What an amazing night in the life of the Dallas Mavericks franchise. There are dozens of threads we could follow in this "Morning After" column, but rather than following any sort of strategy thread (which I surely love to do) I feel compelled, instead, to focus on the primary characteristic of this band of brothers who wear the Mavericks logo on a night to night basis. Win or lose - and who could possibly know which way this is going to go - this 2011 Dallas Mavericks' team will be best remembered for their resolve, fight, and character.
This team simply won't die.
They showed it last night. They showed it throughout this run. And they plan on showing it the rest of the way.
What makes these characteristics so remarkable would be that this team had a reputation that was quite the opposite around the league. Over the years, they did not seem to have a steely resolve. They seemed to crumble against difficult circumstances. And they did not seem to possess the heart of a champion.
Well, toss that reputation in the trash. That was then. This is now.
This team is full of warriors. These last 2 months of playoff basketball has showed us that heart and resolve can cover some other deficiencies a roster may have.
And no night showed that more than last night. Here is Dirk Nowitzki, the unchallenged star of this show, weakened considerably with illness from the performances that he has proven are somewhat like clock work. Whether it is the injuries or the sickness, he didn't have anywhere near his normal arsenal of weapons last night. But, when the team had no choice but to look to their leader, he rose up in the 4th Quarter and helped bring the game home. As vital and imperative as his Game 2 left-handed drive turned out to be, the same can be said for his Game 4 right-handed drive that sealed things last night. He stood tall in a game where he had very little in the tank and struggled for most of the night. But, because this team had a "team effort" in Game 4, they stayed around until Dirk could do what he is known for doing.
And while the headlines will focus on the finishing touches that he put on the victory, I believe we must dig far deeper into the DNA of this squad to properly recognize what we saw in Game 4 from a team that is clearly the best team Dallas has ever seen.
In the last two summers, the Mavericks made moves each off-season that did not rock the league. They were far more subtle than any "Decision" that was carried live nationally on the networks. But, for the Mavericks story, only now do we realize how vital they both were.
First, in the summer of 2009, Dallas was part of a 4-team deal that brought Shawn Marion to the Mavericks. Marion was 31 at the time and signed a 5-year deal that seemed to be a bit ambitious and added to the collective age on this squad. But, it provided something Dallas has never had. A player who would be asked to match-up each round with the best offensive player the opposition can bring. He would guard Kobe Bryant one round, Kevin Durant the next, and then switch constantly between LeBron James and Dwyane Wade in the next. And in every case, he would hold his own very well. And, if that isn't enough, he will also be your second scorer behind Dirk Nowitzki in the NBA Finals. And through it all, he would always appear as ready as anyone on the team to battle for any loose ball - above the rim or on the floor - and always be present and accounted for when crunch time needs a play to be made.
In this particular game, he actually was not on the floor in the 4th Quarter almost at all. And yet, his stamp was all over this game. In the 3rd Quarter he was leaned on heavily to score as he scored half of the Mavericks' 20 points and still defended very well throughout. Shawn Marion may not get the proper amount of recognition or ink during this run, but there is no question in my mind that his presence is amazingly vital and they are not where they are without his contributions. His scoring was considered a bonus on top of his play on the glass and on defense, and yet, he is outscoring every player on this Dallas team besides Dirk in the NBA Finals.
Then, in the summer of 2010, Dallas pulled the trigger on the deal with Charlotte that we have discussed quite a bit for Tyson Chandler. At the time, very few people were suggesting that this move could not only be a great addition, but even a franchise-altering addition, but I am compelled to elaborate yet again. What makes Tyson Chandler so important to the team is his total package of skills and intangibles. He is a born-leader who players automatically respect and follow. It was clear last night in the 1st Quarter that Miami was swarming the glass and the paint and if Tyson himself did not take it personally and battle them all by himself, the Mavericks would have been run out of their own gym. Chandler is a true warrior and the perfect compliment to Dirk inside. He does dirty work with great routine, he protects the rim, and he rallies the troops. He sees what the team needs and does whatever he can to fill that need.
Lost in all of his numbers - And the Mavericks needed all of his 13 points and 16 rebounds - was the simple fact that he is a very smart player. Chandler knew that without Brendan Haywood in Game 3 and almost without Haywood in Game 4, it was vital that Chandler not fall victim to foul trouble. He had to stay in the game. And he has. He has played 32 minutes a game in the NBA Playoffs, but in these last two games, he has played 83. He knows everyone is counting on him to not only play, but to play very well. And Tyson Chandler is not letting his team down.
And when it was clear Haywood was not capable of defending last night, Chandler basically puts himself back into the game. "I told Coach, 'You have to get me back out there. I will play 48 if I need to.'" Legendary stuff from the man in the middle. Chandler's play is contagious, and his fight is something that this team needed in the middle. Erick Dampier never possessed an inner competition fire anywhere close to Chandler's. Like so much else in this story, there is no question that this team relies on Chandler's battle.
Those players (Dirk, Marion, Chandler) are at the tip of the spear, but, when you have players like that at your core, others follow and stay ready. And that is where DeShawn Stevenson gets recognized as well.
When word began to circulate before Game 4 that Stevenson was not going to start because Rick Carlisle decided to start JJ Barea instead, the easy conclusion was that this was a move based on finding more favorable situations to play Barea. Obviously the result seemed to be a lesser role for Stevenson. Whether that was the intent or not is unclear, but what is clear is that Stevenson scored his playoff-high in points (11) while playing his 2nd most minutes (nearly 26) in a playoff game.
If any player is interested in a chance to bother LeBron James, it is Stevenson. He has made his name in this league for incidents involving James, and he seems to rise to the occasion against the star. Nobody expected that history to come into play in this series, but last night, the job DeShawn did early with his 3-pointers and then in the 4th Quarter he was on the scene for many defensive stops that were so necessary. After many assumed that Carlisle's move would result in almost no role for Stevenson, he actually turned into one of the key players of the game.
The way to tie all of this together is that this is a team. The narrative after Game 3 is that "Dirk needs help". And to an extent, especially scoring in the late stages of the game, that is true. He did need his side-kick in 4th Quarter offense, Jason Terry, to step up to another level. Terry did so and together they scored just enough to seal a victory.
But, through 3 Quarters, Dirk and Jet combined for just 20 of the 65 Dallas points. The supporting cast was not only doing their normal jobs of defending some of the most gifted scorers in the world, but they also picked up the primary scoring as well. Marion had 16, Stevenson 11, Chandler 10, and Barea had 8. They were there to pull Dirk along through the middle of the game where Dirk couldn't buy a basket.
In the 4th Quarter, Dirk and Jet scored 18 of the 21 points, and the rest of the Mavericks did a magnificent job of locking down the Miami attack late (again).
In a post season of gutty wins, this might be the gut-check masterpiece. There was every reason to go quietly into the night, but this team doesn't ever go quietly. There are enough warriors up and down this roster that they are either going to be victorious or they are going to die trying. You have to admire these characteristics. Talk is cheap, but this Mavericks' squad backs up all of its tough talk with actions.
Meanwhile, the Miami Heat look a bit off balance. They have a well chronicled soap opera that is continuing to gain momentum with each contest. They have received about 80% of the attention in this series and today much of the national discussion will be about how the Heat lost the game rather than how Dallas won. And deep inside they have to be wondering why their opponent is not caving in and conceding. This is turning out to be much more difficult than they must have been expecting. They continue to build leads in the 4th Quarter and Dallas continues to battle until the last second and often leave with the victory.
Obviously, when you are an underdog in a series, the first objective is to create doubt in the minds of the favorite. There can be no question that doubt is in the Miami room. They still have every chance to overcome that doubt, but they must now deal with it. We have a series.
Can any team win 2 games in a row? Or will the team that is forced back to the wall always take the next game? If the Mavericks want a trophy (and there is every indication that they surely do) then they must get Game 5. Winning 2 games in Miami in this series is going to be difficult enough. Don't make it even more difficult by having to win 3 times in South Florida. Get Game 5 and then we will see Miami pushed to the breaking point. If pressure bursts pipes, it will have every chance to be the Mavericks' best weapon in a Game 6.
But that is all predicated on getting the win on Thursday. So, if there is still any resolve left in the tank, it must be summoned. They need as many healthy bodies and as many warriors as they can to defend Dallas turf for the final home game of this magnificent run.
Regardless of what happens from here on out, Dallas will never forget this team. The resolve, the fortitude, and the will is enough to capture the imagination of a city. But, to get their spot in NBA immortality, they need to find 2 more wins. They know it, and quite clearly, they want it.
Sports gets no better than this.
Rest up, boys.