Heat Take on Mavericks in NBA Finals Replay as Labor Contract Battle Looms

(Corrects spelling of Nowitzki in 11th paragraph.)

The Miami Heat and Dallas Mavericks are repeating a past National Basketball Association Finals matchup as the league sits on the edge of another recurrence -- a work stoppage.

The Heat, headed by All-Stars LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, host the Dirk Nowitzki-led Mavericks tonight in Game 1 of the best-of-seven series. It’s the second trip to the title round for both franchises, five years after Miami rallied from a 2-0 deficit to claim the championship over Dallas in six games.

Capping a postseason that has produced record television ratings, the finals may be followed by a labor battle between the league and its players like the one in 1998 that led to a shortened season. It also may be a reminder of what’s at stake for both sides if the NBA joins the National Football League in locking out players.

“Whenever you have a labor issue it’s never good timing,” former NBA coach Jeff Van Gundy, who will analyze the series for Walt Disney Co. (DIS)’s ABC, said in a telephone interview. “You just hope it doesn’t take away in coming seasons from the terrific interest that has been shown this year.”

There’s been scrutiny on the Heat since July 8, the day James spurned the Cleveland Cavaliers on a nationally televised show to join Wade and Bosh in Miami.

“For me it was about being in a position to compete year after year,” James said in a news conference yesterday.

10-0 to Dallas

Dallas has gone 10-0 against the Heat since the 2006 finals, including 106-95 and 98-96 wins in November and December.

“They’re a much better team now,” Nowitzki told reporters yesterday. “They’ve got what it takes to win it all.”

The Heat opened the season 9-8 before reeling off 12 straight victories. Miami finished 58-24, winning the Southeast Division before ousting the Philadelphia 76ers and Boston Celtics in early playoff rounds.

“The rest of the country is growing to appreciate and, in some quarters, root for this team,” Hall of Fame coach Jack Ramsey, who will analyze the series for ESPN Radio, said of the Heat. “They started off on the wrong foot and just aroused derision everywhere they went in the league, but they are so good, so dedicated.”

No one on the Mavericks’ roster has a championship ring, including Nowitzki, a 10-time All-Star who’s spent his entire career with Dallas, and 16-year veteran Jason Kidd. Nowitzki and Jason Terry are the only Dallas players who faced Miami in the 2006 Finals.

11 Straight Playoffs

Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, who purchased the franchise in 2000, has taken Dallas to the playoffs for the past 11 seasons without a title, a streak second only to the San Antonio Spurs, who’ve been to 14 straight postseasons and won four championships.

The Mavericks, coached by Rick Carlisle, went 57-25 this season to finish four games behind San Antonio in the Southwest Division. They eliminated the Portland Trail Blazers in six games, swept the two-time defending champion Los Angeles Lakers and reached the finals by beating the Oklahoma City Thunder for the Western Conference championship in five games.

Miami has a 63 percent chance to win the title, according to Las Vegas Sports Consultants, which advises Nevada sports books on gambling lines.

Time Warner Inc. (TWX)’s TNT averaged 5.5 million viewers, 29 percent higher than a season ago, for its 40 playoff games, while Walt Disney Co.’s ESPN averaged 5 million viewers for its 18 postseason games, topping its previous high of 4.9 million in 2009.

Labor Dispute

Amid the heightened interest come what may be the last NBA games for some time.

The league and National Basketball Players Association can’t agree on a collective bargaining agreement to replace the one expiring June 30. The last work stoppage was in 1998, when the season was shortened to 50 games from 82 following a lockout that ended in January 1999.

NBA Commissioner David Stern said in April that the league is projected to lose $300 million this season after losses of $370 million in 2008-09 and $340 million in 2009-10. Twenty-two of the 30 franchises are expected to lose money this season, NBA Deputy Commissioner Adam Silver said.

The NBA wants to institute a hard ceiling on payrolls and, at least to a degree, non-guaranteed contracts. They’ve proposed reducing team payrolls to $45 million, from $58 million. The players, who filed an unfair labor practice charge against the league last week, have rejected the offers, while offering to reduce the 57 percent of league revenue that they’re guaranteed.

Billy Hunter, the union’s executive director, said in November that he is “99 percent sure” there will be a lockout, according to the Associated Press.

The first two games of the Finals will be in Miami before Games 3, 4 and, if needed, 5 in Dallas. It’s there that the NBA and the union will hold bargaining sessions on June 7 and 8.

“What’s happening now in the NBA cannot be diminished,” said Ramsey, hoping to keep the interest on the court. “This is an all-time high in popularity for the National Basketball Association, and it should not go wasted.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Mason Levinson in New York at mlevinson@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Michael Sillup at msillup@bloomberg.net.

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