POWER FORWARD: Dirk Nowitzki vs. Chris Bosh
The greatest 7-foot jump shooter the game has ever seen — and possibly the best European basketball import — Dirk Nowitzki has always been one of the most difficult matchups in basketball. But this postseason, Nowitzki has been the most lethal offensive weapon, with a high release on his jumper that has made him virtually unstoppable. The former league MVP is averaging 28.4 points on 52 percent shooting in 15 games, including two 40-point outbursts in the Western Conference finals against Oklahoma City. Nowitzki has long been criticized for his inability to win the big game but is motivated to no longer be defined by past playoff failures — most notably his collapse in the 2006 NBA Finals against Miami. Dallas native Chris Bosh has been the least heralded of Miami’s Big Three, but he has grown more comfortable in his role as the season has progressed. He came up huge in the Eastern Conference finals against Chicago, as he averaged 23.2 points and topped 30 points twice.
SMALL FORWARD: LeBron James vs. Shawn Marion
South Beach has not been complaining about LeBron James’s decision to take his talents to the Heat. Back in the NBA Finals for the first time since his overmatched Cleveland team was swept by San Antonio in 2007, James suddenly has a worthy supporting cast and is putting together perhaps the best postseason of his career. His numbers have been spectacular — 26 points, 8.9 rebounds and 5.5 assists — but they still don’t capture how dominant the two-time MVP has been for Miami. He has provided crunch-time scoring while dusting off Boston and Chicago, helped erase concerns over the point guard position by being a playmaker, and he shut down MVP Derrick Rose in the conference finals with his suffocating defense. James realizes that he’ll need a championship ring or six before he can deliver on Scottie Pippen’s claims that he “may be the greatest player to ever play the game.” Shawn Marion has helped Dallas overcome Caron Butler’s knee injury by taking on role as defensive stopper while being an opportunistic scorer, as he did while scoring 26 points in Game 5 of the conference finals.
SHOOTING GUARD: Dwyane Wade vs. DeShawn Stevenson
Dwyane Wade’s Finals exploits against Dallas have been well-documented, as he single-handedly led Miami to its first NBA championship and won MVP honors after averaging 39.3 points over the final four games of that series. He has waited five years to return to this stage, but knows that he won’t have to do most of the heavy lifting. He was dynamic in the first two rounds of the playoffs, before letting James take over against Chicago when he developed problems in his left shoulder, but he still had enough to lead Miami through that amazing comeback in the final minutes of the Game 5 clincher. DeShawn Stevenson has plenty of history with James and is on the floor strictly for his defensive intensity but Dallas will accept the occasional three-pointer.
POINT GUARD: Jason Kidd vs. Mike Bibby
Jason Kidd returns to the NBA Finals for the first time since making back-to-back trips in 2002 and 2003. At 38, Kidd continues to make his presence felt on both ends of the floor this postseason as he averaged 9.9 points and 7.7 assists, led all players with 33 steals and spent time guarding Kobe Bryant, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. Bibby hasn’t exactly shot the ball well this postseason — 24.5 percent from three-point range — but has made few mistakes with the ball and sets good screens.
CENTER: Tyson Chandler vs. Joel Anthony
Dallas signed Brendan Haywood to be its starting center last summer, but those plans changed almost immediately after acquiring the 7-foot-1 Tyson Chandler. Chandler has been the emotional and vocal leader of the Mavericks’ much-improved defense with his rebounding, shot-blocking and boundless energy. Anthony is slightly better at blocking shots, but Chandler is better at everything else on the floor and Anthony will likely be on the bench if the game is close down the stretch.
BENCHES: High scoring guards vs. wily veterans
The Mavericks had the most productive bench in the regular season, with their reserves combining to average 40.9 points, mostly from the high-scoring back-court duo Jason Terry and J.J. Barea. They have perimeter shooting with Terry and Peja Stojakovic and a solid defender in Haywood. Miami has had one of the least productive benches all season — 21 points per game — but has found renewed strength with Udonis Haslem and Mike Miller both finally healthy and contributing.
COACHES: Rick Carlisle vs. Erik Spoelstra
Rick Carlisle has molded Dallas into an efficient and adaptable team, capable of playing any style. He devised schemes to throttle fast, athletic teams such as Portland and Oklahoma City and orchestrated a sweep of the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers. Erik Spoelstra is in his third season, but he has held his own this postseason against Doug Collins, Doc Rivers and coach of the year Tom Thibodeau. More important, he withstood a bumpy early patch with James and earned his trust. Neither coach is afraid to tinker with lineups and both have led their respective teams to incredible fourth-quarter comebacks.
PREDICTION: Heat in seven.
Tuesday: at Miami, 9
Thursday: at Miami, 9
Sunday: at Dallas, 8
June 7: at Dallas, 9
x-June 9: at Dallas, 9
x-June 12: at Miami, 8
x-June 14: at Miami, 9
x = if necessary. All games on WJLA (Channel 7), WMAR (Channel 2).