No, it may not be a rivalry in the traditional sense of the word, but you’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise.
Generally, the word is reserved for two teams with years of playoff history and all the emotional baggage that comes with it.
Heartbreak. Scars. Scabs that can’t fully become scars because they keep reopening.
Dallas-Miami doesn’t quite resonate the same way Knicks-Heat did, or Boston-LA does.
Well, not to people outside of Dallas anyway.
But make no mistake about it, this series will be personal. There’s just too much at stake.
The playoffs shape our opinions of players. The Finals cement them.
Dirk Nowitzki knows this all too well.
He is only recently overcoming what 2006 did to him. “Choker,” the last label any player wants, was regularly attached to his name.
Losing in the first round the following year didn't help either.
It took the best basketball of his 13-year career the past month and a half for many of us to finally be able to look past the still-fresh ’06 visuals.
The missed free throws. The “Haaaaasslehoffffffff” chants. Being manhandled by a smaller Udonis Haslem. The four straight losses.
By the same token, his phenomenal play the past three rounds won’t matter at all if Nowitzki again gets taken out of his game by Miami’s defenders.
The question is can he be?
So far, no one has been able to.
He’s gone against defenders that on paper have all the requisite physical dimensions to bother him.
The lanky 6-foot-11 LaMarcus Aldridge in round one stood no chance.
Nor the lithe Congolese pogo stick, Serge Ibaka, last round.
Then of course there was the Lakers’ tandem of Ron Artest and Matt Barnes, just the type of tattooed tough guys that used to get in Nowitzki’s head.
Even with two seven-foot Lakers behind them, they proved no match for Nowitzki and did little to stop the sweep.
Why? Because his game has evolved.
If you’ve caught any of the ’06 games on replay this week—and considering they always seem to be on, it’s hard not to—the differences in Nowitzki’s game are immediately noticeable.
Back then, he was for more perimeter-oriented.
Nowitzki would often catch the ball near the three-point line and try to either get past his defender or simply settle for a contested shot.
That dirk was allergic to the post.
Now he routinely catches the ball with his back to the basket where he can unleash an array of shoulder fakes and half-spins to get his defender off balance.
And if that doesn’t work, he can always settle for his illogically-accurate one-legged fade-away jumper.
Put simply, Haslem’s ’06 approach will not be nearly as effective. Others have tried it and failed.
But try he will. Of any defender in the league, Haslem certainly has the biggest mental edge over Nowitzki.
Almost equally as difficult of a challenge, but for completely different reasons, will be the task of stopping Dallas’ diminutive, yet highly effective, Puerto Rican point guard, JJ Barea.
The five-foot-eight Barea has torn defenses to shreds in these playoffs.
For some reason, even the most athletic guards like Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook cannot stay in front of him.
When he plays the two-man game with Nowitzki, defenses are in no-man’s land. Opposing power forwards cannot afford to sag off Nowitzki, so Barea almost always gets the half-step he needs to attack the rim.
It’s been their most potent play, something that would have seemed ludicrous to just about anyone only a few months ago.