DALLAS -- Eight years have passed since Jason Kidd played in his second of consecutive NBA Finals with the New Jersey Nets. He was 30 then and in his ninth season. Never did he believe it would take so long to get there.
"When you come in the league, you think you're going to be able to win a championship," Kidd said. "But there's so many talented players and, the big thing, so many talented teams."
The Nets lost both Finals, swept in 2002 by the Kobe Bryant-Shaquille O'Neal-led Los Angeles Lakers and ousted in six low-scoring games by the San Antonio Spurs' big three in their first of three titles together over five seasons.
Never did Kidd think it would take so long to get back. And then the years pass and reality strikes.
"You're never guaranteed to get to the playoffs," Kidd, 38, said. "And also win a championship."
Kidd and company now have that chance. The Dallas Mavericks open the 2011 NBA Finals Tuesday night at the star-laden Miami Heat. This group of Mavs are decorated veterans. Many have been on the brink of a championship, and all have been turned away.
"You look at each individual, almost to a man," guard Jason Terry said. "Peja Stojakovic -- Sacramento versus L.A. -- he didn't get it done. Myself, Dirk [Nowitzki], Finals [up] 2-0; didn't get it done. Coach [Rick] Carlisle, two Eastern Conference finals, never made it to the championship. Jason Kidd, two Finals appearances, didn't hoist up the trophy. Shawn Marion has been to the Western Conference finals twice [before], hadn't gotten to the Finals.
"Those unique stories are what drive us and motivates us to get it done this year."
These are their stories.
Time flies, and it's hard to remember that Nowitzki is playing in his 11th consecutive postseason. He started this one as one of only four players all time to average at least 25 points and 10 rebounds per game. At his current pace of 28.4 points and 7.5 rebounds -- he averaged 32.2 points on 55.7 percent shooting in the Western Conference finals -- he could remain in that elite group.
"I don't think anybody is questioning his greatness right now," Terry said. "There's been a lot of great players that haven't won it. But, for us, that's the next task at hand."
However, Nowitzki, in his 13th season, doesn't care about numbers. He wants to join the elite group with a championship, and few players get as close as he and the Mavs did in 2006 and walk away empty-handed. The story does not need to be retold.
Nowitzki, brilliant during the '06 postseason with his Game 7 heroics in San Antonio and a 50-point game in the conference finals against the Phoenix Suns, averaged 27 points, 11.7 rebounds and 2.9 assists in the ill-fated Finals against the Miami Heat.
The way Nowitzki is wired, he surely will recall the Game 3 collapse with too much ease. But he might lament more the response in Game 4, when he was 2-of-14 from the floor for 16 points in the 98-74 blowout loss that tied the series and fully shifted momentum to Miami.
In the four postseasons since, and prior to this magical run, the Mavs advanced out of the first round just once and Nowitzki shouldered the brunt of the criticism. Dallas folded as a 67-win No. 1 seed and lost in the first round as a No. 2 seed just last season.
Nowitzki has never stopped lugging those demoralizing defeats.
It's why he didn't stop to enjoy the moment of clinching the franchise's second NBA Finals berth in the past five seasons and bolted from the midcourt ceremony to the locker room.
"We talked about it obviously after the game that this is a great moment," Nowitzki said. "We can enjoy it for a day, but we got one of those trophies already, and it didn't mean anything at the end. I think once you get to the Finals, there is no second-place finish."
"The Jet" also has carried a burdensome load. As the only other remaining member of the '06 team, Terry entered this postseason with plenty of doubt. Coming off two poor-shooting postseasons, one more could end his seven-year run in Dallas, and he acknowledged that unsavory fact has motivated him.
Remember, Terry had the difficult job of replacing the beloved Steve Nash, who also happened to be Nowitzki's best friend. There have been some heated moments between Terry and Nowitzki in past postseasons, but both have learned to lean on one another over the years.
"We never talk about the struggle to get back," Terry said of conversations he has had with Nowitzki about their mutual experiences. "We only talk about when we do, what's going to happen. Talk is done now."
Terry vowed to make good on his subpar playoffs, and he has done just that. He's been a solid overall performer, and although his shooting percentage and fourth-quarter marksmanship dipped in the West finals, Terry is averaging 17.3 points on 47.1 percent shooting and 46.3 percent from beyond the arc.
For 3 1/2 years, the Kidd trade has been rationalized from, "OK, he's not going to win the Mavs a title," to "Wow, what a treat to watch one of the best to ever play the point guard position."
Suddenly, Mavs fans have the best of all worlds.
Kidd is easily playing his best basketball in his second stint with the Mavs. He is the consummate floor general, he's hitting his 3-point shot at an acceptable rate, and he's locked down Bryant and Kevin Durant when called upon late in games.
He likes his fit on this team. He's not the go-to star like he was in Jersey. He can concentrate on what he does best -- running the offense -- and focus on his hobby -- crunch-time defense.
"I had to do a lot in the Finals: score, pass, defend," Kidd said. "Here it's kind of shortened in the sense of that I just have to defend and find the open guy because I have so many guys around me that can put the ball in the basket."
Kidd is going for the Elway, as in former Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway, who put off retirement long enough to play on a team with enough talent to take all pressure off him. Elway, of course, finished his career with consecutive Super Bowl championships.
Kidd, in his 17th season and with one more to go on his contract, will take it one at a time.
"The Matrix" had little sympathy for Nowitzki and Terry after the '06 flop. After all, it was the Mavs who defeated Marion's Suns in the conference finals. In fact, Marion could suggest the Suns were even more cursed than the Mavs.
Remember Joe Johnson's orbital fracture in the 2005 second round against Dallas? He missed the early portion of the West finals, and San Antonio won it.
In the 2006 West finals, Dallas got the benefit of playing Phoenix without an injured Amare Stoudemire. In 2007, Robert Horry hip-checked Nash into the scorer's table in Game 4, and Stoudemire and Boris Diaw left the bench to come to their point guard's defense and were summarily suspended for Game 5. The Suns lost the series.
What bugs Marion the most in his post-Suns days is how little respect his defensive game received once he left Phoenix. Guilt by association. Marion has been the closest thing the Mavs have had to a defensive stopper in years.
"He's long, he's active with his hands and he was phenomenal the last couple games [against Durant]," Nowitzki said.
"When he came here, our team was built differently than the run-and-gun Suns," Carlisle said. "He had brief stints in Toronto and Miami, but there was some frustration the first year, and he really had to reinvent his game to some degree to figure out the way he was going to fit in with us. I give him a lot of credit. You know, he's proven right now to everybody that he's about one thing -- and that's winning."
Funny, but Kidd nearly faced off against Stojakovic and the Sacramento Kings in the 2002 NBA Finals.
But the Lakers -- and maybe some shifty officiating if you believe disgraced referee Tim Donaghy -- took the Western Conference finals in seven games after Sacramento led 3-2.
Much like Kidd believed his runs with the Nets would continue, Stojakovic thought the Kings' loaded roster with Mike Bibby, Hedo Turkoglu, Doug Christie, Bobby Jackson, Vlade Divac and Chris Webber would be back.
"We thought the next year we would be even better," Stojakovic said. "It just didn't happen for us. You understand how important the situation is."
Stojakovic had several productive years in New Orleans but this season was traded to Toronto and waived. He had played just eight games due to a knee injury when the Mavs signed him for the veteran minimum.
He has had his playoff moments. Stojakovic made five 3-pointers in Game 2 against Portland and six in the clincher against the Lakers. He struggled in the West finals, and the Mavs will need him to start burying the long ball again against Miami's rugged defense.
There are other intriguing stories as well. Caron Butler, who likely will not play in the Finals as he continues to rehab from major knee surgery, has seen two of his former teams -- the Heat and Lakers -- win championships after he departed.
Brendan Haywood spent his entire career with woeful Washington before last season's trade.
Tyson Chandler had never advanced beyond the first round before doing so in 2008 with Stojakovic in New Orleans to add to the Mavs' recent playoff misery. Injuries the past two seasons put his career in doubt until his resurgence in his first year with the Mavs.
And so a slew of veterans are on the cusp of the greatest moment of their careers. It won't be easy. But no one had to tell them that.
"That's what you play the game for, is to be a champion," Kidd said. "It's a hard climb, and you're never promised to get there. If you do, you've got to treasure it and do everything you can to win."
Jeff Caplan covers the Mavericks for ESPNDallas.com.