Mavericks Have Early Edge in NBA Playoffs

The Miami Heat seek to rebound Sunday from an opening loss in game one of the best-of-seven NBA finals. Can Shaquille O'Neal and Dwayne Wade prevail against Dirk Nowitzski and a seemingly boundless Dallas Mavericks' bench? Scott Simon and Ron Rapoport discuss the matchups.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Time now for hoops. The Miami Heat were the merely tepid in the first game of the NBA Finals this week, defeated by the Dallas Mavericks 80-90. The Finals resume tomorrow night in Dallas. It's the first time that either team has made it to the Finals.

Joining us now from Chicago, our own big man, Ron Rapoport. Ron, thanks for being with us.

Mr. RON RAPOPORT (Commentator, NPR News): Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: So didn't one of us say that Dallas would reach the Finals? I forget who.

Mr. RAPOPORT: You dog, you. You finally won one. Way to go.

SIMON: Actually, I picked them for the whole thing, of course. And you picked...

Mr. RAPOPORT: Well, you're not going to turn your back on them now.

SIMON: Absolutely not, no. So, but look, I mean Miami's got Shaquille O'Neal. They've got Pat Riley on the bench. Or not on the bench, although he'd be willing to get in there. But he is the coach striding in front of the bench, as a matter of fact.

So how does Dallas wind up taking the first game by, you know, a good size margin?

Mr. RAPOPORT: Very simple, very simple, Scott. They stopped Shaquille O'Neal. And that's indicative of what to expect the rest of the way. If Shaq plays well, the Heat wins. If not, not.

In every one of the Heat's three previous series, Scott - against the Bulls, the Cavaliers, the Pistons - there have been games when O'Neal has struggled. Has missed the shots, has looked really frustrated. And you say to yourself while you're watching, ah, they've figured out how to stop him. But then a night or two later, he looks just invincible and the Heat will win.

So it really all comes down to Shaq. And tomorrow's game is so important. If Shaq plays well, Miami wins on Dallas's court. The tide shifts in a big way, cause the Heat will have won on the road. If he struggles to get his shots off, misses eight freethrows in a row again, the way he did Thursday, the Mavericks will feel really energized when the series moves back to Miami.

SIMON: Thank you for managing to answer that question without once using the word momentum. I want to mention a couple of Mavs. Obviously Dirk Nowitzki has become a big man at center. And, of course, Jason Terry, the Jet, scored 32 points the other night.

Mr. RAPOPORT: Thirty-two points, four three-pointers, and Nowitzki had kind of a bad game. So this is series where I think there's going to be a lot of changes. Nowitzki's going to play well at some point, Dwayne Wade is a wonderful player, Shaq is going to establish himself.

And Pat Riley, you know, he really wants this one because he took a lot of heat during the season when he essentially fired Stan Van Gundy and replaced him with himself. Talk about placing your reputation on the line. But he obviously thought the team could play better and he was right. Win the championship and it'll be one of the great achievements of his career.

SIMON: You have to note how many European and non-American players are coming into the game really into their own, aren't they?

Mr. RAPOPORT: Well, but that's the way the league has changed, isn't it? I mean, it's just been a big change that nobody really would've expected 10 or 15 years ago. The internationalization of basketball has really caught up with the NBA in a big way.

SIMON: Okay. Thanks very much. Ron Rapoport. And it's now 22 minutes before the hour.

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