DALLAS -- Once a franchise and its star player arrive at the NBA Finals, win or lose, anything else short of making it back is deemed a failure.
That's just the way it is in sports, and that's where the Dallas Mavericks and Dirk Nowitzki once again find themselves as their latest postseason trek commences Sunday against the rival San Antonio Spurs.
"It’s going to be another disappointing season for me if we don’t win it, so that’s how I look at it," Nowitzki said. "Losing in the first round, second round or third round, it doesn’t matter. If we don’t win it all that’s another lost opportunity, another year in my prime gone, so you know you just got to go for it, get on the same page, play hard and go for it."
The Mavs celebrated a 10th consecutive season of at least 50 victories, a proud milestone to be sure, but also somewhat of a hollow one with no ring to crown the achievement. President of basketball operations Donnie Nelson and owner Mark Cuban have done an excellent job of making moves and spending money (Dallas still has the second-highest payroll in the NBA at close to $87 million, well over the league's luxury-tax threshold) to keep the championship window open as its star enters the latter portion of his prime. Nowitzki, still dogged by critics who say he can't lead a team to a title, turns 32 this summer.
Just two others -- Jason Terry and Erick Dampier -- remain from the 2006 NBA Finals team, but the roster is reinforced by 37-year-old future Hall of Fame point guard Jason Kidd, Shawn Marion and Caron Butler from the club's latest blockbuster deal. Nowitzki makes no guarantees, but says he likes his chances more than in recent seasons.
"I've said it all week, we’re suited for the playoffs," said Nowitzki, who another stellar regular season, averaging 25.0 points, while shooting 48.1 from the floor and 42.1 percent from 3-point range, plus 7.7 rebounds. "We’re more physical, we’re bigger in the paint with two shot blockers, Caron is one of the biggest 2s now that there is in the league and as physical, so I think we should be ready for a slower, grind-it-out kind of game even though we still want to speed the game up. You know they’re [San Antonio] going to do a good job of getting back and forcing us into a half-court game here and there, and so I think we’re ready for it and we’ve got enough weapons."
Second-year Mavs coach Rick Carlisle has had to pick up the pieces from a mentally ravaged team coming off the Finals debacle, the first-round implosion the following season and then the firing of former coach Avery Johnson after the 2007-08 final meltdown.
After a 2-7 start last year, Carlisle has steered a sometimes smooth and a sometimes wobbly ship. Remarkably, through a second season of significant peaks and valleys that included the long-coming departure of Josh Howard, and a loosening of the playbook that truly has put the keys in Kidd's hands, Carlisle's Mavs managed to lock up the Western Conference's No. 2 seed on the final day of the regular season.
The high seed brings renewed expectations of a return trip to the Western Conference finals against, presumably, the top-seeded and defending champion Los Angeles Lakers. The Mavs have not advanced past the second round since the 2006 Finals season and have bowed out in the first round in two of the last three seasons.
"We’re very serious about the playoffs and what it’s about," Carlisle said. "Look, playoff basketball in the NBA is the greatest thing in any sport in my opinion. It’s great competition, the coaching is at a high level, the buildings are full, there's a lot of activity, a lot you noise, you know, it’s awesome, and we’re looking forward to playing. I’m sure San Antonio is too, but all that whatever about the past is really insignificant to our situation right now. We have another day-and-a-half to prepare and so does San Antonio and then hey, let’s throw it up."
The catch this season is that the West's playoff teams are incredibly balanced. The No. 7 seed Spurs still possess the core of their four championship teams and this version won 50 games despite a rash of injuries. So how much of an upset is it really if San Antonio were to knock out the Mavs over the next two weeks? It certainly ratchets up the pressure.
And what if the Mavs are one-and-done? What happens to a roster that's largely been overturned once since Carlisle arrived and still has numerous pieces that can be shipped out? What happens to Carlisle, who has two more years remaining on his contract?
"If you don’t love pressure, you shouldn’t be in this," Carlisle said. "I don’t look at it as pressure. I just feel a real obligation to prepare our team as best as possible to give them the best chance to win and give Mark the best chance to win and our fans, that’s what it’s really all about. But, if you’re going to sit around and talk about pressure and worry about pressure, you shouldn’t be in this. You should be doing something else."
And so it all gets started all over again Sunday night at the American Airlines Center. Mavs vs. Spurs: One franchise's relentless and all-too-often painful pursuit of a title against another's persistent drive to add to its dynasty.
"I don’t care about that," Nowitzki said. "To me, this is another opportunity at my goal, hopefully another championship run, that’s how I look at it. Last year is gone, the Finals year is gone, there’s nothing you can do about it. So to me, it’s another opportunity and we’ll just go for it and see what happens at the end."