MIAMI — One last chance for mankind. . . .
No, it's not Godzilla, King Kong, Frankenstein, Dracula or Norman Bates' mother, but the Miami Heat, the most hated, hyped, mocked, given-up-for-dead ratings magnet the NBA ever had the good fortune to see unjustly accused.
If NBA fans might root for alternate life forms against the Heat, like the one with all the teeth that pops out of John Hurt's stomach in "Alien," one last champion for Our Kind remains standing. . . .
Say it ain't so, Jerry Buss.
Cuban, whose rage at the NBA machine may have drawn in his own players during their 2006 Finals
El Foldo defeat by Miami, kept a discreet silence as the Mavericks went 12-3 in the West, flattening the Lakers and everyone else in their way.
As a fan in Chicago told the Mavericks' advance scout after the Eastern Conference finals:
"Good luck. You're America's Team now."
The series is being billed as LeBron James versus Dirk Nowitzki . . . no small compliment for Dirk, whose career seems to have begun again at 32.
Having averaged 32.2 points in the Western finals against Oklahoma City, his high in any playoff series, he's now supposedly a sentimental favorite in more places than Dallas and Deutschland.
Actually, if he's perfectly likable, you didn't hear much about the empty place in his heart until he became the latest foil for James.
Now he's America's Favorite German Sharpshooter!
Of course, fans might root for the monster in "Predator" with the dreadlocks and insect mandibles against James.
Nevertheless, there are signs the world is softening on LeBron . . . now that he's four wins from his first title after dominating the Eastern finals, which featured two more of the game's best players, Derrick Rose and Dwyane Wade.
(Personally, I still have Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard in the top group with them, Chris Paul and Deron Williams right there, with Blake Griffin likeliest to join them, ahead of Nowitzki and Kevin Durant, great but relatively one-dimensional scorers.)
It has been an eight-month 23-day trip for James, since going from America's Phenom to America's Ground Zero in the time it took to say, "This fall I'm going to take my talents to South Beach."
Take my talents became a national punch line, as in Paul Pierce's tweet after the Celtics' early-season win in Miami:
"It was a pleasure taking my talents to South Beach."
Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson said they wouldn't have done that to win a title.
Showing how hard it hit him, James, who thought he'd be hailed for taking less money and doing the TV show to benefit Boys & Girls Clubs, tweeted:
"Don't think for one min that I haven't been taking mental notes of everyone taking shots at me this summer.
"And I mean everyone!"
Lost in the exploding turmoil and skyrocketing ratings, the media had it backward.
Rather than selling out Cleveland, where he had already played two more seasons than he had to, James' plan was to stay, confident he could get someone -- like Wade or Chris Bosh -- to join him.
Says a friend of James, of the run-up to "The Decision":
"They were going through with their bike-a-thon, his charity thing. They were saying it was so easy there with his mother, his children, the house -- the compound, they called it.
"Eventually he saw himself as this icon in Ohio, monuments and all that sort of thing. He wanted the LeBron James name to linger on, scholarships and stuff.
"This was like Michael Jordan in Chicago, the statue and all that stuff. LeBron dreamed of having the statue like Michael. They wanted him to be like the buckeye.
"I think one day LeBron woke up there that week and said, 'No one is coming, what the hell am I doing here?'"
James' life and the Heat's season became a series of controversies:
James bumped into Coach Erik Spoelstra as they started 9-8, which was taken as a sign LeBron was down on his 40-year-old-looks-18 coach.
(In a better sign, ESPN's Chris Broussard, one of the closest media people to LeBron, reported that Heat players had doubts about Spoelstra.)
James missed several last-second shots, setting off a national debate on how clutch he was, as Wade began taking more of those shots.
After losing at home to the Bulls as the team spun out in March, Spoelstra's throwaway line -- "A couple of guys are crying in the locker room right now" -- started the No Crying in Basketball Controversy, aimed chiefly at Bosh.
But that was then, if only eight weeks ago, and this is now.
If fans may always hate the Heat, as they hate teams from New York and Los Angeles, and the Celtics, they had better get behind their Mavericks.
As easy as it will be to upgrade the Big Three's bedraggled supporting cast, this is the Mavericks' and the Heat haters' last best chance.
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Dallas 106, Miami 95
(Nov. 27, 2010 @ Dallas)
Caron Butler and Dirk Nowitzki combined for 45 points and Tyson Chandler and Shawn Marion each scored 14 for Dallas, which handed Miami a fourth loss in five games. The Heat fell to 9-8 overall, as LeBron James (23 points) missed 14 of 19 shots.
Dallas 98, Miami 96
(Dec. 20, 2010 @ Miami)
Jason Terry scored all of his 19 points in the fourth quarter and Dallas ended Miami's winning streak at 12 games. Dirk Nowitzki scored 26 and the Mavericks won their 14th consecutive regular-season game against the Heat. LeBron James had 19 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists but made only six of 17 shots.