Thursday, May 26, 2011
The Western Conference Finals ended the only way that was fitting on Wednesday Night. With Dirk putting the Mavericks in the lead. Again.
If sports fairy tales came true, then that would mean that we would be assured a happy ending in the Dirk Nowitzki trip around the basketball world in a few weeks' time. In the same category in the fairy tale section as the John Elway Super Bowl victory, everybody had assumed the window had shut on his chance. His greatness as a whole had been pushed down a spot or two when discussions were had after playoff disappointments. Surely, he was not of "championship quality". Surely, he is to blame for his team falling short in the playoffs. In a star-driven sport, the Dallas Mavericks have a real nice player, but not one of those great ones that win trophies.
We don't know how this sports story will end when basketball season is over. But, we know about last night's chapter. The one where the team was down almost 47 minutes into a 48 minute game. The Mavericks were trailing 94-92 with 90 seconds to play when they reacquired the ball on a steal by Dirk. Russell Westbrook thought he saw an open Nick Collison down low, but Dirk stepped in the path of the ball and was able to get his right hand on the pass and the Mavericks had the ball back.
The first priority as they crossed half court was for Jason Kidd to find Nowitzki on the left wing against Collison on another isolation sequence that we have seen over and over in this series. This time, Dirk gets the edge on Collison and heads to the hoop where the Thunder defense collapse on the star. He sees Jason Terry in the corner for a go-ahead 3, but his pass is deflected out of bounds as the Thunder are trying to cover everything.
Inbounds play with 1:24. Jason Kidd will pass it in as all 4 Mavericks start the play at the free throw line. As Kidd looks for options, first Terry and then Tyson Chandler screen Collison as Dirk drops back behind the 3-point line. Because of the double screen, Dirk is free for a split second. Kidd puts the ball in the German's hands and the arena gasps with excitement as the shot leaves his hands and a swish is forthcoming.
But, it doesn't go in. It rims out. And Westbrook grabs the carom as he battles Chandler down low. But, in the scramble, Westbrook loses his balance and as he is falling to the ground (with Chandler's foot helping to knock him over) he tosses the ball back in play and what he hopes is to his teammates. However, in another stroke of fortune, he basically rolls the ball to Jason Terry. Terry goes cross court to Marion. At the point Terry gets the ball, Dirk had already dropped back on defense and was actually on the time-line. He reversed his direction back into the front-court.
Marion sees Dirk rushing back to the play and finds him right as the Mavericks leader was back in position for another try. This time, there is no screen and Collison challenges the shot. But, this time, there is no mistake. The ball rips through the cords and the Mavericks have a 95-94 lead. The 20,000+ expresses their extreme gratitude in a massive sound explosion.
Like the 3-pointer he hit on Monday night in the historic Game 4 rally, his 3-point shot in Game 5 was the moment the tides finally turned all of the way.
On the next possession, the Mavericks buckled down hard on defense and forced an airball from Eric Maynor from the paint and Nick Collison collected the rebound as he was falling out of bounds. With no other option, he also attempted to send the ball in the general direction of his teammates and hope for the best. And like Westbrook's attempted blind pass, the results for the Thunder were not what they had hoped. Like so many moments in this series, when the Mavericks needed a 50/50 play to go their way, it did. Terry and James Harden both leaped for the ball and somehow it tipped over to Shawn Marion - a player that always seems ready to go get the loose ball when they are needed the most.
Marion had nothing but open court ahead of him and was about to make a 1-point lead bigger. As he is heading down the court with 52 seconds to play, you can see Durant trying to chase him down. For a split second, Jason Terry pulls another veteran move and blocks Durant's path for a step. This gives Marion all the space he needs and not only does he get the dunk, but he also is fouled as Durant still tried a desperation block that was called for contact. The place again explodes. The end is near.
It took one more offensive rebound to salt the game away, but in the end it was a familiar theme in this series against the Oklahoma City crew that appears so promising in the years to come. It was the grit and know-how to make the plays in the games final moments that won it for Dallas. They appeared superior in very few ways, honestly, for most of these 5 games. But, in the last 5 minutes of the 5 4th Quarters, the Mavericks outscored the Thunder by 24 points. And that, quite simply was the only difference there was.
Dallas knew how to make shots. How to get stops. How to make free throws. How to get a loose ball. Not all of them, just the ones that really mattered and determined the winners of these games.
It was veteran know-how versus youthful confusion. All of that extra energy did not help them deal with the composed execution of the guys who have been on this road before. There is a ton of resolve on the Mavericks roster. The other 3 teams in the Conference Finals could all discuss their bright futures and the ideas that they could be in a position to be back at this point of the playoffs many, many more times before it is said and done.
But, Dallas knows that they have an urgency that the others don't have. They know that their window is open right now. In a few weeks, it may slam shut for them forever. Many of these players know that they have been in thousands of practices and flights and hotels and games and the only thing they are missing is the right to be NBA Champions.
And how was that best demonstrated last night? You could certainly argue the game's final moments. But, I prefer to dwell on the Western Conference trophy presentation. Sure, there were a few moments of jubilation allowed as Dirk showed the trophy to the fans.
But, as Mark Cuban and Rick Carlisle were being interviewed, the cameras caught Dirk first getting a blank stare on his face, and then saw him turn around, and leave the arena. Nobody understood where he was going when it happened. But, then it clicked. And it gave chills to anyone who has every pulled for that guy to get that title that drives him.
He was done with this moment. He was happy, but he wasn't interested in giving anyone the impression that his mission was accomplished. He was ready to move on. And he wasn't even going to wait for his coach to end his interview with ESPN.
Instead, he left. And his teammates didn't need anyone to instruct them what to do. They do what they have done this entire playoff. They followed their leader. In moments, the entire team had exited the stage. Even though they have days before they engage in the final battle of the war, they were heading back to the room to symbolically move on, too. It was a moment in time that will not be forgotten. It was the moment that best demonstrates how much Dirk has changed over the years. The unassuming fellow who just loves the sport has grown into the leader who is driven by victory and for the moment to personally vanquish his enemies. He has grown into that William Wallace figure that his detractors said he could never be.
Dirk said it last night. He has been this far before.
"We talked about it after the game. This is a great moment and 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 2nd place finish. I was already thinking about the Finals. I'm going to stay in the moment, obviously. Like I said, this is nice for a day, but we said our goal in October was to win it all so we haven't done that yet."
The story has unfolded. 3 rounds of basketball have been completed. The Mavericks have won 12 of 15 games. They have won the series in a fashion that has allowed for rest between each round. They have taken all challengers. And they await their final opponent.
They are so close. They are so determined.
Their time is now.
Will the fairy tale have a happy ending? We will know very soon.