only increase the target on their backs next year (if there is one).
Predictions: Going with the head rather than heart here - Dirk and JJ Barea dominate just enough offensively for designated Wade and LeBron stoppers to do the same (just enough) to get the Mavericks through in seven.
Thanks to Bill Simmons for spec-TACK-ular phrasing & Chicagonow.com for the photo.