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Steve Aschburner

Dirk Nowitzki (right) and LeBron James (left) were all smiles during Saturday's practice in South Beach.
Photos vis Getty Images

Teams tread, talk lightly heading into Finals' last leg

Posted Jun 11 2011 8:06PM

MIAMI -- Pat Riley, president of the Miami Heat now but head coach back then, disclosed after his team's championship-clinching victory over the Dallas Mavericks in Game 6 of the 2006 Finals that he had packed just one suit, one shirt and one tie for the trip to Texas. In other words, he wasn't planning on a Game 7 or sticking around two more days in Dallas to reach it.

It seemed appropriate, then, to ask Dallas coach Rick Carlisle how he had packed for this back end of The Finals' 2-3-2 format. Five years later, the Mavericks are in the same position Miami was then: A 3-2 lead in the series, heading into the other guys' building for one or, if necessary, two cracks at nailing down their franchise's first title.

Had Carlisle packed for a short trip or a longer one?

"I've got a lot of respect for all of you," Carlisle told the assembled reporters. "I feel like I've gotten to know you well. But I don't believe at this point I'm ready to share the number of pairs of underwear I packed."

Hmm, good point. Carlisle's TMI meter is better than the media's. Besides, it's worth noting that Riley didn't reveal his roll of the wardrobe dice until after the Heat had claimed the championship with a game to spare. It would be more foolish than cool to go public now with such info, which immediately would get whipped into a broadcast-and-Internet frenzy over a) arrogance or b) trepidation.

Carlisle wasn't stepping into that Saturday. And neither was anyone else from the Finals participating teams.

Oh, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Dirk Nowitzki got a little sideways when pressed to address a YouTube video that showed the Miami stars mocking Nowitzki for his "sick" game in Game 4 (101-degree fever). James ducked the issue, Wade tried to spin it and Nowitzki sneered a little before shrugging it off. "This is the NBA Finals," the Dallas forward said. "If you need an extra motivation, you have a problem."

No one, we'll presume then, has a problem with what's left of these Finals.

Already, it has played out as a keeper through five games, with white-knuckle finishes, home run plays, crafty coaching adjustments (Carlisle going to J.J. Barea looks equal parts gutsy and genius right now), the continuing saga of James and his Giant Legacy and the fact that the two teams are separated by four points.

That's an average of 0.8 per contest, thanks to field-goal percentages that are within 0.003 -- Miami 44.7 percent, Dallas 44.4 -- across a total of 730 attempts in 240 minutes. There have been 44 lead changes and 50 ties.

Heat coach Erik Spoelstra came in talking about "mental stability" and used the phrase "stay the course" more times than Dana Carvey doing his George Bush I impersonation in expressing that Miami needs to keep doing what it has been doing. Neither he nor his players indicated any significant changes were in the offing.

"We know we can make minor judgments to win these ballgames," Wade said.

Said Spoelstra: "We're doing enough good things to put ourselves in a position to win. I think the bigger issue for us is we have to close. And that's something we have a great deal of confidence in. We've been through a lot of different type of scenarios where we've had to win games defensively, we've been able to close out games with great execution."

Closing out games, though, shifts the spotlight to James, whose minimalist fourth-quarter play has people questioning him every which way, from his assertiveness to his shot selection. Even his triple-double stats line in Game 5 (17 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists) got tastes-great, less-filling treatment because it came in a loss.

"He does not have to answer to other people's opinions or the critics or the expectations," Spoelstra said. "He has to help us win. That's the most important thing. ... Of course we want him to be aggressive, want him to have an attack mentality, want him to be involved in the fourth quarter. We'll look to do all of these things [in Game 6]. But we're confident, he's confident, and he knows how to help us win."

James brings this on himself, certainly, with his talent, his free-agency decision that alienated some and ballooned expectations of others, and his "Now or never!" Tweets and "biggest game of my life" pronouncements. He tried to boil things down some Saturday.

"The things that you can't control [are] the ball going in for you or you playing extremely well every single game," the Heat forward said. "The game doesn't happen like that. I have to do what's best ... to help put our team in a position to win ballgames. That's the only thing I can control."

The Mavericks were exercising their own brand of caution and simplification. After getting the offensive explosion they had craved all series to win Game 5 -- scoring 112 points, shooting 56.5 percent overall, hitting 13 of their 19 shots from the arc -- Carlisle and his players wanted to be careful not to stray from the defensive discipline that had been vital through the first four games.

Carlisle talked of "some sobering things" that had shown up in Dallas' video review. "We gave up 53 percent shooting," he said. "Our percentage of contested shots was down significantly. ... Those are things where you look at it, and even though you won the game, you have to be self critical enough to understand that that kind of effort moving on to the other venue and in lieu of another crazy shot making night, you're going to need to play defense better. And we're going to."

Dallas also was being careful not to exhale, treating this end trip to Miami as a "two-to-win-one" breeze. Lose the first one, they might find themselves losing two, along with their best last chance at a title, along with their dreams.

"We did a good job in the first couple of rounds, always kind of keeping our edge," Nowitzki said. "We stole two games in L.A. and came back and still were able to win a big Game 3 at home." And Game 4 for a sweep, and Game 4 at Oklahoma City to take a commanding lead in the Western Conference finals.

"In these playoffs, one win or one loss can switch the whole momentum," Nowitzki added. "You don't ever want a snowball to start. I don't allow myself to sit back all of a sudden and be satisfied."

Nor do you let anyone peek into your suitcase to see how much you packed.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA for 25 years. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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