By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
This is how it all began to unravel.
6:34: 16-foot jumper,
Jason Terry— Mavericks 89, Heat 76.
On Tuesday, June 13, 2006, at approximately 10:15 p.m. in Miami's American Airlines Arena, the Dallas Mavericks could taste their first NBA Championship. Already leading their best-of-seven NBA Finals series against the Heat, 2-0, Terry's wide-open shot over a hapless defense seemingly provided a death grip on Game 3.
Heat fans that arrived hours earlier waving white rally towels were now throwing them in as they trudged toward the exits. No NBA team had ever rallied from a 3-0 deficit to win a playoff series, much less the NBA Finals.
Simply nurse the healthy margin home and Dallas' 26-year foreplay would finally climax in a parade.
"The trophy was right there—I mean, right there," recalls Mavericks' assistant coach Darrell Armstrong, a reserve guard on that '06 team. "But we had no idea how to grab it. We're up 13 and during that timeout, I remember looking at our huddle and thinking 'uh-oh'. It was eerie. Too quiet. We had this funny look in our eyes like 'we might actually win this thing,' and we weren't ready for it."
In a lot of ways, the Mavericks are still in that huddle.
Still trying to figure out how to win. Still haunted by their monumental implosion. And yes, still affected—in psychological scars and philosophical strategy—by that final 6:34 in Miami 32 months ago.
Instead of stepping on Miami's throat, the Mavericks pinched themselves right out of their dream. In the final five minutes, they passively settled for five missed jumpers of 15 feet or longer, made just one layup, committed five turnovers and watched as cornerstone Dirk Nowitzki nervously front-rimmed a free throw that would've forced overtime. Meanwhile, Heat guard Dwyane Wade morphed into Michael Jordan, scoring 12 of his 42 points down the stretch. Gary Payton made his only shot of the game in the final 10 seconds, just minutes after career 52-percent free-throw shooter Shaquille O'Neal went an unlikely 2-for-2.
By the end of the night the series was over all right, but it belonged to Miami.
The 98-96 epic failure left the Mavs irreparably gutted. They were blown out in Game 4, suffered another late-game collapse in Game 5 and watched Terry's game-tying 3-pointer rim out at the buzzer of Game 6's climactic loss in Dallas' American Airlines Center.
"Looking back," Armstrong says, "we never got out of Game 3."
Window = closed.
But for how long?
"You move on, but certain things will burn in you forever," says Mavericks' general manager Donnie Nelson. "What we went through that summer in 2006...the resolve and the inspiration from that experience is involved in everything we do around here."
The Miami meltdown commenced a three-year slide of diminishing returns. The Mavericks, as the No. 1 and then No. 7 seed, lost in the first round of the playoffs the following two years and this season have yet to distinguish themselves from a large pack of teams jockeying for playoff position in the middle of the Western Conference.
Had Dallas closed out Game 3 and captured its championship, odds are Avery Johnson would still be the coach, Devin Harris would be blossoming as an All-Star here instead of New Jersey and former mayor Laura Miller wouldn't be eternally vilified for her office's premature parade plans. Instead, the Mavs continue to try to convince themselves and their fan base that 2006 was a special team worthy of life-support.
Stubbornly, the Mavericks are clinging to their go-for-it mode, confident they can win back their lost championship before being forced to take the irreversible steps toward rebuilding. It's a strategy which could, at worst, endanger the franchise's foundation—trading Nowitzki, re-shaping the roster via a star-studded 2010 free-agent class, and even terminating Cuban's relationship—symbiotic as it is—with Nelson.
Is going forward by standing still the right move? With only two major changes since '06—Rick Carlisle has replaced Johnson as head coach and Jason Kidd is now the point guard instead of Harris—and no trades at the recent deadline, the Mavericks remain a team too good to dismantle, yet not good enough to beat the Los Angeles Lakers or Boston Celtics in a game, much less a series. With a discernible erosion of confidence, a playing core pushing into its 30s and a cupboard bare of young stars and high draft picks, the future is murky.
That's because the Mavericks' future—though chained to the past—is now.
6:15: 15-foot bank
shot, Dwyane Wade—
Mavericks 89, Heat 78.
foul— Mavericks 89, Heat 78.
5:36: Driving layup,
Wade (Josh Howard
foul)— Mavericks 89, Heat 80.
5:36: Free throw,
Wade— Mavericks 89, Heat 81.
5:19: 10-foot jumper,
Mavericks 91, Heat 81.
"Treadmill teams don't have a realistic chance to win the championship," Cuban says in the AAC locker room before a recent home game. "They hope to win 41 games and sneak into eighth spot. That's not us. We're a game or two out of having home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. We've got a shot."