June 13, 2011

Dallas Mavericks are the 2011 NBA Champions

I doubted them from the start. This year, they proved me wrong on every step.

On June 12, 2011, The Dallas Mavericks ended a 31-year barren run, after being founded in 1980, to finally lift the NBA Championship, beating the Miami Heat 4-2 in the NBA Finals. Averaging 27 points, 9.4 rebounds, hitting countless clutch shots, and surviving a tough fever-ridden night, Dirk Nowitzki was deservingly won the Finals MVP award. The Mavs lifted the trophy in Miami after winning Game 6 on the road, 105-95.

It seems eons ago now, but when the Playoffs began two months ago, back in mid-April, the Mavericks meant little to me. I had them ranked behind the Lakers, Bulls, Heat, Celtics, and Spurs as my title favourites. To me, they were equal to the Magic, and on certain cocky days, I even pretended that the youthful Thunder could get the better of them.

I had reason for my doubts: Five years ago, the Mavs were near the top of the basketball mountain, leading 2-0 over the same Miami Heat (with many different characters), and planning a victory parade. It all came crashing down, and the Dirk/Mavs choker tag took shape. The next season, Nowitzki won MVP, the Mavericks won a season-best 67 games, but their season came crashing down after an embarrassing 1st round meltdown against the Golden State Warriors. A year ago, now ranked 2nd in the West, facing the 7th place Spurs, the 'choke' happened again. Mavs went out in the first round.

So I thought, why wouldn't history repeat itself, right? Hell, if you look back at my first round predictions now, you'll see that I predicted that the sixth-placed Blazers, the pre-playoff surest bet of the strongest lower seed, would upset the Mavs. Of course, that upset didn't happen, and many others did. Then, I thought that the reigning champs Lakers were going to cruise in the Mavs series, but the exact opposite took place, as the Mavericks swept LA in impressive fashion, 4-0. They were mostly unstoppable against the OKC Thunder in the Conference Finals, reaching the Finals with ease. And even then, I bet against them. I bet that a more defensive minded team - a Bulls side or a Heat side - would defeat the 'softer' Mavs, led by their 'softer' leader Dirk. But Dirk didn't let that happen either. Game after game, the Mavs showed against resilience to bounce back over and over again, and upturned a 2-1 deficit into a 4-2 lead.

Through this incredible journey, the Mavs embodied everything that people expected an old-school 'team' to embody. In Jason Kidd, they had the league's elder-statesman, a 38-year-old point guard using his savvy instead of his athleticism to get the better of his opponents. They brought in an amazing addition in Tyson Chandler, who offered the team previously missing confidence and toughness in the post. They lost Caron Butler - who I believed to be their second-best player on paper, early in the season, but his shoes were filled aptly by Shaun Marion, who saved his best performance on both ends of the floor against Miami in the Finals. They boasted of the best support players in the league, getting invaluable contributions from JJ Barea, DeShawn Stevenson, Brendan Haywood, Peja Stojacovic, and even 'The Custodian', aka, Brian Cardinal. Their bench was obviously led by none other than Jason Terry, who stepped up to the plank when required to secure the ring.

And the leader of this crew, the undisputed MVP of this squad, was Dirk Nowitzki. In the list of active NBA players who have spent their entire career with just one team, Nowitzki stands third, only behind Kobe Bryant (15 years) and Tim Duncan (14), after spending 13 years with the Mavericks. He's tied with Paul Pierce (13 years with Celtics), and now, all four of those names have a championship.

Behind Dirk's mental toughness, this team has buried that 'soft/choker' tag in style. They made improbable comebacks, hit big shots, and won by DEFENSE at the end of several close games. They beat everyone who came their way and used every weapon they had. They became deserving champions.

Nowitzki is not only the Finals MVP, but in my book, the Playoffs MVP too. He averaged 28.1 ppg during the playoffs along with 8 rebounds a game. Countless things have already been said about how, Nowitzki, with this win, buries over a decade of mockery and haunting meltdowns. From a skinny, quiet German, with one unmatched skill (a seven-footer with a jump-shot), Nowitzki added more and more every year to his resume. He added leadership, he added toughness, he added rebounding, he added the ability to attack the basket, and more than anything this year, he added resilience, a quality that trickled down to the rest of the team.

This win also ends an arduous road for Jason Kidd, who got bounced around from Dallas to Phoenix to New Jersey and then back to Dallas for his search of the promised land. Before June 12th, he ranked at the top of the list as the player with most playoff games played without a championship (141). Nowitzki was 2nd with 123. You get the sense that this win had a long, long way coming.

And now, what happens to this team next? Well, they only get stronger. They get Caron Butler back. They hope to resign Tyson Chandler. They hope to entice other veteran free agents to jump on the bandwagon for another year.

I used to believe, before the 2011 playoffs, that the Mavs were a perfect roster, with a perfect coach in Rick Carlisle, and a good owner in Mark Cuban, but their only weakness was their mental toughness. This year, they have shattered that notion. This team could easily repeat it next year.

And of course, we can't end the talk of the Finals without a mention to the losing side. The Miami heat were a seven-minute meltdown away from a 2-0 series advantage. Instead, Game 2 changed everything. Miami lost a double-digit lead in the game's last seven minutes, and even though they won Game 3, the belief was in Dallas that they could overcome any adversity. Miami, who looked like the far better team after the first three games, lost their swagger in the last three.

Dwyane Wade, Miami's most valuable player in the Finals, goes back unsuccessful in his attempt to repeat the 2006 Finals domination over the same squad. But that doesn't say that he didn't try - before a leg injury altered his aggressiveness in the last 2 games, Wade was the best player of the series, threatening to carry this squad, almost single-handedly to another title. In the end, Wade was just not good enough. Blame injury, or blame pressure, Wade screwed up too many times in end of game situations, and as he shouldered most of the weight of this team, he is showered in most of the scorn of their defeat.

Of course, he shouldn't have had to do it single-handedly, right? A certain 2-time MVP's meltdown in front of the world's eyes made sure that Wade was mostly all alone. LeBron James, considered by many to be the NBA's most talented basketball player, and considered foolishly to be the next (or better) Michael Jordan in Scottie Pippen's eyes, was anything but great in this series. He was barely 'good'. James continued his awful NBA Finals record, and the world will look back at the last two weeks and wonder what the hell happened!!! James TOTALED 18 points in the six four quarters of the Finals, averaging just 3 points a game in the fourth. He was passive, he was the incredible 'Shrinking Superstar', he was third-best to Chris Bosh in his team. This happened after a near-perfect performance in the Conference Finals over reigning MVP Derrick Rose. This shocked everyone, even ardent LeBron haters. This happened in the Finals, the biggest stage of his career, and playing with the strongest NBA team he's ever played for.

If this is the world's most talented player, then the world has a very wrong notion of what 'talent' is.

Miami will bounce back, of course. They're too 'talented' not too. Just like Nowitzki learnt from years of near-success, LeBron will learn and come back stronger, too. And he has Wade on his side. And he has Bosh, or the trade value of Bosh, on his side. We must not forget that, after all, this team has essentially only been together for less than one year. Champions aren't formed overnight - the Celtics Big Three did it in 2008, and the Heat nearly did it this year, and we should give them credit for getting a winning, defensive team mentality so soon.

But today, they stand second best to the Mavericks, who have finally avenged 2006 and now stand alone as NBA Champions.

I'm not going to ponder any further about what will happen next season, because I don't even know if the next season will happen. The Lockout is a very clear and frightening possibility. I'm too depressed by the potential notion of the 'L-Word' to even think about it - as long as I block the thought from my head and remain ignorant, it's not going to happen. Unless the day it happens, of course.

So if these Finals were the last act of NBA basketball before a longer-than-usual intermission, then they were a fitting exciting finish. Let's celebrate the Mavericks' achievement now - next season is next season.

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