With the acquisition of Shaquille O’Neal in 2004, the Miami Heat became immediate contenders. The franchise had previously lost in the 1997 and 2005 Eastern Conference Finals, but in 2006–with the return of Pat Riley to the bench as head coach early in the season–the Heat looked to finally turn the corner. They won 52 games in the regular season and entered the playoffs as the number two seed. In the first round Miami outlasted the Chicago Bulls in six games, and in the conference semifinals they defeated the New Jersey Nets in five games. The Eastern Conference Finals again pitted the Heat against the Detroit Pistons–a team that had won a league-best 64 regular season games. Miami took an early 3-1 series lead with two road wins in Detroit and finally punched their ticket to the NBA Finals with a victory at home in the sixth and final game.
The Dallas Mavericks had previously lost in the Western Conference Finals twice as well (1988, 2003), but in 2006 they won 60 games, the third-best record in the league. MVP candidate Dirk Nowitzki led Dallas into the playoffs as the four seed (due to not winning their division). In the first round the Mavericks swept the Memphis Grizzlies, setting up a conference semifinal birth against rival San Antonio Spurs–number one seed in the Western Conference and defending champions. Dallas took an early 3-1 series lead but dropped the next two to set up a seventh, deciding game. Nowitzki converted an and-one lay-up at the buzzer, and the Mavericks won in overtime to move on in a surprising upset. In the Western Conference Finals, Dallas defeated the Phoenix Suns and MVP Steve Nash in six games to reach the franchise’s first NBA Finals.
The Heat started newly acquired point guard Jason Williams in the back court alongside third-year All-Star shooting guard Dwyane Wade. Former Celtic Antoine Walker was the starting small forward in the front court alongside power forward Udonis Haslem and 2005 MVP runner-up Shaquille O’Neal at center.
Miami’s bench was relatively thin, with future Hall-of-Fame point guard Gary Payton backing up Williams, guard/forward James Posey backing up both wing positions, and two-time Defensive Player of the Year Alonzo Mourning backing up O’Neal at center. Shandon Anderson, Michael Doleac, and Jason Kapono all played few minutes in the NBA Finals.
The Mavericks’ starting back court was comprised of Jason Terry at point guard alongside Devin Harris–a second-year player who earned the starting shooting guard spot halfway through the NBA Finals. In the front court, Josh Howard started at small forward next to MVP candidate Dirk Nowitzki at power forward and Desagana Diop at center.
Off the bench, Dallas utilized former All-Star Jerry Stackhouse, Marquis Daniels, and regular season starter Adrian Griffin as reserves on the perimeter. Erick Dampier served as Diop’s primary backup at center. Newcomer Keith Van Horn played sparingly in the NBA Finals for the Mavericks, as did Darrell Armstrong, Didier Ilunga-Mbenga, and Josh Powell.
Game One: Heat 80, Mavericks 90
The Heat were giving the favored Mavericks trouble at home, leading after the first quarter by eight, but Jason Terry proved to be the difference-maker in the series opener. With 20 first-half points and a game-high 32, Terry brought Dallas back over the final three quarters to secure the game one victory. Wade led the Heat with 28 points of his own, but free throw shooting proved to be Miami’s demise–O’Neal and Wade shot 7/19 from the line, the only two Heat players to attempt a foul shot. Nowitzki came alive in the second half to help Terry with a double-double to offset the combined 62 points from Wade, Walker, and O’Neal.
Game Two: Heat 86, Mavericks 99
The Mavericks orchestrated defensive adjustments before game two focused on shutting down O’Neal entirely, and it worked. The Heat center attempted only five shots in 28 minutes and was completely ineffective. Dirk led the way for Dallas with a team-high 26 points as the Mavericks coasted to the victory after building a 16-point lead at the half. Stackhouse contributed a clutch 19 points off the bench to coincide with Terry and Howard’s combined 31 points as the Mavericks now held a 2-0 series lead. Wade led the Heat in scoring with 23 points, but Miami now faced a must-win game three to get back into the series as they headed home.
Game Three: Mavericks 96, Heat 98
The Heat appeared to be much more comfortable back at home and led after the first half by nine-points, carried by the duo of Shaq and Wade. Dallas climbed back into the game on Nowitzki’s shoulders in the third quarter, however, and eventually built a thirteen-point lead of their own halfway through the fourth. Desperate to avoid a third loss, Wade sparked a Heat comeback late in the game with four clutch baskets. With the game tied at 95, Gary Payton faked a jumper and stepped in to drain his only field goal of the night. After Nowitzki missed a huge free throw and Wade made one on the other end with one second left, Dwyane tipped away a lob attempt to seal the victory. Wade exploded for 42 points and 13 rebounds to lead Miami, and Nowitzki’s 30 points fell by the wayside as the Heat won their first game of the series.
Game Four: Mavericks 74, Heat 98
Rejuvenated by their game three victory, the Heat again came out strong with a double-digit lead at halftime. Their defense clamped down on the visiting Mavericks, forcing the team to shoot under 32% as a whole–Nowitzki contributed only two made field goals. Miami held Dallas to an NBA Finals low seven points in the fourth quarter, and Wade again finished with a marvelous 36-point performance. Shaq chipped in a double-double, and Walker and Posey added a combined 29 points. Terry led Dallas in scoring with 17, but the series was now tied at two games apiece with one more remaining in Miami.
Game Five: Mavericks 100, Heat 101 (OT)
The closest game of the series thus far saw the Heat take a nine-point lead into halftime, but the Mavericks again climbed back in the third. Wade struggled out of the gate making only 3/13 shots to start, but he ramped it up in the fourth with 17 points in the quarter, including a testy bank shot to tie the game and send it to overtime. In the extra period, Payton converted a tough, driving lefty lay-up with under a minute to take a one point lead. After Nowitzki connected on a long two pointer, Wade drove into the lane and was fouled on the shot attempt. Dwyane made both free throws to give the Heat a one-point lead, and Harris’ prayer at the buzzer was off-target. Wade again exploded for 43 points, 21 of them coming at the foul line, and Shaq had another steady double-double. Terry, Howard, and Nowitzki combined for an incredible 80 points, but the Mavericks now faced elimination with series headed back to Dallas.
Game Six: Heat 95, Mavericks 92
Needing a win to force a game seven, the Mavericks came out strong and led by seven after the first quarter. The Heat responded, however, and reclaimed the lead by halftime behind Wade’s 12 second quarter points. The game was tightly contested in the second half, but timely baskets kept Miami ahead. Trailing by three with under ten seconds left, Jason Terry’s attempted game-tying shot bounced off, and the Heat clinched the franchise’s first championship. Finals MVP Dwyane Wade finished game six with 36 points, 1o rebounds, 5 assists, 4 steals, and 3 blocks to cap off a legendary four-game stretch. Haslem and Walker combined for 31 points and 21 rebounds to help out Miami. Nowitzki led Dallas in scoring with 29 points, but Terry shot poorly making only 7/25 shots.
Despite the emergence of Dwyane Wade, the Heat underwent a shocking turnaround within two years to the league’s worst record. Miami would eventually climb back into contention in the East with former assistant Erik Spoelstra as head coach. The Heat emerged as a championship favorite after signing free agents LeBron James and Chris Bosh in 2010 and would reach the NBA Finals again in the All-Star trio’s first season together in 2011.
The Mavericks would post the league’s best record in 2007 with 67 wins, earning Dirk Nowitzki the league MVP. Despite their regular season success, Dallas became the first number one seed to lose in a seven-game series in the first round when they fell in six to the Golden State Warriors. Numerous roster and coaching changes allowed the Mavericks to remain contenders, and they would finally reach the NBA Finals again in 2011, looking for revenge against the Miami Heat.