World Champions? Dallas Mavericks?
Yes - They - Did.
Surely, to fully understand how far-fetched that concept was before last night, you had to sit through some sad nights at Reunion Arena before Mark Cuban bought the franchise. You had to hang in there over the course of 10 consecutive playoff endings that included disappointment and the wonder of whether next year would ever really be the year.
Sports does not follow a script. Sports does not always travel in a linear path. And in this case, it certainly did not.
Because 2011 was after "the window had closed". There was simply no way that a team was going to be able field a squad with this old of a roster - especially packed with players who had never won a championship - and sustain what it takes to survive the NBA Playoff meat-grinder. It just wasn't going to happen. Those in the media all seemed to agree that whether it would be Round 1 against Portland or Round 2 against Los Angeles, the Mavericks would just put another brick in their wall of playoff failures. And when they do, it will again remind them of blowing their big chance in the 2006 NBA Finals against the Miami Heat.
So, this spring, when the Portland Trailblazers took them down in both Games 3 and 4 in Portland (and in doing so rocked the Mavs to their core with a 23-point comeback on the day before Easter) you wonder how anyone could believe this team would have the inner resolve to win a NBA title which requires the ability to win on the road against the best teams in the NBA. The Mavericks at the time sat on a playoff trend where they had gone 2-18 in their last 20 playoff games.
Who amongst us knew they were about to go on a 7-1 run on the road in the playoffs? I sure didn't. But, they did. After that game in Portland, the Mavericks had to check their guts and discuss how badly they wanted to survive the adversity that the Trailblazers were providing.
But, the fact is, this team went on a run that for the next 50 days gave us all a ride we will never forget. And when it all was ending last night, the circumstances were somewhat familiar;
They were in Miami, with a big lead and a title in their grasp. These circumstances were not unlike Game 3 of the 2006 NBA Finals. The ghosts that have haunted Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry for 5 long years. Would they get so close to the trophy only to have it slide through their fingers again?
Not on your life.
This whole unexpected run has been so perfectly put into place with redemption as the theme at every turn. And when there was a nice lead with 6 minutes to go like that fateful night in 2006, this Mavericks team closed the deal. This Mavericks team proceeded to attack on both ends of the court. To fight for every inch in every situation. To not be denied. What that 2006 team may have lacked in intestinal fortitude and late-game composure, this team taught a clinic. Sometimes having an old team is another way to say you have an experienced team that knows what to do and what not to do. And the fingerprints of a winner were everywhere.
First, Dirk Nowitzki quieted a Miami flurry with a basket in the paint with the left hand to push the lead back out to 10, at 94-84. But, Miami kept coming. And when they forced a Dirk turnover, Mario Chalmers was off to the races. Only, Jason Kidd stood in his way. And after a block and a rebound, Kidd was quickly fouled by Chalmers to stop any momentum change. And when the Heat went on another late rally, Dirk - who had fought with a poor shooting night all game long - was there to seal the deal with two vintage Nowitzki daggers to end the proceedings.
The deal was closed. And the two biggest nights were from the two Mavericks who were shedding that 5 year burden. Jason Terry's 27 and Dirk's 21 included another 4th Quarter show where those two would not be denied.
The final 5 on the court were all such amazing and vital stories. They finished nearly every game during this stretch together on the floor and were the crew for closing time. That bunch was able to win at the end over and over again in these past 50 days. And they all wanted a ring and fought valiantly together to get it:
Shawn Marion - A player who was always asked to guard the most impossible match-up of them all. Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, and LeBron James have no doubt pushed Marion's body to the limit. His energy never wavered, and he always seemed to grab a demoralizing offensive rebound at just the right moment to help stick a dagger in the opponent. And however unorthodox his offensive game may appear, he was able to supplement the scoring big time. In the victorious locker room, there was little doubt the level of pride and accomplishment that he enjoyed from scaling this mountain. He had waited a long time to get this title.
Tyson Chandler - The big man who was certainly considered table scraps in the summer of 2010 when musical chairs were being played throughout the league, the Mavericks found an emotional heart and soul who could push them just a little further anytime adversity was staring them down. His fearless attitude and a game that could back it up and do something about it inspired his mates all season long. He was the perfect compliment to Nowitzki as a big man who didn't need the ball, but also wasn't going to ever leave the paint unattended. His leadership was his biggest attribute, and for it to come from the center position made him the perfect fit. But, again, nobody seemed to see it coming last year when the transaction was made.
Jason Kidd - The oldest player in NBA history to ever win his 1st ring while starting, this 38-year old point guard brought the perfect composure and calm to a team that perhaps lost the 2006 Finals because they did not possess composure or calm. There was nothing that Kidd had not seen in his long NBA career, and as controversial as his acquisition seemed at the time, the fact that he steered the ship all the way to an NBA title, clearly the move is not controversial anymore. It is flat-out genius. Kidd was always there to make shots, make stops, and lead the team into the right move at the right time. Kidd's defense was also gigantic, and at his age, that was supposed to be his biggest weakness. But, his performance against Kobe and Dwyane Wade certainly speaks for itself.
Jason Terry - The man who was never going to stop believing in himself or this team, Terry is a player that talked with great confidence no matter what the situation. He was not going to be disrespected and he also had no plans of backing down. He was always willing to take the big shot at the biggest moments, and no place was that more evident than in these Finals when Miami decided to take him out of the game by putting LeBron James on him in crunch time. Through 3 games, it was working pretty well. But, then when the talking was stepped up (from LeBron, from Terry, and even from Dirk) Terry found his scoring touch at just the right time. You cannot measure the enormous size of some of his clutch shots, but know that the Mavericks rely so heavily on his shot-making from areas with great degrees of difficulty. And yet, he carries on and knocks them down. And, his reputation as a scorer in this league is largely based on his effectiveness in road games - and in Game 6 of these NBA Finals he went 11-16 for 27 points. Keep in mind his Game 6 in 2006 was 7 for 25, including 3-21 in the game's final 3 quarters. Terry worked as hard for this ring as anyone.
And Dirk Nowitzki - there are so many parts of his story that I enjoy pondering now that the final piece was put in its place. Dirk worked so hard for this franchise over the years that so many of us wanted him properly recognized for his greatness from all the countless battles he had won. But, he had never won the big one. And many suggested his window had closed and that he might have to take a complimentary role elsewhere to ever get to touch the trophy. But, his hard work never wavered. In fact, he developed his game and even became even more driven. He was now comfortable challenging his team and himself to do more. He was never backing down from a challenge. And he had one goal on his mind - so much so that he disappeared from the Western Conference Trophy presentation to send the message that there were still 4 more wins to find. That leadership was a great cue for his mates who maybe didn't require one. He had to win that ring. And he had to come up big. And with his exceptional play and his domination of the 4th Quarters (where he scored the same 62 points in the Finals that Wade AND James combined for) his place in NBA immortality is secured. He dedicated everything to win that title, and now nobody can take it from him.
Those 5 did solid work throughout this 16 win journey. But, the plot of this most solid team effort was based on the remarkable contributions up and down the bench. In the Heat series, where was this team without DeShawn Stevenson? But, do the Mavs beat Portland without Peja Stojakovic's efforts? Or, do they dominate the Lakers if JJ Barea doesn't frustrate them? The back-up bigs, Brendan Haywood, Brian Cardinal, and Ian Mahinmi all had games of great contribution. Corey Brewer helped the Mavericks rally against the Lakers in Game 1. And on and on we could go. The fact is that the 2006 Heat and the 2011 Mavericks have a lot in common. And it starts with a roster and specifically, a bench full of veterans who united to get a ring and knew how to make plays at the moments of truth.
You see, the way this champion was built restores faith in the team dynamic. Sure, you need your stars to do the heavy lifting, but you also need a resolve that flows through every guy who wears the jersey. When their time arrives, they will need to seize their moment. You simply have to be so proud of this team that was brought together to do one thing.
Let's not forget the coach, either. Rick Carlisle proved to be of championship caliber, too. At every turn, he had an answer for his opponents. The Mavericks always seemed to be the better coached side and that was no easy task with some of the issues he was dealing with. But, he certainly took this team to a level it never went before. Ball movement and zone defense? These are seldom discussed prominently about NBA Champions. But, this is no ordinary champion.
And across the arena, a large part of the entire narrative involved their opponent. And the Mavericks feeding off of it. Whether it was Miami being the winner in 2006 or Miami putting a giant and unnecessary target on their chests back in July. The Heat were the perfect opponent for Dallas in the NBA Finals for all sorts of reasons of symmetry. This is the team that Nowitzki and Terry wanted another shot at. It took 5 long years of quietly hearing everything that was said and allowing it to fuel them through long training sessions all year long. There was no guarantee that they would ever get another shot at Dwyane Wade and the Heat. Wade had called out Dirk's ability to close back then. So, when they did get a chance to settle it on the court, you could see that Dirk and Jet were not going to let that chance get away if they could help it.
And they could.
To make matters more theatrical, the principles in Miami thought they would mock Dirk back in Dallas by questioning whether he was really sick in Game 4. At certain points, you actually wondered if Miami wanted to be the villain. Until you saw on their faces - one in particular - how they certainly were not cut out to be villains. The weight of the world was crushing. And when the smoke cleared, James and Wade looked like they really didn't understand why the neutral observer was cheering for their defeat. They just didn't get it. But, something tells me that this experience might demonstrate to them that championship rallies should never precede a championship.
But, back to the 2011 NBA Champions, they completed their mission. They woke up this morning (assuming they slept) with no further opponents to vanquish. It is just the players and their trophy. They had done something that took these athletes their entire career and this franchise 31 years. Dallas is a city that had sports failures in Miami so many times - Super Bowl V, Super Bowl X, Super Bowl XIII, and the '06 NBA Finals - but, this time, they fly back to Dallas with that coveted title, a shiny gold basketball, and a spot in the annals of basketball history that can not be erased.
Only on this day will the last of their doubters finally concede. And for those of you who suffered for years following a franchise that never looked like they would get to the top of the mountain, well, this is your year. Congratulations to you.
And congratulations to this franchise. This owner - who never stopped trying to figure out the right combination around his star and was not going to let expenses stand in his way. This coach - who always put this team in a great spot to make a shot or make a play. This GM - who seems vindicated on a lot of moves as he sits with a trophy. And this organization who is so beloved that they filled their arena for games that were in South Florida.
This is your day. Enjoy it for all it is worth. LeBron James reminds you that your life will still contain many of the same circumstances and he will still have his. Well, good for him. He is arrogant to the end.
But, the Mavericks have the Championship. And, the loyalty to your home team pays off.
Enjoy it. And finally, plan your parade. It is well earned.