Heat of the Moment
Wednesday, June 21, 2006
DALLAS, June 20 --Shaquille O'Neal arrived in Miami two summers ago emerging from a diesel truck, playfully squirting fans with a water gun and assuring fans that he would deliver a championship for the Heat. He was only half right.
O'Neal won his fourth NBA championship on Tuesday night, as the Miami Heat closed out the Dallas Mavericks in Game 6 of the NBA Finals with a 95-92 victory, but he was by no means the ringleader, the dominant force who bulldozed through opposing defenses and wreaked havoc. He quietly scored nine points and was relegated to the bench in foul trouble, with a towel over his shoulder, most of the night.
When Mavericks point guard Jason Terry's potential game-tying three-pointer rimmed out just before the buzzer, the man most responsible for this title -- Dwyane Wade -- grabbed the rebound. Wade tossed the ball toward the rafters and howled. The Heat players stormed the court, none bouncing higher than 36-year-old Alonzo Mourning, the gritty veteran who fought for 14 years -- and recovered from a near-fatal kidney ailment -- to reach this pinnacle. O'Neal chased down Mourning then embraced him, the two giants bobbing hysterically with joy. The finals, once O'Neal's playground, now belong to Wade. "I made that promise because of D-Wade," O'Neal said. "He's the best in the world."
The Heat may have lacked the athleticism and overall skill of the Mavericks, a 60-win team in the regular season. But it had Coach Pat Riley, who had previously guided the Showtime Lakers to four NBA championships. It had O'Neal, who won three consecutive titles (and three NBA Finals MVP awards) with the Lakers. And, more importantly, the Heat had Wade. He was virtually unstoppable as the Heat won the final four games, willing his team to thrilling comeback victories with a 42-point performance in Game 3 and 43 points in Game 5. He scored 36 points and grabbed 10 rebounds on Tuesday and was named NBA Finals MVP.
"I have never had a player like this," said Riley, who coached Magic Johnson. "I have not been around a player who can absolutely, at times, beat five guys, and then at the same time make great plays to players. Dwyane is probably one of the most respected young players this game has had in a long time. I think he proved a lot in the last four games."
With the Mavericks trailing 93-90 with 26 seconds left, Dallas Coach Avery Johnson drew up a play for his star forward Dirk Nowitzki. Nowitzki caught the ball from above the three-point line, but when he drove inside, O'Neal came to help Udonis Haslem (17 points, 10 rebounds). Nowitzki then threw the ball to Erick Dampier. Dampier lost the ball to Wade, then wrapped him up for a foul. Wade stopped, glared at the fans behind the Mavericks' basket and stomped to the foul line to seemingly put the game out of reach. He missed two free throws with 10.3 seconds left, but Terry's miss meant that he didn't have to worry about it.
"I can't wait to get to Miami, man," Wade said, smiling at the podium afterward.
The parade on Biscayne Boulevard that Riley promised the city when he took over as coach and team president 11 years ago is coming. Riley returned to the bench after a two-year coaching hiatus to replace Stan Van Gundy, who stepped down Dec. 12 for "family reasons." Riley took considerable heat for reworking his team in the offseason, acquiring Antoine Walker, Jason Williams, James Posey and Gary Payton and practically establishing an all-or-nothing proposition for his team. But those moves paid off in the postseason. Walker scored 14 points with 11 rebounds in the series clincher; Williams had a huge Game 6 in the Eastern Conference Finals against Detroit; Payton hit clutch buckets in Games 3 and 5; and Posey provided solid defense on Nowitzki and nailed a huge three-pointer and a runner in the lane in the final four minutes on Tuesday.
"We're a team that never complained about nothing that happened. We lost 30 games, we lost Shaq for 18 games early in the season. We were a team that didn't have an identity and then we had a coaching change so we had to switch then," Wade said. "We knew inside what this team was built for. That's what makes this sweet. No matter what in the locker room, it was always 15 strong."
The Heat became the third team to come back from a 2-0 deficit to win the NBA Finals, joining the 1977 Portland Trail Blazers and the 1969 Boston Celtics.
Miami returned to Dallas with a 3-2 lead and Riley in a situation reminiscent of 1994, when he took the New York Knicks to Texas with two chances to get one win against Houston. The Rockets won the final two games to win the series. Riley said he wasn't even thinking about a Game 7 in Dallas when he boarded the charter flight from Miami on Monday. "I packed one suit, one shirt and one tie," Riley said before the game.
As he sat on the podium, hair soaked in champagne, Riley folded his wet tie and said to himself, "That'll go well on eBay." Then, Riley took time to reflect on the moment. "I would give up six [championships] for this one," said Riley, who won his first title since 1988 to become the fourth coach with at least five championship rings. "It's not disrespectful to any of them that I won. But after 18 years, and chasing, you keep chasing it, you get tired. So this gives me a sense of absolute freedom."
The Mavericks were the deeper and more talented team, but despite dethroning the champion San Antonio Spurs and slowing down the Phoenix Suns -- teams with superior records to the Heat -- they appeared too immature to grasp the challenge at hand in the Finals. The Mavericks won the first two games of the series and city officials were already preparing a parade through downtown. But they will likely be smarting over how they blew a 13-point lead with 6 1/2 minutes left in Game 3, didn't show up for Game 4 and suffered from miscues, miscommunication and an absolute meltdown after Game 5. "This is going to really hurt this summer," Johnson said.
Nowitzki led the Mavericks with 29 points and 15 rebounds. Mourning had eight points and six rebounds and took a sip of champagne for the first time in six years. His kidney ailment had forced him to give up alcohol. "My doctor will give me a doctor's note for this one," said Mourning, who became the first Georgetown center to win a title.