The NBA is at its best when the drama becomes almost theatrical, which makes the championship series between Dallas and Miami a keeper. Through the first five games, it has been the series with pretty much everything.
There have been defining moments on the court, provided mostly by Dwyane Wade. There's a shrinking superstar, Dirk Nowitzki, hoping a return home will enable him to get his groove back. There's a controversial suspension that may hint at a shift of philosophy that appears to be changing the league.
There's serious complaining about the officiating, conspiracy theories being put forth (again), head coaches going at each other.
There even is a signature game, Miami's overtime victory in Game 5 on Sunday night, which besides being one of the great games in recent Finals history could be what turns the competition just a little contentious. Miami Coach Pat Riley said Sunday night's game might be the best he has ever been involved in, and it's a little easier to say that when your young star, Wade, scores 43 points, including the shot off the glass that takes it to OT and the free throws that win it.
The Mavericks were a little less magnanimous about Game 5, right down to Nowitzki's tantrum afterward, which, given its awkwardness, was more comical than menacing. Nowitzki tried to bust up some stuff en route to the locker room but fell short of really hitting anything, just the way his shot has for most of this series. Even so, the NBA fined Nowitzki $5,000 for kicking the ball into the stands before heading for the locker room and is reviewing video of owner Mark Cuban running onto the court to vent at official Joe DeRosa, before staring down and screaming at Commissioner David Stern. Whoa, Nellie.
If anger has anything to do with the outcome, then the Mavericks will be just fine, at least for tonight's Game 6 in Dallas. They believe that Wade was not fouled with 1.9 seconds left in overtime and therefore should never have been awarded what turned out to be the game-winning free throws. They believe Wade should have been whistled for a back-court violation in the inbounds play that preceded the foul.
And they believe the referees should have waited until after the second Wade foul shot to award Dallas a timeout, which would have allowed the Mavericks to throw the ball inbounds from midcourt instead of from the far baseline in the final 1.9 seconds.
So, let's address these one at a time.
Wade was fouled. There are photos that show conclusively he was hacked on the right arm as he went up with the ball. Was it Nowitzki who fouled Wade, as the referees said? No, it was Devin Harris who grabbed Wade's right arm. It was a foul, period, and Wade deserved the free throws, both of which he made.
Should Wade have been called for over-and-back? It's inconclusive from the television angles that have been made available.
Should the officials have waited to call timeout after the second Wade free throw? Yes, absolutely. As one 15-year-veteran pointed out yesterday, referees are flexible with timeout calls all the time. Avery Johnson, though he should have called his players over to the bench instead of being so demonstrative, was nonetheless screaming to his players to call timeout "after the second free throw." NBA coaches, the veteran player explained, never use timeouts to freeze shooters. No coach would call timeout after the first of two foul shots, and the referees know that.
So throw those Dallas objections on top of a suspension to sixth man Jerry Stackhouse and you've got conspiracy accusations breaking out, which is an NBA playoff staple. In most of these scenarios, the NBA and its television partner (in this case ABC) are supposed to be in cahoots to make certain the team with the biggest stars (read: Miami) gets favorable treatment . . . or at the very least gets favorable treatment until the league can squeeze every cent possible from a prolonged series, one the league hopes will go the full seven games.
The Mavericks are angry because they believe that an eligible Stackhouse would have meant the difference between returning to Dallas up 3-2 vs. returning to Dallas down 3-2, and they could be right.
Stackhouse, in my opinion, shouldn't have been suspended because his hard foul on Shaq wasn't premeditated like James Posey's rundown of Kirk Hinrich or Raja Bell's clothesline takedown of Kobe Bryant or Reggie Evans of Denver grabbing the crotch of the Clippers' Chris Kamen. Anyway, there's a bigger issue here.
All those "hard playoff fouls" that old-school players talk about having issued or suffered in the 1980s and 1990s . . . the NBA is legislating those fouls out of the game. Thus, the league suspended Stackhouse.
One league official told me the NBA isn't going back to the '80s and '90s and has zero tolerance for the kinds of physicality recent ex-players romanticize. The league strongly prefers, we're told, teams that play the way the Suns, Cavaliers, Wizards, Bulls and Dallas — yes, the Mavs — play. The NBA wants a quick, athletic, fast-paced, artistic game that is fan-friendly. The increased TV ratings are in and bump 'n grind basketball is out.
That doesn't mean, however, that as many as two more championship games between Miami and Dallas won't produce some nasty confrontations.
Riley and Johnson, without naming each other, have taken their shots.
Everywhere the Mavericks turn, their manhood is now being questioned, perhaps even by their coach, who moved them out of their luxury hotel on stylish Brickell Avenue in downtown Miami and about as far from South Beach as possible. Johnson even insisted the Mavericks players have roommates before Game 5.
It's a thrilling NBA production: star players and demonstrative coaches embroiled in controversies one day after another, and now the ultimate bit of drama — the possibility starting tonight that somebody we're so invested in will be eliminated.