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Greatest season in Mavs' history ends in heartbreak

DALLAS -- The greatest season in Dallas Mavericks history is
over -- except for lamenting the what ifs.

What if they hadn't blown that 13-point lead with 6:34 left in
Game 3?

What if the refs had called things differently at the end of
Game 5?

And what if they'd been able to sustain all their early energy
in Game 6, when they were playing like a team that didn't want to
see its season end?

After letting a 14-point first quarter lead turn into a
one-point deficit at halftime, the Mavericks opened the second half
by missing 14 of 16 shots and couldn't recover.
Although Dallas tied it at 79, Dwyane Wade and the Miami Heat again
found answers when the Mavs couldn't, pulling out a 95-92 victory
and the NBA championship.

"I'm sure as more time goes by, we can be more proud of what we
did," said Dirk Nowitzki, who scored only two of his 29 points in
the final quarter. "We had a heck of a year. Nobody expected us to
come out of the West. But right now, the frustration is high."

The Mavericks cut it to 91-90 on a jumper by Josh Howard with
42.4 seconds left. They had one last possession with 9.1 seconds
left, but Jason Terry missed a 3-pointer. He missed 18 of his last
21 shots after making his first four.

"We had our chances, time and time again," Terry said,
referring to the series. "It's going to eat at us."

More agony: The Mavs endured losses by 1, 2 and 3 points.

"A bounce here and a bounce there and we're having a completely
different conversation," team owner Mark Cuban said. "It was a
great try."

That parade route mapped out by city officials nearly two weeks
ago can be shredded. So can all those record books showing that
teams that win the first two games at home always win the finals.

"I would say a great season is actually winning it, but
whatever the step below that is, that's what we've done," said
coach Avery Johnson, who has been talking about winning a
championship since Day 1. "This was a tremendous learning
experience for our players and coaches."

After winning three playoff series on someone else's court, the
Mavs were the ones watching someone celebrate on their floor.
That's a tough price to pay for a team's first four-game losing
streak of the season.

As the Miami players began hugging and the ceremony stage was being set
up, the PA announcer urged the crowd to "Give your team a round of
applause for an awesome season." A lukewarm reaction followed as
players headed to the locker room, Dirk Nowitzki walking out
looking down, hands clasped behind his head, and Josh Howard
leaving without his jersey.

Even when Heat owner Micky Arison opened his comments by
congratulating the Mavericks, fans were still booing commissioner
David Stern.

Inside the locker room, Johnson addressed the entire team, then
Cuban went around hugging and thanking players individually.

"[Johnson] just said he wanted us to stay together as a team,"
guard Devin Harris said. "Let it hurt so bad that you want to come
back next year and step it up to another level."

Cuban said he's committed to keeping the team together. That
includes Terry, a free agent who said he hopes to stay in Dallas.

The Mavericks won 60 regular-season games, tying the best mark
in club history. They swept Memphis in the first round, then
outlasted nemesis San Antonio in the second. They beat Phoenix in
the conference finals, avenging last year's second-round ousting
and keeping former teammate Steve Nash from making the finals.

Johnson was selected coach of the year for the regular
season. Coming into the finals, people were comparing him to
Miami's Pat Riley.

Nowitzki was third in the MVP voting for the regular season. His
status was soaring coming into the finals, giving him a chance to
really establish himself among the NBA's best players.

Dallas won the first two games and was leading late in the
third. In retrospect, that was the beginning of the end.

"That Game 3 was big," Nowitzki said when asked about the
what-ifs. "We had the game under control. If we win that, the
series was pretty much over.

"Maybe we were starting to celebrate too early. I don't know
what happened. We didn't execute. You have to play for 48 minutes,
not 43 or 44. That really changed the momentum of the series. They
got confidence and played better after that. ... I think we were
confident enough to win it. We just didn't."