From a low in Dallas, Heat rise to Finals

CHICAGO – Before Mark Cuban let his superstars be the story this season, the owner of the Dallas Mavericks commemorated the Miami Heat’s lowest moment with his favorite kind of lecture: the I-told-you-so. There was one more Heat loss coming on that late November night, a 40-minute closed-door meeting of discombobulated superstars, and Cuban wanted everyone to remember his summer prophecy.

“Before [LeBron James(notes)] made his decision, what I told him was – and what I told Maverick [Carter] – was that no team had ever blown up their team … and then added a couple free agents and won a championship,” Cuban told reporters. “It's always taken someone coming from a good team to make it better and put them over the top.”

The Heat were 9-8, reeling, lost, and perhaps Cuban and the Heat would’ve never imagined that night was a prelude to a monstrous meeting in the NBA Finals. These Miami Heat and Dallas Mavericks played like they were dying to meet again, like magnets were pulling them closer and closer.

Here was Game 5 for the Heat in the Eastern Conference finals, and here was the Heat’s season: a disjointed, dispirited stupor transforming itself into sheer genius. Out of nowhere on Thursday night, out of the deafening din of the United Center, out of the anticipation of an uneasy trip back to Miami for Game 6, James and Dwyane Wade(notes) gathered themselves and obliterated the Bulls with a ferocious, furious flurry within the final four minutes. Down 12 points, and it happened again:

From James’ 3-pointers to Wade’s four-point play to the smothering of MVP Derrick Rose(notes), the Heat left the Bulls a stunned, crumpled mass of failure. Out of nowhere, the Heat won 83-80. Pat Riley’s vision had been validated: Three stars had ruled the East, and now, Riles had to return to where he had gone in 2006 to finally get that parade down Biscayne Boulevard in Miami: Dallas.

“What’s today’s date – the 26th?” James said. “I say we’ve got about a month left, about a month left of continued hate.”

Sometimes they’ve made it so easy for everyone to feel such dark, brooding emotion for them. Sometimes they’ve invited it, embraced it, considered it a companion on the championship chase. James is the epicenter, but here’s something we always knew: Winning would change everything. Everything. It always does and it always will. There’s no scrubbing of his public image as cleansing as victory.

“I understand a lot of the backlash that came at me going to Miami,” he said.

And he understands that the redemption from his narcissistic final months in Cleveland, his beginning in Miami, requires an NBA championship. Perhaps only one player has been his peer in these playoffs, and it’s Dallas’ Dirk Nowitzki(notes).

This time, Nowitzki awaits Miami with better teammates, a better coach and a better blueprint for championship basketball. He’s been the best scorer in these playoffs, but James has been the best player. James' best basketball has come in the biggest moments, and his defense on Rose to end Game 5 was spectacular again. He trapped him, turned him over and closed out the series. James let Rose keep his MVP trophy but took everything else in this series.

Cuban tried to make Nowitzki his 1A star this summer, but James wanted South Beach over South Fork. For them, there’s a measure of redemption that comes with meeting the Heat again. Cuban was an ungracious loser five years ago, and should’ve watched the way Nowitzki handled the meltdown to Miami. Dirk’s regret was over his own performance, never the officiating.

And in that way, Cuban never gave the Heat the proper respect they deserved for winning the title. He blamed it on the officials, declaring that a 2-0 series lead had been blown on the disparity of whistles, on Wade’s parade to the free-throw line. For the rest of the NBA, for those who want to see the Heat fail, the Mavericks represent the last line of defense. Nowitzki and Jason Kidd(notes) will be the thirtysomething sentimental choices to beat Miami, but sentiment doesn’t go a long way with James, Wade and Chris Bosh(notes) bearing down on you. Eventually, they were destined to figure out this partnership. Outside of Miami, everyone hoped it wouldn’t be until next season.

Everything changed for them on a late November night in Dallas, where they were blown out, where they were flatlined at 9-8 and the doors shut for 40 minutes in the visiting locker room. Looking back, so much of the angst and acrimony of those times strengthened the Heat for the playoffs. Everything hadn’t come as easily as they expected, and that ultimately fortified them for moments like those in the United Center late Thursday.

The I-told-you-so out of Cuban won’t come with the Heat in these Finals, but his Mavericks. They’re a last-chance, desperate basketball franchise trying to beat back advancing age to finally raise a banner in Dallas. Nowitzki has been spectacular in these playoffs, closing games with the kind of resolve and resplendence that suddenly illuminates James.

These Heat have obliterated the Boston Celtics and Chicago Bulls, obliterated Mark Cuban’s prophecy. Now they come to Game 1 on Tuesday night on the shores of Biscayne Bay with an unmistakable mandate: Win it all, or watch the nation rejoice in their failure.

Some kind of burden for some kind of NBA Finals.