Originally Published: May 26, 2011

1. Party Time? Not Yet For Dirk's West Champs

Stein By Marc Stein

DALLAS -- Teammates got the limpest, fastest hugs and saw the faintest of smiles from Dirk Nowitzki. He couldn't wait to pawn that trophy off to a teammate, filter to the back of a jubilant pack of Dallas Mavericks huddled at midcourt, and then scamper back to the locker room when no one was looking.

Western Conference champions?

With the cameras still rolling, Nowitzki didn't even stick around for the end of Wednesday night's trophy presentation.

He quietly took his congratulations and some high praise from a pretty fair scoring forward in his day named Rick Barry, slipped out of view while Mavs owner Mark Cuban handled interview duty with ESPN's Doris Burke … and then high-stepped over the scorer's table to get the heck out of there. Like it was 2001 all over again.

Just like he did a decade earlier to leave the floor as quickly as possible after Karl Malone had knocked his tooth out.

"All that celebration stuff," Nowitzki said, shaking his head at his locker as his voice trailed off.

"This is not what we play for, bro."

Not yet.

There will be a time to step back and marvel at what's happened during the best six weeks of Nowitzki's basketball life, but this wasn't it. You couldn't find a soul at American Airlines Center who looked less impressed by the KO recorded in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals than Nowitzki, who knows better than anyone what -- and most likely whom -- awaits Dallas in the next round.

The Mavericks, for the first time since the worst collapse in NBA Finals history, are going back to the championship round, almost certainly for a rematch with their old friends from Miami. They predictably booked the trip with Nowitzki draining the decisive dagger in Dallas' latest late comeback, with this particular 3-ball and Shawn Marion's best game as a Mav securing a 100-96 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder. And then Nowitzki, surprising no one who really knows him, let everyone know what he thinks of an on-court ceremony just for getting out of the West. By bolting.

"I was already thinking about the Finals," Nowitzki said once he made it to the interview room, explaining his hurry to ditch that ceremony.

You bet he is.

After they watched Marion match Nowitzki's 26 points in his highest-scoring playoff game since 2007 -- when Marion wasn't combining with Jason Kidd to take Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and the rest of OKC's kiddies to night school one last time with their defensive know-how -- there was a lot of political talk coming from the Mavs suggesting that the opponent is immaterial. Hogwash. The truth is that most of them have been quietly sucked into thinking about Miami more and more with each passing win over the young, mistake-prone Thunder, tantalized by the chance to avenge a Finals unraveling that hangs over this franchise (and its fans) to this day.

Doesn't matter that Nowitzki and Mavs guard Jason Terry are the only on-court holdovers from the heartbreak of 2006. Doesn't matter that this team, with a backbone of Kidd and Tyson Chandler flanking Dirk, is so much smarter and tougher than the one Pat Riley's Heat vanquished. Edging to the brink of a 3-0 lead and then cratering to four straight defeats on the game's biggest stage, as one team insider puts it, still "lingers in the air every year" around here. For every Mav who was or wasn't there.

So ...

"Everyone," Terry said, "knows what this next step means."

Terry continued: "Everybody knows when you wear a Dallas Mavericks uniform, certain things come along with it. … As long as you keep talking about [the last Miami series], it's going to hang over us. Me, Dirk, Mark Cuban, [assistant coach] Darrell Armstrong, we sleep with it every night."

Now, though, comes a chance to banish a half-decade of nightmares, made worse by those three first-round exits that followed their Finals failure. Now comes a first trip to the Finals for Marion, Chandler, Peja Stojakovic and Rick Carlisle as a head coach, as well as Kidd's long-awaited third shot at a ring. The Mavs always expected to beat OKC, given their huge experience edge over a team that has never gone this far and has no big men who can score. But plenty of Wednesday's scenes at the AAC were nonetheless surreal, because so many familiar faces who've endured postseason torment in Dallas or elsewhere suddenly have an unexpected title shot that didn't seem possible when these playoffs began. Or really since Caron Butler was lost to a season-ending knee injury on New Year's Day.

"You don't understand how hard it is to get to this point," Stojakovic said. "These opportunities don't come up in your career as much as you want."

Said Thunder center Kendrick Perkins, exasperated by the manner in which the Mavs teased them again for 40-something minutes before turning it all around in crunch time: "They didn't sweep the Lakers for no reason. They're a good team."

Good enough for Terry, Chandler, Kidd and Marion to each get a touch in the scramble to get the ball back to Nowitzki for the go-ahead 3 with 74 seconds to go after Dirk had missed a 3 seconds earlier. Good enough to outscore the athletically superior Thunder by 24 points in the final five minutes of regulation in Games 4 and 5 combined. Good enough to earn another crucial dose of rest for Kidd's 38-year-old bones, similar to the helpfully long break Dallas had before this round. Good enough to rank as the only team in these playoffs to never trail at any point in any round. Good enough to stay on the short list with the mighty Lakers and San Antonio as the only three teams to represent the West in the Finals for the past 13 postseasons … while nine teams in the East have made it to the Finals in the same span.

"If you look, to a man, this team is better than it was in 2006," Terry said. "To a man. The whole makeup. The chemistry. … Just look at the point guard on that team. It was me. Look at the point guard on this team: Jason Kidd. Big difference.

"All the stars have to line up for you to win it all. They're in place right now. It's just on us now to go out and finish the job."

The scorching Heat (OK, OK, or Chicago) won't make it as easy as the Thunder did. With another dose of malfunctioning execution in the fourth quarter, OKC short-circuited this courageous effort in the aftermath of its own 2006-esque Game 4 meltdown.

There's also the very legitimate possibility that Nowitzki has played so well in this transformative postseason -- averaging 32.2 points on 56-percent shooting in this series alone and shredding OKC for an average of nearly 12 points just in fourth quarters -- that he might be able to dodge the heavy shrapnel this time even if the Mavs lose to the Heat again. Especially when the Heat are rolling like they are ... and with LeBron James playing as well as he ever has.

But good luck convincing Nowitzki that anything less than a "better ending" at the last hurdle, as the 32-year-old calls it, would grant him the right to gloat about his systematic destruction of the Portland Trail Blazers, Lakers and Thunder.

Since the Mavs clinched their only other Finals berth on the road in Phoenix back in 2006, winning the West in 2011 is the biggest party they've ever had in front of their own fans, who have a pretty high bar these days after reveling in the Texas Rangers' run to the World Series last fall and Super Bowl host duties in February. Yet you can understand why Nowitzki wanted no part of it.

Carlisle insisted that Nowitzki "is excited" to have this swing at redemption no matter what he says, but who could tell? Dirk ended the party with another understated performance at the postgame podium ... once he dislodged the microphone from its stand like he always does before consenting to break down Dallas' 10th win in 11 games since it blew that 23-point lead at Portland.

"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 [conference championship] trophies already. And it didn't mean anything at the end."

Dimes past: May 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 18 | 19 | 20 | 21 | 22 | 23 | 24 | 25

2. In The End, Thunder's Progress Impressive

By John Hollinger


OKLAHOMA CITY -- Here's the measure of where the Oklahoma City Thunder were and where they're going: They've become so good at the big things that we can now dissect how bad they are at the little things.

Given that most of their key players should still be in college, this isn't exactly shocking.

But Oklahoma City's inability to make key plays down the stretch bit them again in Game 5, a season-ending 100-96 loss to the Dallas Mavericks. For the second straight game, the Thunder blew a late lead, this time crumbling under Dallas' 14-4 closing run that featured yet another back-breaking shot from Dirk Nowitzki.

This one sends the Thunder into the offseason pondering both how far they've come and how much farther they have to go.

"A couple times this postseason we lost our composure," Thunder center Kendrick Perkins said. "It's nothing about our talent, it's nothing about our togetherness."

Fittingly, it was the little things that did them in at the end. Like a loose-ball situation in which Russell Westbrook may or may not have been fouled by Tyson Chandler, leading to Nowitzki's go-ahead 3-pointer.

"I don't know what to tell you," said Westbrook, who clearly wanted to avoid a fine.

Like backup point guard Eric Maynor waving off a screen and then taking perhaps the most important shot of the season with 55.9 seconds left and the Thunder trailing by a point.

"Had a chance to make a basket and missed it," Maynor said. "It happens."

Like Thunder coach Scott Brooks going with a small lineup the entire fourth quarter, leaving Serge Ibaka on the bench and Maynor on the floor. His only substitution was putting in Daequan Cook with 13 seconds left.

• For the full story, click here »

3. Daily Dime Live

Zach Harper, TrueHoop Network bloggers and fans gave their in-game opinions on all topics throughout Wednesday's slate of NBA playoff talk in Daily Dime Live.


You must be signed in to post a comment

Already have an account?