NEW YORK: Shaquille O'Neal and Dirk Nowitzki will seize the spotlight in the NBA Finals starting on Thursday night but it could be the lesser-known players who determine the title.
The championship round begins in Dallas with the Mavericks and their maverick owner Mark Cuban hoping to claim the first title in franchise history.
To do so, the Western Conference champions will have to get by the Miami Heat and the dynamic one-two scoring punch of O'Neal and guard Dwyane Wade.
There is no shortage of marquee players in the series but the supporting cast will likely determine who walks away from the best of seven game affair with the Larry O'Brien Trophy.
Dallas has hung around long enough to make a few waves in the postseason but had not reached the finals in their 26-year history until acquiring a quality corps of role players.
While most NBA fans know star Dallas seven-foot sensation Nowitzki, few know that the Mavericks are 24-0 when third-year forward Josh Howard scores at least 20 points.
Combine off-season acquisitions Jason Terry, Erick Dampier and Jerry Stackhouse with the development of Howard and Devin Harris and you have a squad knocking on the door for a title.
"Our depth has been key," said Mavericks coach Avery Johnson. "Only Dirk (Nowitzki) and Damp (Dampier) and Jason Terry were our staples, everybody else was in and out of the rotation the whole year.
"To still win 60 games with DeSagana Diop, who had never played in the league in four years, and Griff (Adrian Griffin), it was incredible."
The team's depth and the emergence of the gritty Nowitzki as a true NBA star have Las Vegas odds-makers favouring the Mavericks.
Miami reached the Eastern Conference finals a year ago but it wasn't until they acquired Antoine Walker, Gary Payton, Jason Williams and James Posey that they took the next step.
Add that quality depth to O'Neal, at 34 still the league's most dominant big man, and Wade, an imaginative big-time scorer, and you also have a team with a legitimate title shot in their first appearance in the finals.
"We've had a lot of near misses, unlucky bounces, suspensions," said long-time Heat coach Pat Riley, who trails only Lenny Wilkens as the league's all-time most victorious coach.
"We've had very good teams that I thought were championship contenders... But ever since Shaquille O'Neal showed up on the scene (in 2004), this team has been a legitimate contender, and we have put pieces around him.
"Obviously the drafting of Dwyane Wade and what he's become has sped the whole process up."
The first two games of the series are in Dallas before shifting to South Florida for Games 3, 4 and if necessary, Game 5.
Many fans are anxious to see Dallas win the title if only to see Commissioner David Stern hand the Trophy to Cuban - the foot-stomping, towel-waving owner who has been fined more than US$1 million by the league for various transgressions.
The Heat needed six games to knock out the Detroit Pistons in the East Finals, while Dallas also needed six to subdue the Phoenix Suns in the West.
"We respect our opponents," said Johnson, a second-year coach who transformed the Mavericks from a run-and-gun outfit to one with a stout defensive philosophy.
"You come into this season, nobody, nobody had Miami and Dallas in the Finals. If you did, you won a lot of money.
"But we signed up to win the championship. We're delighted to be there. But we're not satisfied."
Source: China Daily