Beat L.A.? The Mavs Might Replace Them on the Mountaintop.
Two words I never expected to hear organically and joyfully chanted at American Airlines Center:
Shocking as it was to hear, it was almost unfathomable to see.
If you honestly thought the notoriously soft, choke-charred Mavericks would beat the two-time defending NBA champion Lakers, 4-0, in their Western Conference Semifinal series, take a bow. And the next flight to Las Vegas.
For the other 99.99 percent of realists, it's time to admit our mistake, marvel at Dallas' achievement and salivate at what's next. The Mavericks—written off by a lot of us knuckleheads with long memories and short fuses after their Game 4 implosion in Portland—are four wins from a return to the NBA Finals.
And after upsetting the Lakers, they'll have home-court advantage in the Western Conference Finals against either the Oklahoma City Thunder or Memphis Grizzlies. Dallas, almost an afterthought and certainly a footnote to the Lakers and Spurs when the playoffs began, is suddenly a more experienced favorite to get back to The Finals for the first time since 2006.
"It's always big to beat a great team like the Lakers," Mavericks guard Jason Terry said after Sunday's game. "But we also realize we're only halfway home. We're just getting started."
This series was surreal from the tip.
Of ESPN.com's 12 NBA analysts, exactly zero picked Dallas to win. Some bozo sports columnist at the Observer predicted Lakers in 5, and no one this side of Charles Barkley and Mark Cuban gave the Mavs much of a chance against the team with five of the NBA's last 10 titles.
After halftime in Game 1, the Mavs fell behind by 16 points. But instead of pouting and cratering and losing, the Mavs rallied, benefited from two favorable calls down the stretch and held their breath as L.A.'s Kobe Bryant hoisted a potential game-winning 3-pointer at the buzzer.
How the series would have played out had that shot gone in we'll never know. But for the remainder of the series, the Mavericks were the superior squad. Nothing freaky about Game 2, as Dallas' defense suffocated the Lakers and backup point guard J.J. Barea pick-and-rolled L.A.'s defense with a barrage of fourth-quarter penetrations into the lane for layups and assists.
The series technically ended Sunday, but it was over Friday night, after Game 2.
Midway through the fourth quarter the Mavs trailed by eight. On their next four possessions they produced three missed jumpers and an offensive foul. And didn't lose a single point on the scoreboard.
Why? Because contrary to popular pre-series belief, the Mavs could indeed guard the Lakers in the paint. Even better, they kept L.A. out of the paint altogether. Down 87-81 with four minutes to go, the Lakers' Pau Gasol got the ball on the low block against Nowitzki. But Dirk didn't go for a series of fakes, and Gasol wound up taking—and missing—a 15-foot jumper. Rinse and repeat. Bryant turned it over and missed a 3-pointer. Peja Stojakovic forced Lamar Odom into a miss.
The Mavs made their free throws. The Mavs made the biggest plays. The Mavs, a team long known for its defensive deficiencies, held L.A. to one point on its final six possessions in the game's final 1:39 en route to a 98-92 victory.
In the corridors of AAC an impromptu pep rally broke out. The Mavericks' drum line thumped. Mavs fans jumped and danced and yelled and, yes, chanted.
"Sweep L.A.!, Sweep L.A.!"
It was a signature moment, not unlike the Rangers winning Game 5 in Tampa last October for the franchise's first ever playoff series victory. Except this was the Lakers. The team with 16 championships. With coach Phil Jackson and Kobe and the three playoff eliminations of Dallas in the '80s.
"I'll always have a unique hate for the Lakers," says former Mavericks guard-turned-TV-analyst Derek Harper, a member of the Mavs' '88 team that lost a Game 7 to the Lakers. "We had some great teams in the '80s but we always had to go through those Lakers teams loaded with Hall of Famers like Kareem (Abdul-Jabbar) and Magic (Johnson). If it wasn't for L.A. I think the Mavs would have a couple championship banners right now. So to knock them out—anywhere, in any round—would be a special deal."
Up 3-0 and with the Rangers in a World Series hangover and the Cowboys in a lockout, the Mavs had a chance to grab the metroplex sports fan by the short hairs. Enter the Mother's Day Massacre.
In a soul-cleansing shellacking for the ages, the Mavs kicked the Lakers' dynasty to its knees and then peed on it. Led by Terry's playoff-tying nine and Stojakovic's six of six, the Mavericks made 20 3-pointers in Game 4 and put the Lakers out of their misery, 122-86. It wasn't nearly that close.
As the lead grew to 10 and then 20 and then 30, ABC play-by-play voice Mike Tirico exclaimed, "Are you kidding me? Astonishing!"
It was over early in the third quarter when L.A.'s Ron Artest broke free for a wide-open dunk. The two points pulled the Lakers within 17 and all the sudden...wait, he missed it. Artest got caught in between a dunk and a layup and simply not jumping high enough to do either and front-rimmed it. At the other end Terry made consecutive 3-pointers. Game, set, match.
As well as Dallas played, the Lakers were equally inept.
Ironic that the Mavericks swept the Lakers and now have the inside track to The Finals without any contribution from Caron Butler or Roddy Beaubois. At one point this season, they figured to be Dallas' second- and third-best players. The addition of Stojakovic in January was a patch, at best, but suddenly he's shooting and playing defense like it's 2003. And it's Barea, the pesky Puerto Rican, who has morphed into Beaubois, with a little less speed and a lot more savvy.
But in the end, the Mavericks beat the Lakers by making a four-game playoff record 49 3-pointers (to L.A.'s 15) and by outscoring their bench a whopping 208-89. Live by the jumper, advance by the jumper.
The end was sad and deliciously humiliating for the Lakers. Bin Laden put up more of a fight. Down 32, Jackson didn't even leave his seat during a timeout. And Odom and Andrew Bynum were ejected after cheap-shot fouls in the fourth quarter. L.A. forward Matt Barnes' blueprint to beating Dallas: "Punk 'em." The Mavs' retort: "Sweep 'em."
Biggest danger for the Mavs is treating their licking of L.A. as the destination instead of the midpoint. It's a peculiar mind-set, but in these playoffs, with Barkley driving Dallas' bandwagon and Cuban staying eerily quiet, sweeping the Lakers and kicking Jackson into retirement has to be harnessed.
Offers Cuban simply, "We believe."
In the last seven months we've been treated to Rangers over Yankees, America over Osama and now Mavericks over Lakers. Is it too much to ask for medicine over cancer, followed by Mavs over Heat and—better late than never—a parade along former mayor Laura Miller's old route?
At this point nothing would surprise me.
Or make me happier.
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