Things looked pretty bleak for the Miami Heat after the first two games of the 2006 NBA Finals against the Dallas Mavericks. Pat Riley and his crew had dropped the first two games of the series on the road by double-digit margins. In Game 1, his team, led by Shaquille O’Neal and Dwayne Wade barely reached 80 points, while Miami fell 99-86 in the second game. Things weren’t looking any better at home in Game 3 when Riley called a timeout with about six minutes left. Riley delivered a silent, but highly effective, message.
The Miami Heat were more than just Shaq and Wade
Shaquille O’Neal and Dwayne Wade were the centerpieces of the Miami Heat, but the team had a veteran presence throughout its lineup. There was a lot of experience in Miami so dropping the first two games on the road was, although not desirable, not a time for panic.
Surrounding O’Neal and Wade were veteran players such as Antoine Walker, Alonzo Mourning, Gary Payton, and Jason Williams. Riley referred to his group as ‘15 Strong’ and that was their motto throughout the season.
Fifteen Strong showed that rookies, veterans, and anything in between could come together and be successful. The Heat finished first in the Southeast Division that year with a record of 52-30. Miami was the second seed in the Eastern Conference behind the Detroit Pistons, who finished with an NBA-best record of 64-18. The Heat went on to defeat the Pistons 4-2 in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Dirk Nowitzki led the fourth-seeded Mavericks to the NBA Finals
After sweeping the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round of the playoffs, the fourth-seeded Mavericks found themselves in a dogfight with the top team in the Western Conference, the San Antonio Spurs.
The Spurs led the Western Conference with a 63-19 record, while the Mavericks finished the regular season at 60-22. The Mavs had the second-best record in the Western Conference, but the Phoenix Suns (54-28) and the Denver Nuggets (44-38) were divisional winners. The Suns and Nuggets were the second and third seeds. Dallas went on to beat the Spurs in seven games and then knocked off the Suns 4-2.
While the Heat had Shaq, Wade and a host of veterans, Dallas may have had the best player on the court in Dirk Nowitzki. That season, Nowitzki, a 7-footer from Germany, averaged 26.6 points per game, nine rebounds per contest and shot 51 percent from the floor and 90 percent from the free-throw line. The series featured two teams playing in their first NBA Finals for the first time in 35 years.
Pat Riley’s message to the Miami Heat
Trailing 2-0 in the series and finding themselves in danger of dropping three straight games to the Mavericks, Riley called a timeout midway through the fourth quarter. He didn’t say a word to his players.
“When we came home [after Game 2], everything changed. I think everything changed in the middle of the fourth quarter…ready to go down 0-3. I remember calling a timeout with just over six minutes to go in the game and writing on my pad, ‘Our season is on the line.’ That was it. I just left it there and the players were looking at it, read it and Dwyane Wade stood up and he cursed and he said, ‘I ain’t going out like this.’”
Although Wade went on to score 12 of his team’s final 22 points, it was Gary Payton who hit the game-winning basket that saved the series for Miami. The Heat then won the next three games to win the series 4-2.
“We ended up beating them at the wire with a Gary Payton jumper just to get us off the schneid,” Riley said. “With about nine seconds to go, Dwyane didn’t make the play, Shaq didn’t make the play. It was 15 Strong, man. So the ball ended up in Jason Williams’ hands. He put his head down, dribbled into the middle of the lane, penetrated as deep as he could and kicked it to Gary Payton with about nine seconds to go and Gary just raised. He raised and made a jumper; the score was tied at the time. Then at the other end of the court, Dirk Nowitzki, God bless him, he missed a free throw, and after a Wade free throw, we ended up winning the game by [two]. That got us off the schneid and got us rolling into Game 4.”