MIAMI—The Dallas Mavericks, America's Team.
Get used to it, because the Mavs are going to win their first-ever NBA championship this summer. And they're going to do it as a beloved underdog, resolute in revenge and cheered by a country during their redemption.
As much as Americans love sequels and hate the pompous Miami Heat, there's nothing more captivating and galvanizing than the bullied boy growing up to kick some ass.
In 2006 the victims, in 2011 the victors.
"We all know what happened in 2006," said Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki last weekend before the team boarded a flight for Miami and this week's NBA Finals. "We kind of folded in that series, and it's haunted us ever since. It'd be nice to make some good memories against those guys to bury the bad ones."
To appreciate where the Mavs are headed, you have to grasp the significance of where they splatted five years ago.
Dallas, led by Nowitzki and Jason Terry, took what felt like a commanding 2-0 lead in the '06 Finals against a team led by Dwyane Wade but for the most part one that looked old, slow and done. In line with a city ordinance crafted in the rubble of the Cowboys' riot-filled Super Bowl XXVII parade in 1993, Mayor Laura Miller's office filed as public record prospective parade plan routes and details. The information infamously found its way to Miami.
In Game 3 in South Beach, the Mavericks held an 89-76 lead with 6:19 remaining. At precisely that point, Heat coach Pat Riley called a timeout and the Mavericks inexplicably began playing not to lose—nervously, tentatively. Nowitzki front-rimmed a free throw that would've forced overtime in the loss, the Mavs were blown out in Game 4 and, despite a panicky hotel switch by then-coach Avery Johnson, the Mavs lost Game 5 by a point.
Back at American Airlines Center they jumped to an early lead in Game 6, only to be trailing by three points in the final seconds when Terry's potential game-tying 3-pointer caromed off the rim. After trailing 2-0, the Heat had punked the Mavs and were celebrating on Dallas' home court.
Instead of grabbing the trophy, the Mavericks clutched their throat.
In the wake of the embarrassing, inexplicable loss Johnson went to Africa, owner Mark Cuban went into hiding and Terry got lost in the Bahamas.
"It'll probably always live in my mind," Terry said before the '07 opener. "If we win three championships someday, we'll always think we should've had four."
Abandoned at the altar, Mavs fans spent the summer of '06 as zombies dragging around Hefty bags of ticker tape and using parade maps as coasters for mind eraser shots. Heat and humidity gave away to heartbreak and devastation.
Nowitzki took solace among family in Germany and admitted last week that still—five years later—he doesn't have the stomach to watch the '06 Finals. "No way," he said. "I'd probably get sick and throw up."
Regardless of Game 1 last Tuesday night in Miami or Thursday's Game 2, the Mavs will take control of this series when it arrives at American Airlines Center for Games 3 (Sunday), 4 (Tuesday) and 5 (June 9). While nobody outside Broward County adores the Heat's orchestrated, over-celebrating trio of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, the Mavericks are much deeper and more desperate. And, by the way, simply better.
"These aren't the same old Mavs," says TNT analyst and former Mavs skeptic Charles Barkley. "You can't say they're soft anymore. I think they're going to win this series."
That the Mavericks are returning to the scene of the crime is surprising. That they've arrived without the help of two of their top five players is surreal. Caron Butler departed January 1, and Roddy Beaubois never arrived.
"Yeah, if you would've told me those guys would have minimal impact, I probably wouldn't have felt real good about things," Mavericks general manager Donnie Nelson says. "But we've had all the right guys step up at all the right times. And here we are. Ready to exorcise some demons."
After a 24-5 start was detoured by knee injuries to Nowitzki (for nine games) and Butler (a season-ender), expectations diminished. And Beaubois, a jitterbug scorer who showed unlimited potential last season, never recovered from a broken foot or earned consistent playing time in coach Rick Carlisle's rotation. A team that looked for a month like the best in the NBA suddenly had to scour the waiver wire just to make ends meet. Dallas added Peja Stojakovic here and Cory Brewer there, but after a March 31 blowout loss to the Lakers in L.A. it seemed destined for another 50-win season that fizzles early in the playoffs.
"Things were pretty bleak for a while there," Nowitzki said.
They grew downright grotesque after the April 23 playoff game in Portland. The Mavs blew a 23-point lead in a humiliating loss that left them in a 2-2 series tie and Carlisle within two losses of being fired. Yet afterward, the Mavs won 10 of 11 to steamroll into The Finals. After finishing off the Blazers, they used stellar play from Nowitzki and a productive bench led by Terry to sweep the two-time defending champion Lakers and dispatch the talented but inexperienced Oklahoma City Thunder in five games.
Consider it foreplay. The only fitting climax has to come against the Heat.
For the Cowboys, sweet revenge came in beating the Pittsburgh Steelers—a team that twice delivered tough losses in the ultimate game—in Super Bowl XXX. For the Rangers, last year's virginal voyage to the World Series was intensified by the vanquishing of the New York Yankees—who'd kicked their butts three times in previous playoff series—in the ALCS. And now the Mavs, facing the team that gave them a five-year case of blue balls.
Nowitzki, Terry, Nelson and Cuban haven't forgotten. Nor the fans, who in the midst of the Western Conference championship trophy presentation at AAC punctuated Cuban's "We ain't done yet!" with an impromptu chant:
"Beat the Heat!"
At the time, Miami hadn't clinched its Eastern Conference Finals series against the Chicago Bulls.
"This is how it should be," says Terry, who in the preseason got a tattoo of the Larry O'Brien NBA championship trophy on his right biceps. "They're a great team with their three stars. But if we have to beat a team to finally get our championship, might as well be them."
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Exacting revenge isn't for the weak. It takes a strong will and stubborn psyche to confront the demon who stabbed you in the heart with his pitchfork.
"Honestly, this isn't fun right now," Nelson says. "Fans went through pain in 2006, but they have no idea how much that hurt our players and our organization. We've lived with the past for a long time now. Fun? No, we're just down in the foxhole trying to find a way to win four more games. We're too busy, too desperate to have fun."
Fate has set the menu. On the plate of America's Team: Revenge.