Shaquille O’Neal and Pat Riley had each been parts of dynasty runs with the Los Angeles Lakers. The center and the head coach got together for another championship run with the 2006 Miami Heat, but they needed young, fresh legs if they were to make it over the top and it was Dwayne Wade who lifted Shaq & Riles to another championship and the first in franchise history for the Miami Heat.
Miami did not start the season well, at 11-10 and Riley, working as the general manager, made a key decision. He fired head coach Stan Van Gundy and returned to the bench himself. The Heat took off and won 41 of their final 61 games to take the #2 seed in the Eastern Conference.
Wade, 24-years-old, averaged 27 points/7 rebounds/6 assists per game and shot 51 percent from the floor. Shaq, now age 33, averaged a 20/9 per night. The two stars carried a supporting cast filled with role players. Jason Williams and Antoine Walker scored in double digits, while Udonis Haslem made a contribution on the boards.
The role players stepped up in the playoffs. Miami beat Chicago in six games, with Walker lifting his scoring average to 15 ppg in the first-round series, while James Posey kicked in 12 a night. With Wade and Shaq delivering vintage performances, it was enough to advance. In the second round against New Jersey it was Haslem’s turn to join the two stars, as he averaged 12/8 per game in a five-game win over the New Jersey Nets.
Up next was the Detroit Pistons, who had won a championship in 2004 and reached the seventh game of the 2005 NBA Finals. Detroit held the #1 seed in the East, but Miami immediately took homecourt advantage for themselves by shooting 50 percent in Game 1 and winning 91-86.
The series was tied 1-1 and Miami took command by holding serve in the middle games at home .Wade dominated Game 3, shooting 13-for-17 and scoring 35 points. Shaq had 27 points/12 rebounds in a 98-83 rout. Wade scored 31 more points in Game 4, thanks to shooting 19 free throws. It wasn’t the last time the number of free throws Wade got would draw attention, and the Heat won 89-78.
Detroit was able to win Game 5 at home, but Shaq smelled the opportunity to clinch at home in Game 6 and the big man poured in 28 points and hauled down 16 rebounds. Wade was a little quieter, but Williams stepped up with 21 points and Miami ran away to a 95-78 win. Their third straight decisive homecourt win left no doubt who the best team in the East was.
Dallas awaited in the 2006 NBA Finals. The Mavericks won 60 games, the second-best in the NBA, and had beaten the 63-win San Antonio Spurs to get through the tough Western Conference. Dallas looked ready to roll to a championship when they won consecutive games by double digits to open the NBA Finals. Miami shot poorly from the foul line in Game 1, and both Wade and Shaq might as well have been AWOL in Game 2.
The series went to South Beach for the middle three games and Wade met the moment. He scored 42 points and grabbed 13 rebounds to key a 98-96 escape in Game 3. Wade had 36 more in Game 4 and the Miami defense forced Dallas star Dirk Nowitzki into 2-for-14 shooting. The 98-74 rout tied the series and set the stage for Game 5’s drama and controversy.
Wade would shoot 25 free throws in Game 5, a figure that matched that attempted by the entire Dallas team. With the NBA already having a well-earned reputation for playing favorites, and Mavericks owner Mark Cuban decidedly out of favor with the league office, there was fertile ground for conspiracy theorists.
Conspiracy talk could hardly be faulted when Miami trailed 100-99 in the closing seconds and a phantom foul was called on Wade with one second left and he hit two free throws to win Game 5. Wade’s 43 points made his a performance to remember on the merits, but there’s no denying the questionable circumstances that surrounded Miami’s win.
Dallas was still very much alive, needing to simply defend its home floor in Games 6 & 7. But Wade was now completely locked in, and he knocked down 36 more points. The 95-92 win gave the Miami Heat a championship and Wade the honor of Finals MVP. It built Wade the kind of reputation that helped him eventually persuade LeBron James to take his own talents to South Beach and the Heat have won two more titles since, in 2012 and 2013. It all began back in 2006.