BRIAN MAHONEY,AP Basketball Writer
MIAMI (AP) — Even those critics who hated “The Decision” might understand why LeBron James made it.
Or maybe they don’t, because so few of them bothered to watch the 2007 NBA finals.
James was a one-man team swatted away by three great players, his Cleveland Cavaliers held to the worst offensive performance in finals history and swept aside by the San Antonio Spurs. The series drew the worst TV ratings ever and ended with James admitting his team was simply overmatched, that nothing could have been done to change the outcome.
That led him to Miami for a partnership with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, and the promise of multiple championships. Less than a year after coming together, they have a shot at their first when they face Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks in a series that starts Tuesday night.
“I know what this league is all about, about having multiple guys on the court that can dominate a game,” James said Monday. “With teaming up with these guys, I feel like we can compete for a lot of years to come. We’ve proven a lot of people wrong so far. We have a lot of work to do still.”
And this time, people will be watching James — even if only in hope of seeing the Heat humbled after their theatrics of last summer.
“It’s probably going to get the highest-rated finals, maybe ever. Just because of what they were assembled to do, and then the team that we have, I think it makes for great TV,” Dallas guard Jason Terry said.
James’ free agency announcement didn’t. His televised special was blasted throughout the league, and his popularity tumbled further when the Heat celebrated winning the championship of July with a scene that was part pep rally, part rock concert.
It cast him in the villain role, but James only cares about the result.
“You know, we’ve got a lot of flack this year, mostly because of myself. And we’ve tried to use that as motivation every day we get on the basketball court,” James said. “But just play the game of basketball. That’s all we can do is play the game of basketball at a high level. Play Miami Heat basketball.”
Five years after Wade largely overwhelmed the Mavericks by himself to win the Heat’s first championship, the teams arrive at Game 1 of the rematch through decidedly different constructions.
The Heat essentially sacrificed seasons for salary-cap space, making the playoffs through Wade’s greatness but with no realistic chance of winning. The gamble paid off in July, when James and Bosh agreed to come and Wade committed to stay, giving Miami the Nos. 1, 2 and 3 players on perhaps the greatest free-agency list in NBA history.
Nowitzki’s name was on it, too, and he even said he would have listened if James and Wade had tried to recruit him. His preference was to remain in Dallas, as long as owner Mark Cuban would do what it takes to give the big German another shot at a ring.
“Ultimately, that’s where my heart was at. I almost felt like we had unfinished business after ’06,” Nowitzki said. “Had a great meeting with Mark there, free agency. All I needed was reassurance that he was going to keep going and keep building around this team, and keep putting all his resources for us to hopefully be up there one day. We’re here again at the big stage. Hopefully we can turn it around this year and finish strong.”
With reliable role players such as Jason Kidd, Terry and Shawn Marion but no defined second scorer, the Mavericks arrived in the postseason as an afterthought, maybe even a first-round upset loser to Portland.
Instead, a stunning sweep of the Lakers in the second round was followed by Nowitzki’s spectacular play against Oklahoma City in the Western Conference finals, making the Mavs the last hope for the Heat haters.
“We are facing a very tough team, a very good team with a bunch of closers and leaders. And so we’ve got to just go from there and bring our best game,” Nowitzki said. “But we as players, we’re not really worried about who are the good guys or the bad guys, what the fans want. That’s not going to matter to us, anyhow.”
Nowitzki believed the Heat were the favorites “on paper” last summer, but things changed by the time they met twice in the first two months of the season. Dallas beat Miami both times — the Mavs have won the last 14 regular-season meetings — as the Heat stumbled to a 9-8 start amid speculation coach Erik Spoelstra could be fired, and criticism that James’ and Wade’s styles couldn’t work together.
The Heat have it all figured out now: James and Wade alternating big shots in the clutch, Bosh grasping his role as the third scorer, key reserves Udonis Haslem and Mike Miller getting healthy at just the right time after nearly season-long injuries.
So the Heat could win, like it or not. And they’re aware the more likely answer is not.
Wade was briefly the NBA’s brightest star in 2006, when he averaged 34.7 points to lead the Heat back from a 2-0 deficit to beat the Mavs in six games. A second ring could elevate him to a second level — or it could be diminished because he needed James and Bosh to get it.
“Only thing I care about is winning. That’s all I care about,” Wade said. “Whatever you guys want to decide to put me or talk about me, that’s where I’ll be. The biggest thing is to be a champion.”
Wade said he was “blessed” to win a ring so early in his career, knowing this series is loaded with players who have been chasing one for more than a decade. Kidd reached the finals in consecutive years with the New Jersey Nets and figured he’d get another chance with the Nets or much sooner with the Mavericks. He’s finally back — the oldest of seven players on the Dallas roster born in the 1970s.
“You have great teams in this league like the Lakers and the Celtics and San Antonio, who were all winning championships. It didn’t work out,” he said. “But now we’re here. And hopefully we can find a way to win a championship.”
Brian Mahoney can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/Briancmahoney