The American Airlines Arena has been turned into a three-ring circus of sorts, with media crawling from wall to wall. At the last open practice in the arena before the Finals start on Tuesday, both the Miami Heat and the Dallas Mavericks came out and took it all in stride. First, the Heat took the court, with the players laughing and joking as they practiced their three-point shots. They even had games going with one another, the rules of which I could not quite pick up. They then were shuttled to various interview locations to be pestered and prodded by overeager sports nuts, myself included, until the Mavericks made their way onto the court for their turn in the media frenzy.
The players from Dallas looked relaxed and ready to get started, patiently humoring the journalists' sometimes asinine questions until the media trickled off onto the sidelines to allow practice to begin. The Mavs, much like the Heat, were in good spirits, ribbing one another and putting on a show for the reporters who remained. They began their workout up and down the court, stretching and jogging, looking limber and hungry. The loudest voices among them were that of Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Kidd, upon whom all eyes seem to be set for this series. When they broke into groups at either end of the court to begin their shooting drills, the two teams, blue and white, were yelling encouragement to one another as they competed to see which team could reach 25 made shots first. It was refreshing to see the players so ready, so eager to start perhaps the greatest challenge of their careers.
This Miami Heat team has faced more scrutiny from the media, and the sports world in general, than perhaps any team in recent history. When asked about how they made it to this point so quickly, despite much of the world wishing failure upon them, Chris Bosh was candid in saying, "We came here, we sacrificed, to come here to compete for a championship." There was no other motivation behind the construction of the big three than to win it all. And yes, they had their struggles. When Dallas played them early in the season, and swept them, the team was not clicking as they are now. They dealt with injuries and adjustment periods just like any other team, but they did so under a microscope. Now that they've made it to the ultimate stage, the team appears confident and ready to prove that they made the right decision.
As for the Mavericks, Jason Terry provided his usual verbal flare when asked about his confidence in this team. "We’ve been here before. Realistically, you’ve got to be confident to be able to do what you’ve done to this point. To get this far, and to know that you’re four games away from doing something great, you got to have a confidence about you", Terry said. He credited Tyson Chandler with sparking much of that confidence, both on and off the court. When I asked Chandler if he was reluctant to play with his usual passion because of all the technicals called (and subsequently rescinded), he told me, "I gotta play with the energy I always play with. I can’t stop regardless of what the situation is. I play smarter, though. Try to stay away from altercations." That may prove tough when two of the players he'll be forced to stop are experts at getting calls in their favor.
We, as Mavericks fans, we wish our star, Dirk Nowitzki, would receive the same seemingly preferential treatment from referees, but we know that instead we'll have to rely on his greatness to win the games. No one on either team seemed convinced that any one person could guard Dirk, and Jose Barea was under the impression that nothing could stop his big friend."They tried everything. They trap him, they front him, they come from the baseline on him, they come from the top, I've seen it all. But he's experienced and he's seen it all too, so he's ready for everything", Barea said. Even Udonis Haslem, who was known in 2006 as the "Dirk Stopper", realized that, "Things that worked in 2006 are not gonna work in this series." Let's hope they're both right.
When asked about beating the Heat, the Mavericks players were adamant in their notion that they have to stop the transition offense. As Dirk noted, "You can't give them anything in transition. That's when they're tough...they're so fast, one or two dribbles they're at the other end laying it in." In addition, the bench that was so effective in the first three series will prove invaluable if they can continue their run of excellence in the playoffs. I spoke to two of the quieter bench players, Peja Stojakovic and Corey Brewer, about the importance of being ready to come in at a moments notice and change the game. Peja told me, "We all have to stay ready when our name is called and step on the court and try to be as effective as you can." And poor Corey, ever smiling, said, "I’m just looking forward to getting in the game. It’s all about getting on the court, so I’ll guard everybody if I have to."
The overall sentiment that I gathered from observing and listening to the Mavericks is that they are as ready as they will ever be to win it all. With so many veterans who have come so close but never quite made it, the desire must be almost unbearable. Shawn Marion put it best: "These are the times you don’t sleep because you’re thinking, you’re dreaming about basketball, you’re sweating it, and you’re living it right now and this is what it’s about right here." With any luck, when this series is all said and done, their dreams of hoisting the Larry O'Brien trophy will also be their reality.