Monday, May 07, 2012

The Aftermath of The Oddest Season Ever

Sometimes, you must return to normal to realize just how amazing a time that you had.

And, over the weekend, the Dallas Mavericks returned to the normal, painful, and gutting feeling of being easily dismissed in the NBA Playoffs. This time, it was the young and energetic legs of the Oklahoma City Thunder. And this time, it was a 4-game sweep that started with question of who the better team was with 2 very close games up north of the Red River. But, by the end of the 4th game, with hat in hand, the Mavericks nodded and shook hands with their captors, as they had been soundly defeated. It was a 4-game sweep, something that is not normal at all in the Nowitzki-era. But, the sudden end of playoff basketball all to early in the playoffs often has been recently. Except the year it wasn't.

It is normal because in 2007, Golden State had a laugh at the Mavericks and pounded them with ease. In 2008, the same went for New Orleans and the 1st round bouncing that taught us that Josh Howard has a late April birthday and likes birthday parties. It also got his coach, Avery Johnson fired.

In 2009, the Mavericks won a round in the playoffs for the first time since the 2006 Western Finals by beating up a beaten up Spurs team, and then were bullied and dismantled by the Denver Nuggets in 5 games. Dirk, who had the newspapers enjoying his personal life issues, played valiantly, and pretty much alone. In 2010, those same Spurs had their revenge - ending yet another season in 6 quick games.

A quick point of context for this lesson, of course, is that in a 30 team league, there will be 29 teams that end the year in some level of disappointment. If the goal is to win the trophy at the end of the road, then odds are very much stacked against a single team ever winning it all in a single year or in many cases, even during a generation.

But, the Mavericks, who have been very successful for years in the regular season and flirted with major playoff success on a number of occasions, used the prime of Dirk Nowitzki after the 2006 NBA Finals to win 10 of 27 (37%) playoff games over the next 4 seasons. All seemed lost.

And then, the spring of 2011 happened. When it was happening, so many Mavericks fans and observers didn't anticipate it continuing. There was very little belief at the start of the run, and during the entire 60 days or so, there was a feeling amongst more than a few that nobody better move lest the perfect alignment of humanity be thrown off and cause this good fortune to expire. But, it never did. It just kept rolling. The further they advanced, the more they believed. The more they believed, the better they played. And so on they went. All of the way they advanced through teams that were considered better (Lakers), younger (Thunder), and then the best team on the planet, a team that was better and younger, the Miami Heat.

It was altogether magical and unpredictable. A team doing something that will likely never be matched. A team - as I wrote in my book about the championship, THIS YEAR IS DIFFERENT -
"with 109 years of service time, all of it ring-less: Kidd, Nowitzki, Stojakovic, Terry, Marion, Cardinal, Stevenson, Chandler, Haywood, Barea, Brewer, Mahinmi. Combined the 12 players that made up the 2011 NBA Finals roster had accumulated 109 previous seasons of experience (not to mention 362 years of age) that had ended without a championship.

No other NBA Championship winner of the past 50 years comes remotely close to that statistic. The runner-up was the 1989 Detroit Pistons, whose cast had combined for 67 seasons of title-less basketball before winning the first rings. The 1991 Chicago Bulls could claim 52 seasons and the 1983 Philadelphia 76ers had 45 seasons before their titles. The Mavs' aggregate 109 ringless seasons is just off the charts.

"We had no champions on this team," Chandler said. "And we walked away with a team full of champions."

Think about that. Consider that the no team had ever won it all with a veteran team without any championship accomplishments before the summer of 2011. That unlikely Dallas Mavericks squad gave us a show that was unique and singular and fairy tale-like from start to finish.

So, when I tweeted on Saturday night the following: In watching the exits of 2010 and 2012, I am reminded that the miracle of 2011 was, in fact, a miracle. I was certainly not expecting that to be offensive. But, perhaps because the sweep had just happened or perhaps because everyone was dealing with that Spurs' fan that we all know that was able to crow again, the term "miracle" caused many to recoil in their chairs when reading.

Any sporting title requires a lot of things to fall just right. Perfect health, the inch of good fortune going your way, and a call here or there from the officials that works out. Momentum, belief, inexperience on the other side are all there, too. Then, match-ups that smile upon you as you avoid match-ups that might not be as pleasant. It requires, in effect, everything to bounce correctly for you to be the one team out of 30 to remain standing.

Miracle is a term I suppose I have attached to sports since my favorite sporting event of my lifetime, "the Miracle on Ice" of the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid as our team of school boys took down the men from the Soviet Union to win a very unlikely gold. On February 9, 1980, 3 days before the 1st game of the Olympics, the USA and USSR met in New York for a final exhibition game. And when Russia won 10-3, we thought we knew the margin between the two teams. So, when they met again on February 22, and the USA won before beating Finland 2 days later for the gold, you had your miracle.

I would never compare the two stories in terms of their miraculous accomplishment. But, I would tell this story: After Game 2 of the 2011 Finals, I talked to several members of the Mavericks basketball operations staff. This was the game of the Mavericks insane comeback in the final 7 minutes to steal a game in Miami and a most improbable victory. At 1-1, the team had its chance to compete now in the playoffs. Which is why I will never forget the odd admission by more than one Mavericks' operative that those first two games had depressed them. They fully now realized what a massive hill the Mavericks had to climb. Yes, the series was tied. But, now, after being manhandled for 7 1/2 of the 8 quarters in Games 1 and 2, the realized the mismatch that Miami had on them all over the floor. Was there any way they could figure out a way to beat that team 3 more times? They had their doubts.

I remember Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, and Dwyane Wade all missing shots at the buzzer that would have won games for their teams. Shots that they had made dozens of times in their careers. But, in each case, they missed those shots off the rim. An inch here and an inch there.

This isn't to say that the Mavericks 2011 was a fluke. It wasn't. They went 16-5 and never lost a Game 5 or 6 in the playoffs. And they never needed to play a Game 7. They won the title with such precision and execution that nobody can make that case.

But, it was miraculous in that nobody saw it coming. And nobody saw it leaving. They were the best team in that tournament, but if those players played another series the next month, most people would again make Miami a big favorite. The players force people to play the odds. And the odds didn't agree with the result.

They might have only been the best team in the world for that moment in time. This year, for reasons that have been well documented, the Mavericks moved on from that team. Perhaps, even they knew what they had done and that it was highly unlikely that everything would align again like that.

As the sweep reached completion on Saturday Night, it was an odd feeling. They were taken down by a team that had their top 4 leading scorers in the series born in 1988 (Kevin Durant), 1988 (Russell Westbrook), 1989 (James Harden), and 1988 (Serge Ibaka). By their years of birth, Jason Kidd was already choosing which college he would play for. Their 5th leading scorer, Derek Fisher, had won 5 titles with Los Angeles (he is the former Laker that could teach Lamar Odom a thing or two about competing and being a pro) and a major contributor to their cause. The Thunder hope this is the year that they catch everything right for the next 3 rounds. And who is to say if they will capture that tailwind?

The end for Dallas was familiar pain and extreme disappointment. And yet, it made many of us reflect on 2011 all of the more. Maybe Spurs or Lakers fans will giggle at knowing many fans told me they pulled out their copies of the 2011 Finals to watch them again. They wanted to see Tyson Chandler back in a Mavericks uniform and everything making sense all over again. They wanted to make sure that last summer was not just all a dream.

This year was a major disappointment on pretty much every level. It would be difficult to assign blame and the sooner this team can move out of this "temporary" situation and into a phase the fans can buy into long-term, the better.

But, more than anything, maybe it is that slap of reality that makes one appreciate the fantasy ride that we had left behind. And in my mind, it might be the greatest sports story this city has ever experienced. And, to me, after seeing a familiar end to another seasons, it qualifies as a sports miracle all of the more.

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