Unfinished Business
by John Schuhmann
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SECAUCUS, NJ, Jan. 19, 2006 -- I said this to my fellow writers here earlier in the week and Charles Barkley echoed my thoughts last night on TNT: The Dallas Mavericks are on a mission.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006. AmericanAirlines Arena. Game 3. Fourth quarter. Devin Harris hits a shot in the lane to cap a 6-0 run. The Mavs led 83-71 and have outscored the Heat 40-19 in the second half. Pat Riley calls timeout. I turned to my left, where Jeff Dengate and Rob Peterson were sitting with me at the top of the arena.

"We're going home on Friday, fellas," I confidently predicted. "No weekend in South Beach."

To my right, Brad Friedman said that the Heat still had a shot. There was still time for them to come back and take Game 3.

"No way," I exclaimed. "This series is over." And as we continued to debate the issue, I think I used the word "over" five or six more times before action resumed on the floor.

Seven months later, I refuse to give Brad any credit and I refuse to say I was wrong. The series was over. It was going to be a sweep. The Mavs had dominated the series up until that point. Shaquille O'Neal was invisible and Dwyane Wade was relatively human. The real Finals was the Mavs' second-round series with the Spurs.

But they choked. That's right. I said it. I was covering the Mavs during the Finals and I never wrote that word in June, but I certainly thought it after Game 3, after Game 4, after Game 5 and after Game 6.

I won't go into the details of Miami's 22-7 run to end Game 3, but thinking back, Dirk Nowitzki's missed free throw stands out more to me than Gary Payton's jumper. Maybe it's because I was covering the Mavs, and I don't want to take away from what Dwyane Wade did in that series, but I've always thought that the Mavs lost the 2006 NBA Finals more than the Heat won it. Dallas was the better team.

And while Games 4 and 6 both went down to the wire, the series was lost in Game 3. The next day, they talked the talk, but they never did walk the walk after that.

Fast forward to today. After an 0-4 start, the Mavs have won 33 of their last 37 games, an .892 clip. Extend that over 78 games and you get 69.6 wins, which is eye-opening to say the least. They've built a 5 1/2 game lead on the Spurs, who were the favorites of a lot of "experts" (including this one) back in October.

Sure, the Suns are even with the Mavs in the loss column, and yeah, Bill Simmons thinks they're great, but Dallas beat them both times they have met so far this season.

And while Greg Buckner (who, not coincidentally, wasn't with the Mavs last June) has thought about the regular season win total, you can be sure that it means nothing to Avery Johnson or to most of Buckner's teammates.

Check out Jerry Stackhouse's blog. Take note of what he writes about the Rockets and the Lakers, how the Mavs wanted payback for a couple of earlier losses. They withstood an early barrage from Tracy McGrady on Tuesday and they smoked the Lakers, who had just won in San Antonio, last night. Smoked 'em.

Now, think about what must be going through their minds as they fly to Miami for Sunday's game (1 p.m. ET, ABC). Sure, the real prize is still five months away, but putting a hurting on the hurting Heat would a nice drop of Neosporin on the wound that is the 2006 NBA Finals.

Of course, the Heat are a different story this season. Shaq has been out for more than two months and Pat Riley joined him on the shelf a few weeks ago. Dwyane Wade missed six games and even though they've won five of six since Flash has returned, they're still two games under .500, tied for the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference.

But Shaq could be back Sunday. And while the Diesel knows it's key to "veteran-ly pace ourselves" during the regular season, the Heat know that now is the time to get back over .500 and into the mix for a higher seed.

Still, I have a hard time believing that Miami will be nearly as motivated as their opponent. And I have a hard time believing that I'll be anywhere but Dallas come June 7. Which would be fine with me, because there's a basketball court in our hotel, right below our office.

I have some unfinished business to take care of too.

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