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House of Cards

Do the math: Did the Mavericks' last 12 minutes of the season undermine the team's previous 4,914 regular-season and playoff minutes? Well, did it?
Dallas Mavericks

One week later, no one can forget the Great Mavs Collapse of Game 6. It'll probably be that way forever. It's going to become one of those "where were you when" scenarios, so I'll share. I was playing poker with my buddies--why go to the game when you can watch it on TV and lose money gambling?--and making plans to head to San Antonio for the final match-up of the series. The Mavs were up 13 points and playing well. No way they could blow it, or so I thought. As I made a late-night rally at the card table, the Mavs began to fold. Everyone kept expecting them to score, or at least to snap the Spurs' run. Worse, it was ancient Steve Kerr who did the most damage. It was an ugly thing to watch.

"I don't know what to tell you other than we were playing so well for so long and the bottom just dropped out," Mavs head coach Don Nelson said. During the postgame news conference, he looked the way Steve McQueen did in the final scene of The Cincinnati Kid, the one where the kid and everyone else think he's won a huge poker hand--then, somehow, he loses and the shock sets in. "The fourth quarter we couldn't get a shot to go in."

Nine points in that quarter. Not even double digits. The Mavs wouldn't have had that many if not for a few late free throws and a layup. We scored more on our eighth-grade rec team, and we were terrible. The Spurs had 34, but it might as well have been 100. And that was that. Victory became defeat; certainty morphed into confusion.

Everything is screwed now. This column was already written, only the original version had a decidedly different slant to it. The story line was painfully obvious, which is always a good thing for a sports columnist--we work on fewer brain cells than most, so any sort of predetermined gist for a piece makes life that much smoother. (It's why I wear flip-flops or shoes with Velcro straps.)

Consider: The Mavs had played two tough, seven-game series before the Western Conference Finals. Counting Game 6 against the Spurs, they'd fought through 20 playoff games. They continued to fight even when nearly everyone--myself included--thought they were finished after their best player, Dirk Nowitzki, crumpled his knee and couldn't dress for the rest of the series. No matter the preconceptions, it was going to be hard to criticize their effort thereafter. That, in turn, would have validated their season and proved everyone wrong. It would have said to the pundits that the Mavs didn't need to make that Brian Grant trade after all, that chemistry mattered most, that this team is just fine as is.

And so it followed that this column would go something like this: Turns out they are scrappers after all. Turns out they will fight. Who woulda thunk it? The Mavs were right. I was wrong. I am often wrong. I hate myself...etc...

Easy, right? Hack that out, then head to the pool to sip margaritas and ogle bikini babes.

Instead, a week after the Great Mavs Collapse of Game 6, I'm sitting at my computer terminal questioning if any of it was real or if we're all still trying to wake ourselves from the same collective nightmare (read: San Antonio vs. New Jersey in the finals--ugh). And all because of 12 bad minutes of hoops. It is a strange, discomfiting feeling; I'm sure you know it well.

Where do we go from here? Do we dance happily into the summer's heat because we saw a season of quality basketball and a playoff run of inordinate entertainment? Or do we curse the bastards for that lame fourth quarter, the one that deprived basketball fans everywhere of one more Game 7? There are no easy answers, though I'm inclined to practice the latter. Success or failure? Achievement or gross disappointment? Until that fourth quarter, it was all so clear.

"I remember when 20 wins was an accomplishment," Michael Finley said earlier in the year. "Those were dark days, and I was here for them. Now, people aren't satisfied if we don't win 50, 55 games and go deep in the playoffs."

He's right. People have short memories. The Mavs have come a long way--so far, in fact, that it's hard to remember when they were the blue-and-green-clad bumblers who always managed to make teams like the Nuggets and Clippers look good. There ought to be someone to pat them on the back for that. Just so long as it's not me.

Certainly I appreciate their brand of basketball--high scores and fast breaks are always fun to watch--but I'm not a Mavs fan, so the detachment comes easier for me. What I see, in retrospect, is a team that, just when it was beginning to battle with conviction, reverted to its old, complacent habits. They blew big leads all year, and it happened one time too many. There's usually fallout from that sort of thing, and now we have to wonder what that might be. Sure, it was only one quarter of lousy basketball, but sometimes those things linger. Sometimes, try as you might, you can't shake the awful memory.

Who knows? Could be that the Mavs are right. Could be that they had a fine season and they don't need to tinker much, if at all. Could be this team, in its current incarnation, is plenty good enough to win it all next year and the Great Mavs Collapse of Game 6 meant nothing. But what if they aren't right? What if that fourth-quarter meltdown is the precursor of things to come? Worse still, what if I was right all along? In that case, they have plenty of work to do, starting with getting a few ass-kickers on their roster, not to mention making sure that someone next season is able to rebound and play in the post.

"Well, I think we are a different team in that we really don't have a post presence at all," Steve Nash said. "We're not really a post team or an inside team even with Dirk, but at least he can take mismatches down there, and with his length he's great around the basket."

The questions abound and, again, there are no easy answers. There's no absolute fix, and I'm still unsure of what to make of all this. There is only the odd and unfortunate residual feeling from a game that somehow got away and a season that ended prematurely. With that, there is fear, too. Because what if this season was as good as it's gonna get?

"We have to be honest with ourselves," Nick Van Exel said, once again serving as the resident voice of reason. "It's going to be hard to get back here. We caught Portland when they were injured. We had Sacramento when they lost their soon-to-be Hall of Famer, Chris Webber. You know, we had a shot to make it to the finals, and we didn't do it."

Nine points. It's a number that will rattle around your brain, likely for months. Nine points. A number that not only killed a season but thrust us all into the grim reality of Texas Rangers baseball.

Whatever happens from here, that will be the hardest transgression to forgive.


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