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Friday, June 23

   by Larry Ness - 06/23/2006

Heading into this year's Finals, one team had to win its first-ever title, as both Dallas and Miami were both making their first NBA Finals appearance. It turned out it was the Heat, one of the NBA's most unlikely champions since before Bird and Magic entered the league back in 1979-80. Think that statement is a stretch? Then consider this.

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Since the 1983-84 postseason (when the league went to a 16-team format), the NBA title had been won by a team finishing with either the best (including tied for the best) or second-best (again including ties) regular season record 19 times in the previous 22 years! The exceptions came in 1993 (the Bulls owned the league's 3rd-best record), in 1995 (the Rockets were tied for the 10th-best mark!) and in 2004 (the Pistons had that year's 6th-best record).

In this, the 23rd year since the expanded playoff-field, the Heat owned the league's 5th-best regular season record (52-30). During the regular season, Miami was a poor 36-46 ATS, which included a pathetic 9-20 ATS mark after the All Star break. Against the league's four best teams this year (Detroit, San Antonio, Dallas and Phoenix), Miami's regular season record was 1-9 SU and 2-8 ATS. So how'd the Heat win it all?

The Pistons were dominated by the Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals, as they had no answer for Dwyane Wade and no one big enough to stop Shaq. They lost all three games in Miami by 15, 11 and 17 points, averaging a paltry 79.7 PPG while allowing the Heat to make about 55 percent of their shots. In the Finals, the Mavericks collapsed after taking a 2-0 lead and once again Wade was unstoppable.

He finished the Finals with averages of 34.7-7.8-3.8 and averaged 39.3 PPG in Miami's four straight wins. While Shaq was hardly the force he was in previous NBA Finals (carried a 32.6 PPG in 24 games into this year's Finals), he did enough. You could compare his performance to that of Kareem in the Lakers' final two titles of the 80s (1987 and 1988).

As for Pat Riley, this could go down as his greatest coaching job. He entered this year's postseason with the most playoff games of any head coach in history (255) and trailed only Phil Jackson in all-time playoff wins (175-155). His four titles trailed only John Kundla (five) plus Auerbach and Jackson (nine apiece). After Tuesday night's 95-92 win, here's how Riley stands.

He's extended his lead in most games coached to 278 (Phil is at 251) and has closed the gap on Jackson in all-time wins (Jackson has 178 and Riley has 171). More importantly, his five titles ties him with Kundla, trailing only Phil and Red (won't catch them!). He also joins a select three-coach club of having coached two different teams to an NBA title. Phil won six titles with the Bulls and three more with the Lakers plus Alex Hannum won titles with the St Louis Hawks (1958) and the Philadelphia 76ers (1967).

Riley now owns those four tiles with the Lakers and this year's with the Heat. The 18-year gap between titles (last won with LA in 1988), is the longest in NBA history! He also joins Hannum as the only coach to take three different teams to the NBA Finals. Hannum also took the 1964 San Francisco Warriors to the Finals (lost to the Celtics), while Riley took the Knicks to the 1994 Finals (lost to the Rockets).

As for the Mavs, they'll have to live with their collapse. They almost blew a 3-1 series lead to the Spurs in the second round but got bailed out by a very stupid foul by Ginobili in the final 30 seconds of Game 7 (Mavs led by 20 points at one time in that game!). Then in the Finals, they led the Heat 89-76 with 6:34 left in Game 3 (leading 2-0). They went on to lose that game 98-96 and got blown out in Game 4.

The Mavs had plenty of opportunities to win Game 5 in Miami (a 101-100 OT loss) and in Tuesday night's Game 6, couldn't hold the early momentum or make the plays down the stretch in the fourth quarter.

MLB notes

It was "back to the future" for the Rocket last night, as despite a decent effort in his first ML appearance since last year's World Series (five innings pitched / two runs allowed), he got no run support from his teammates. Roger posted a career-low ERA of 1.87 last year but got the sixth-worst run support of any pitcher in MLB in 2005. The Astros didn't score until the bottom of the eighth last night (were down 4-0), losing to Liriano and the Twins, 4-2.

In MLB's other noted "pitching comeback" last night, AJ Burnett of the Blue Jays (first start since 4/21) threw six innings while allowing five hits and two runs (sound familiar?). However, in Burnett's case, his team rallied for two late runs in a 3-2 win. Then again, the Blue Jays were playing the Braves, who have now lost 10 straight games (MLB's longest active losing streak) and 20 of 23 overall.

Close behind the Braves in the "ineptitude department" are the Pirates and D'backs. Pittsburgh lost its eighth straight game on Thursday and the D'backs lost for the 14th time in their last 16 games. On the flip side of the coin, the White Sox got just one hit (a Jim Thome HR) but it was good enough to give them their seventh straight win (longest active winning streak in MLB). Right behind the White Sox are the Red Sox, who enter the weekend with six straight wins.

As IL play continues over the weekend (highlighted by a three-games series in Chicago between last year's World Series participants the Astros and White Sox), the AL continues to dominate, going 77-49 in the 126 games played to-date. The Mariners lost their first IL game last night to the Dodgers (4-2) but lead a pack of four AL teams which are all 8-1 vs their NL counterparts so far. Boston, the Chicago White Sox and Tampa Bay are also 8-1 in IL play entering the weekend (Minnesota is 7-2).

The Rockies are the best NL team so far, posting a 5-1 IL mark but just two other NL teams (Florida and Milwaukee) are above .500 (both are 5-4). Bringing up the rear in IL play are the Braves and D'backs (both 0-6), the Pirates (1-8) and the Reds (1-5). The Angels (at just 2-7) own the AL's worst IL record with Cleveland and Toronto (both are 3-6) also struggling.

Our "pick your poison" game tonight is MLB's lone non-interleague contest, the Pirates at the Dodgers (10:40 ET). Pitching for Pittsburgh is Oliver Perez. Perez is 0-4 with an ERA of 5.08 over his last six starts (team is 0-6). However, a closer look shows worse numbers. He's 0-4 in six road starts this year (team is 0-6) with an ERA of 8.42. The Dodgers counter with Brett Tomko, who enters on a five-game losing streak with an ERA of 11.22!

Ness Notes is available Monday through Friday by 1:00 ET.

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