Every player in the NBA wants to win a championship.
That statement is almost inarguable. Sure, there are some guys with those proverbial dollar signs in their eyes, who are way more concerned with maximizing their earning potential than hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy come June. But to better rephrase that opening statement, any player that “makes it” to the NBA Finals, wants (and likely feels destined) to win a championship.
This feels like a particularly noteworthy year, when you consider the title desires of the two contending teams—the Dallas Mavericks and Miami Heat. For starters, the league is embarking on the grand finale of a historically great and competitive playoffs, concluding what has been six weeks of memorable series after memorable series. That alone makes it a distinctive accomplishment for whichever team ultimately prevails.
When you consider the two teams facing off, however, as far as their respective personnel and back story to the 2011 NBA Playoffs, the stakes go up even higher.
On one side, you have the Western Conference champion Mavericks, a team so veteran-laden (with zero title rings total) that sports writers will be forced to find different ways this week to say “veteran-laden.”
On the other side you have the Eastern Conference champion Heat, a team that had an “anything less than a title is unacceptable” mentality during the preseason.
In a league where chemistry and collective focus is so important, both the Mavericks and Heat know that the will of every player in this series is significant. The stars—LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Kidd—will have to set the precedent, but role players like Udonis Haslem and JJ Barea can easily be the guys that swing the 2011 championship.
It was Haslem who, five years ago in the NBA Finals, gave Nowitzki enough fits defensively that Dallas never recovered from its Game 3 meltdown in Miami. Barea, on other hand, has been the most improbable hero of these playoffs, driving fearlessly to the hoop against the defending NBA Champion Lakers in crucial spots during Round 2 while also providing the spark in Games 1 and 5 of the Western Finals against the Thunder.
The Mavericks seem to be riding a wave of destiny that defies matchups, age and any other hurdle that’s been in their way these playoffs. I wrote it about it in my previous piece, likening this Dallas team to an aged wine that’s reached its peak of maturity and readiness. No team can make claim to playing “perfect basketball,” but for anyone who’s watched the Mavs these past weeks, the selfish plays and mental mistakes have been far and few between.
Kidd has played some of the most cerebral basketball the NBA has ever seen; a player that many wanted to write off due to deteriorating skills. Yet somehow, in a league overtaken by mutant athletic talents, Kidd has picked his spots and put on a display similar to Mr. Miyagi single-handedly beating up the Cobra Kai in Karate Kid. He has become the Yoda of the NBA, while Nowitzki is the Jedi master who has perfectly honed his craft.
There isn’t much more to say about the 13-year veteran from Germany, who is creeping into the discussion of “all-time scoring greats” off of one magical playoff run, with the biggest prize still at stake. While his fourth-quarter heroics have brought out the attitude on the court, Dirk has held a very reserved demeanor in postgame interviews. He sounds like a man who hasn’t accomplished a damn thing, and knows it.
The Heat are in fact a veteran team themselves, albeit not the collective batch of ringless, bloodthirsty soldiers the Mavs are. While Wade and Haslem have rings, LeBron, Chris Bosh and the team’s well-traveled vets (Mike Bibby, Zydruans Ilguaskas and Mike Miller) do not.
Still, while “anything less than a title” is clearly in play, the Heat do not have a sense of urgency comparable to the ticking expiration date of this current Mavs roster. It may actually mean more to Bibby, Big Z and Miller to get it done now, but the “Big Three” of James, Wade and Bosh would likely only need a few months to recover from the hangover of “2011 runner-up,” if that is inevitably the case.
It’s been a year of adversity for a team that still finished third in the league during the regular season, but the Heat are clearly a different squad than the one that struggled with consistency during the first half of the season. It’s uncertain if something finally clicked, or if the team was just holding back on what has become its winning formula—elite defense and a punishing transition game by LeBron and Wade.
No matter what, the Heat have pushed into fifth gear and will not take their collective foot off the pedal.
So who wants it more in the end? The answer is clearly Dallas, with the question now being, “does it matter?” It isn’t one I can answer just yet, only to say that a victory by the Mavs in this series, against a team led by two of the greatest basketball talents ever, in their primes, will have to go down as one of the biggest accomplishments in team sports history.