MIAMI With Miami trailing Dallas 2-0 in the 2006 NBA Finals, Dwyane Wade took charge for the Heat and carried them to four straight wins over Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavericks for the team's first and only title to date.
Five years have passed since Wade scooped the 2006 NBA Finals MVP award but the Heat guard believes Nowitzki was a different and better player now going into a Miami-Dallas finals rematch starting with Game One on Tuesday.
"I thought he was good then, now he's phenomenal," Wade told reporters on Monday as the teams continued preparations for the opener of their best-of-seven championship series.
"Obviously the shot-making ability is one of the best this league has seen. But I think what he's gotten better at is taking over games in the fourth quarter," the Heat said about the 7-foot jump-shooting German.
"And what's phenomenal is he's very efficient. You see a game with Dirk, he's 8-for-14. He just makes big shots. So I think he's a smarter player. I think he's a hungrier player and even a more efficient player than in '06."
The Heat, however, are also a different proposition these days.
Wade partnered with big center Shaquille O'Neal during the 2006 title run. Now he has joined forces with twice league MVP LeBron James and center Chris Bosh to form a Big Three this season that has rivals fearing a dynasty in the making.
Blending their talents took a while, and the Miami trio had their growing pains early in the campaign as they struggled to find the formula to win close games at the death.
Those hiccups were all smoothed out by the playoffs, as evidenced by an amazing 18-3 finish that catapulted them from a late 12-point deficit to the elimination of regular season-best Chicago Bulls in Game Five of the Eastern Conference finals.
"A lot of games may come down to the execution at the end of ballgames," Wade added. "It came down to that late last series. We won those games in the fourth quarter, when it counted.
"We understand we got players and playmakers that can do that. They (Dallas) have a lot of them as well, with their ability to shoot the ball, with their ability to move the ball around. With their unselfishness.
"If it come down to that, you have two teams that are primed for it."
Wade said the Heat's early struggles helped give them strength when they needed it most.
"We went through it all regular season, we went through our bumps and bruises, and ups and downs," he said. "You kind of figure it out eventually."
(Writing by Larry Fine in New York, Editing by John O'Brien)