Five things to watch for in the Finals

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12 seasons in, Dirk Nowitzki is playing the best basketball of his career

His victims so far in the playoffs have included Lamarcus Aldridge and Marcus Camby, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, and the supposedly formidable front of Ibaka/Collison/Perkins.

In all cases Dirk Nowitzki has decimated them, entering the Finals averaging 28.4 points and 52% from both the field and beyond the arc, along with 7.5 rebounds, just under three assists, half a steal, and half a block per game. Oh, and he’s shooting 93% from the free throw line. As Dirk goes, so do the Mavericks, and so far that relationship has worked out swell.

His play during Dallas’ amazing 15-point comeback in the fourth-quarter of Game 2 cemented his status the NBA’s most potent late-game performer (although you could have made that argument three years ago and it would be valid). Was there ever any doubt that Dirk’s shots were going to drop as that game wound down? When Nowitzki got the ball in isolation with only Chris Bosh covering him in the dying seconds tied 90-90, the fear among both the Heat fans and players was palpable. Dirk has found a way to get it done all through the playoffs, and clearly he’s not about to stop now.

The other guys

There are three players in this series that can single-handedly control the outcome of any given game. But outside of Nowitzki, LeBron James, and Dwyane Wade, the supporting casts will be crucial, which of course is awful news for the Heat, who have to rely on big minutes from the likes of Mike Bibby and Joel Anthony.

Chris Bosh has been exorcising some demons and playing well, but outside of that Miami is pretty weak. Dallas, for their part, has the deepest bench in the league and gets significant production from every player. Shawn Marion and Jason Terry were electric down the stretch in Game 2 (Marion, in particular), and when the Mavericks bench is rolling, they are an impossible to stop. On that note:

Be afraid of J.J. Barea- very afraid.

At least that’s what we’re left to believe the Miami Heat personnel are thinking after Coach Eric Spoelstra revealed before Game 1 that LeBron James will, at times, be guarding the Mavericks 5’11” sparkplug. “If you don’t treat [Barea] with the same type of respect as we did with Derrick Rose he can really come in and have an impact on the game,” Spoelstra told ESPN.com on Monday.

That’s right, not only is he drawing comparisons to this year’s MVP, but Miami is actively game-planning around the Mavericks back-up point guard. And for good reason—Barea has been a revelation throughout the playoffs. He is only averaging 8.9 points in the playoffs, but it’s a loud 8.9 points.

Barea’s always shown flashes of his abilities, unleashing a surprising arsenal of moves, albeit only in the shortest of stretches. This past month, however, Barea has gained the trust of his teammates and coaches and seems to have put it altogether, aided by the perfect role as a player asked to come off the bench to provide some scoring, disrupt the opponents’ defensive schemes, and not much else.

He hasn’t made his mark on the series yet, but he will. We talked about it a few weeks back—this Mavericks team is great at masking the flaws of certain players with the strengths of others.

LeBron James.

No big deal- he’s just the best player in basketball who, like Dirk, is right now at the best we’ve ever seen him.

Dwyane Wade.

If anyone in the NBA is better than LeBron, it’s Dwyane Wade. Forget all the rest—Kobe, Chris Paul, ‘Melo, Durant, D-Rose, Howard, Stoudemire—nobody is better than James and Wade. On some days it looks like LeBron is clearly the most dominant player in the game, and then all of a sudden Wade will get two steals, a block, a couple of dunks, and take charge in the span of two minutes. So there it is—the two best players in the NBA are playing on the same team against the league’s pre-eminent crunch-time scorer and his flock of wily cronies. If the first two games are any indication, this is gonna be a lot of fun.

Dave Zarum is a basketball writer from Toronto. When he’s not writing about the
NBA, Dave trains his dogs to chill on command, and is currently working on a comprehensive Early ’90s Baseball Movies Guide. Deal with it, Maltin. You can
find some of Dave’s works at torontolife.com or 4three.wordpress.com

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