May the Best Team Win -- Yes

By Michael Wilbon
Wednesday, June 21, 2006


The Dallas Mavericks wanted us to believe everything but the truth.

They tried to make us think it was the refs who had them in this predicament, down to their last at-bat, their final strike and trailing desperately. They wanted to divert our attention, make us think they were pushed to the brink of elimination because a timeout was called too early, because the zebras missed a Miami back-court violation, because Dwyane Wade was awarded a bushel full of foul shots he didn't deserve. They wanted us to buy into their fantasy -- that their anger plus playing back at home were going to be a cure-all.

The Mavericks wanted us to believe everything except the fact that the Miami Heat is a better team. They don't award championships for being more athletic or having a better bench or playing a more aesthetic brand of basketball. Championships, if things are fairly even between opponents, are earned by teams with the tougher minds, teams with a nasty stubbornness that matches its talent. And while Miami isn't the greatest team to come around in recent years, it has a champion's determination, a champion's will.

When time came to stop whining and start playing, the Mavericks were no match for the Heat in Game 6. All that Dallas anger and the home-court advantage the Mavericks kept touting couldn't stop Miami from winning its first NBA championship here Tuesday night. There will be no Game 7 in the NBA Finals because Miami closed like the champion it is, taking Game 6, 95-92, largely on the strength of another brilliant performance by Wade.

Pat Riley, asked before opening tip-off what he thought about the possibility of having to play a Game 7 on the road, had the only answer a guy with his championship resume could have. Riley said he brought one suit, one shirt and one tie to Dallas. Now, tell the truth. Can you see a man as stylish and as vain as Riley wearing the same suit at back-to-back games?

Apparently Riles did the same thing back in the 1990s and lost Game 6 (in Houston) and had to wear the suit twice. But who here, who on this team, would remember that? Of course, the answer is nobody. Had the Heat lost, I suppose Mr. Armani could have FedExed a suit to Riles from Italy, but Riley had a better way of dealing with packing light:

Win the game. Win the championship right here in Big D and not have to worry about Game 7. Nobody ever wins Game 7 on the road to take a championship. Conference finals? Sure. League championship series? Yes. But not the whole thing.

So while Miami was dealing with the business of winning a championship, the drama surrounding the Mavericks was about Mark Cuban's latest $250,000 fine, how the Mavs would respond for their home fans, and whether stationary exercise bikes were going to survive another poor performance by Dirk Nowitzki.

Typical of an angry team, Dallas got off to a great start, an explosive start. But long-term, it was as effective as a boxer tiring himself out in the first couple of rounds. Dallas went from 10-6 to 18-10 to 26-12. And then, the series MVP, Mr. Wade, went to work. No, he's not Michael Jordan and he'll never be. Wade doesn't have a post-up game yet, which is how Jordan set up so many easy baskets for himself and for teammates out of double-teams. And Wade has no three-point shot to speak of, not yet anyway.

"The comparisons are flattering," he said. "But I try to stay away from them because there will never be another Jordan."

With all that said, Wade is the best player in the NBA at the moment. Kobe and LeBron have more natural talent, but neither is as effective as Wade is now. Neither has Wade's feel for what's necessary on a certain night, on a certain possession. And as a closer, Wade might as well be Mariano Rivera in 2000. Wade, late, is untouchable, even when he's slumped from the fatigue of too many minutes and fighting through too many double-teams and misses two free throws that leave the door open. His final line: 36 points, 10 rebounds, 5 assists and 3 blocked shots. Tell me it wasn't fitting that Wade grabbed the final rebound of the game, off of Jason Terry's would-be game-tying three-pointer just before the buzzer.

The torch must have been passed if we're talking first and foremost about Wade instead of Shaq. And it has been passed. Now, it's Shaq who has to be a support player for a young supernova. Who would have guessed, oh, seven or eight years ago that Wade would be supported by Shaq and Alonzo Mourning? Of all the Miami players, nobody could find this more satisfying than Mourning, who for so many years was the face of the franchise, the star, or at the very least the co-star with Riley.

Mourning became a hero many years ago in Miami because of all his charitable work. He's up there with Dan Marino and Don Shula on the marquee in south Florida. He's become even more exalted these last six years after a kidney transplant likely saved his life. People weep when he shows up to encourage their ill or physically challenged children. They walk up to him in hotels and on the street to tell him they know somebody who could use a phone call or a pat on the back. And Mourning often picks up the phone or stops by a room to say hello.

So, while his life is already full in so many ways, an NBA championship delivered after his glory days must complete him professionally. Late in the night, Mourning delivered a soliloquy so emotional, so grounded in every-day life about just living to be part of something special, that reporters applauded at the end of it. You've never heard anything like it in the aftermath of a game.

Earlier, of course, there was nothing vulnerable or reflective about Zo, not the way he blocked shots, dunked, scowled and flexed. Zo's eight points, six rebounds and five blocked shots, considering the stakes and the circumstances of his life, were a more significant contribution than those 30-point nights, the 20-rebound nights when he was healthy and, yes, menacing. His minutes played and energy off the bench make for some kind of melodramatic but true story.

Of course, the big credit has to go to Riley, who orchestrated the whole thing, from the acquisition of the players, to the hostile takeover that sent Stan Van Gundy packing, to getting them all to play the way Riley wants to play, the tough way, the championship way. Riley promised a championship for Miami when he arrived from New York 11 years ago. And though it took far longer than he thought at the time, Riley delivered. He became only the third head coach in the history of the NBA to win championships with two teams. Alex Hannum and Phil Jackson are the others.

Riley didn't have to call Armani after the game, didn't have to sneak out early in the morning and buy something off the rack to wear at Game 7. He got dressed once, for success, for a championship.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company