Dallas countered the Heat's Big Three with Dirk Nowitzki and a blend of players who knew their roles and kept their focus. And after Game 6 of an engrossing NBA Finals, there was no doubt which was the better—and more appealing—formula for success
This is an article from the June 20, 2011 issue
Dirk Nowitzki waited half his life for a moment he could not bear to experience. Four seconds remained in Game 6 of the NBA Finals on Sunday, four seconds until Nowitzki reached the goal he set at 16, but he could wait no longer. Mavericks forward Shawn Marion was dribbling out the clock when Nowitzki bolted for the sideline, leaped over the scorer's table and began striding down the tunnel at AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami. Friends left the Dallas bench and pleaded for him to return, but they never really expected him to stick around for the final buzzer. Nowitzki is too emotional to swallow his tears and too private to show them. He rushed into the visitors' locker room, into the showers, to a bench in the back. Without turning on a faucet, 13 failed seasons washed off his 7-foot frame, all of them down the drain.
This was Michael Jordan, sobbing in the locker room at Los Angeles's Great Western Forum after his first championship in 1991, only there were no cameras this time and few witnesses. Nowitzki is a self-effacing superstar in a self-aggrandizing age, and when officials from the Mavs and the NBA finally found him and tried to coax him back onto the court, he refused for fear he would break down in front of the world. They had to convince him that he would want the memories, the photographs, and would forever regret not having them.
Nowitzki wiped his eyes and reluctantly returned. While he will surely treasure the snapshots with his teammates, basketball purists may appreciate them even more. Here is a star who stayed for the struggle, who bore the burden and who proved that a title does not have to be won with a Big Three or a Fantastic Four. A true star rides in front and demands everyone fall in line. "You see around the league three or four big-name guys trying to get together," said Dallas guard DeShawn Stevenson. "Well, one was enough for us."
As Stevenson spoke, his face was framed by two tattoos. On his right shoulder: under. On his left shoulder: dawg. The Heat had LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. The Mavericks had 38-year-old point guard Jason Kidd, undrafted free agent J.J. Barea and an assortment of afterthoughts and injury risks like Stevenson and center Tyson Chandler. Arguably their second-best player, forward Caron Butler, never got off the bench in the postseason because of a right knee injury. "We shook up the world!" Marion shouted in the locker room after Dallas vanquished Miami in Game 6, 105--95. More specifically, the Mavs shook up the perception of how a modern NBA champion should look and act. "No champagne for me!" Marion hollered. "Give me a beer!"
The contrast between Miami and Dallas was stark enough to remind fans why they were so put off by the Heat in the first place. This was the rare sporting event in which an American audience rooted for a European to humble three native sons. Mavericks president Donnie Nelson refers to the roster he built as "the little train that could," only it comes with a powerful German engine. Nowitzki led Dallas to wins in Game 2 with a freshly torn tendon in his left hand and in Game 4 with a 102¬∫ fever. While viewers marveled at Nowitzki—"Our version of Willis Reed," Nelson says—the Heat mocked him, Wade and James hacking up exaggerated coughs in front of television cameras before Game 5.
The Mavericks largely downplayed the video publicly, but it was the primary topic of conversation on their flight to Miami for Game 6. They were, according to a source on the plane, "pissed off." Nowitzki went to lunch at the Four Seasons with Kidd and Chandler on Sunday afternoon, and for long stretches, they sat in silence. "I was just looking in Dirk's eyes," Chandler says, "and I could tell he knew it was his time." Finally, Kidd said what the rest of the table was thinking: "Tonight's the night."
Nowitzki was overwhelmed, missing 11 of 12 shots in the first half, his worst display of a playoffs in which he would average 27.7 points and shoot 48.5%. At halftime 6'2" sixth man Jason Terry walked up to him in the locker room and said, " '05--06." It was a reference to the last time the Mavericks reached the Finals and blew a 2--0 lead over the Heat, when owner Mark Cuban screamed at commissioner David Stern over the officiating, then coach Avery Johnson made the team switch hotels because so many players were partying on South Beach and Wade questioned Nowitzki's leadership. Some in the organization refer to that series as the Meltdown.
The 33-year-old Terry could not stomach a repeat. He scored a game-high 27 points, and during timeouts in the fourth quarter kept muttering in Nowitzki's ear, "Remember '06." Nowitzki never stopped firing, finishing with 21 points on 27 shots, not his most efficient performance but easily his most gratifying. "When you look back on this year, you're going to look at Dirk Nowitzki's numbers, but remember what he meant to me, to Shawn Marion, to Tyson Chandler, to J.J. Barea," Terry says. "He made us raise our game to another level. That's when you have a superstar. That's when you have a Hall of Famer."
The Heat led 2--1 when the players gathered at American Airlines Center in Dallas for an off-day practice that began with their favorite shooting game. Nine players stand at different spots on the perimeter and take turns launching threes. If the previous shooter makes his three and you miss, you get a point. If two players make theirs and you miss, you get two points, and so on. Ten points and you're out.
Miami was feeling comfortable, and nine straight players sank their threes. It was James's turn to shoot. Teammates were hopping around, laughing and catcalling, ratcheting up the pressure. James turned to Wade and said, "You don't know how long I've been in this position. Everybody wants me to fail." Then he faced the hoop, let fly—and missed. Teammates rejoiced. The shot was insignificant but revealing. James hears the clamor around him and, despite his transcendent talents, can't quiet it.
James shredded the Bulls in the Eastern Conference finals, but the Mavericks adopted an important element of Chicago's game plan, picking up James full court to wear him down. They also packed the paint, double-teamed him on almost every catch in the post, flummoxed him with a zone and changed defenders at critical times. With a little over five minutes left in Game 5, Marion was guarding James, with Kidd on Wade. Out of a timeout, Kidd asked Marion if he wanted to switch. "Why not?" Marion said. James made only one field goal the rest of the way, in garbage time, his first basket in the final five minutes since Game 1. Not even extra shooting sessions, extra film meetings, tongue-lashings from Wade or verbal jabs from Terry and Stevenson could rouse James in the clutch. He either stood on the weak side like a spectator with an expensive ticket or posted up and immediately kicked out to a lesser teammate. When he tried to reengage offensively, his shot seemed rusty, as if he were aiming the ball.
Herein lies the problem with a superteam. Because James is surrounded by stars, he can defer whenever he feels like it. Nowitzki, on the other hand, is always at the center of the action—he has no choice. In this way, and this way alone, one star may be better than three. "We've all seen it at some point this year," James says. "You're kind of waiting and waiting and waiting, and then you just get to a point where you're all out of rhythm."
By the second half of Game 6, James was driving and dishing to 38-year-old forward Juwan Howard, who scored 2.4 points per game this season. On a critical possession late in the fourth quarter, with James, Wade and Bosh all on the court, the Heat passed the ball eight times before turning it over. No one wanted the shot or felt the responsibility to take it. At The Winking Lizard Tavern in Cleveland, patrons chanted "No ring for the King!" as the clock wound down and cheered Nowitzki as if he were the one from Akron. The only Heat fan at the bar was booed out. Meanwhile, on the Mavs' bench in Miami, backup center Brendan Haywood held owner Mark Cuban in a headlock to keep him from running on the court prematurely. "I thought I was going to s--- my pants," Cuban said.
James was the second player off the floor, right after Nowitzki, and Bosh actually doubled over and fell on the way to the locker room. Bosh was fine—two teammates picked him up and helped him off—but James could require some long-term support. After the game, he stood shoulder to shoulder with Wade in a hallway beneath AmericanAirlines Arena, head bowed over his pink shirt. This summer promises at least as much scrutiny as the last one. Cuban, who owned the team for a decade before winning this championship, would not be LeBron's ideal counselor. "I could care less about the Miami Heat," he says.
Cuban did not accept the championship trophy, bequeathing that honor to Don Carter, the Mavs' original owner and a courtside regular in his big white cowboy hat. When Nowitzki hurt his left middle finger at the outset of the series, Carter flashed back to Game 7 of the 1988 Western Conference finals, when Mark Aguirre jammed two fingers on his left hand in the fourth quarter against the Lakers. Aguirre sat out almost three minutes, and by the time he returned, L.A. was rolling, to the Finals and then the title. "If that didn't happen," Carter says, "I believe we win it all."
Instead, the Mavs went 13 years before their next playoff victory, losing a generation of fans. Bosh grew up in Dallas and can't remember once rooting for the hometown team. But the devoted remained, from Carter to Cuban, green uniforms to blue ones, Reunion Arena to American Airlines Center. They flocked to Miami for Game 6 and dotted the lower bowl. "This didn't all start in 2000," says former Mavericks guard Rolando Blackman. "You look around the stands and see faces from the Reunion days. Those are the people who feel this in their soul. They are the Maverick fabric."
There was no sign that this year's team was much different from its incarnations since the '06 Finals, three of which didn't win a playoff series. On a road trip to Los Angeles late in the regular season, Terry summed up the perception of the team: "Same old Mavericks, one and done, first round and outski." Chandler did not think the Mavs were focused enough to advance, and when they blew a 23-point lead at Portland in Game 4 of the first round, his concerns were validated. But the flight back to Dallas was eerily silent, and Chandler started to believe the team was serious. "From then on, nobody joked or laughed at shootaround," Chandler says. "And if somebody did, someone else told him to stop."
The stakes for Game 5 against the Trail Blazers could not have been higher. "We lose and Mark could have pushed the red button," Nelson says. "It could have changed the entire path of this franchise." Dallas won, closed out the series in Game 6 and swept the Lakers in the Western Conference semifinals. Privately, the Mavericks thought Los Angeles was the best team in the NBA, and if they could handle them, they could outlast anyone. "That's when I knew we were a championship team," says Stevenson. The Mavs came back from 16 down in Game 1 at L.A., 15 down in Game 4 at Oklahoma City during the conference finals and 15 down—with only 7:14 remaining—in Game 2 at Miami. Dallas, forever a football town, fell head over hightops for a club that always converted on third-and-long.
When Miami beat Dallas in the 2006 Finals, then Heat coach Pat Riley coined the term 15 Strong, in reference to the team's roster size. It became a more fitting moniker for Dallas, which really did use 15 starters this season and exposed the Heat's top-heavy lineup. "I kept having people come up to me the last three or four days and say, 'Hey, there are billions of people rooting for you guys,'" says Mavs coach Rick Carlisle. "And we could feel it. We knew it was very important that we won this series because of what the game is about and what the game should stand for."
A lockout is coming, but for one night, the NBA could not miss. The Finals featured a staggering 53 lead changes and 52 ties. Three straight games were decided by three points or fewer, the first time that's happened in 63 years. ESPN reported a 33% spike in viewership from when the same teams met five years ago, and the deciding game was the highest-rated Game 6 in 13 years. The Mavericks did not want it to end. After midnight on Monday, Nowitzki, the Finals MVP, was still in full uniform. Terry was staring into the Larry O'Brien Trophy, giggling at his reflection. Chandler was modeling a Mavs letterman jacket made by his brother-in-law, with WORLD CHAMPS embroidered on the back. He offered to order another for Cuban.
The Mavericks finally boarded their bus, along with the trophy, and headed to Club LIV at the Fontainebleau Hotel on South Beach. Most of the country and much of the world was celebrating with them, raising a glass to the lone superstar and the 14 who followed him.
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