A 7-Footer Grows Up. Finally.

It was all slipping away. The seemingly insurmountable 3-1 series lead. The 20-point lead in Game 7. Both were gone. Happy was giving way to heartbreak. But on the brink of an embarrassing, debilitating loss to the San Antonio Spurs Monday night that would've stung for years, Dirk Nowitzki grew up.

Dirk's series had been highlighted by monster games, but also scarred by ugly finishes. In Game 1 he passed up a potential game-winning shot and made a wild pass to Jerry Stackhouse. In Game 5 he allowed Bruce Bowen to block his jumper, then panicked and missed a game-winning putback at the buzzer. And in Game 6, his game-tying 3-pointer drew nothing but air. All series--shoot, all season--some of us had dissed Dirk for not taking smaller defenders like Bowen to the basket. He relied too much, we said, on a finesse game of fadeaway jumpers. But with his team down 104-101 and 25 seconds left, Dirk finally made us smile. Despite being harassed by Bowen, he dribbled, drove and basically dunked, drawing a foul, making the free throw, tying the game and setting the stage for perhaps the most important win in Dallas Mavericks history.

The Mavs' 119-111 overtime victory prompted hundreds of fans to meet the team's private jet at Love Field around 12:45 this morning and, much more importantly, sends them to the Western Conference Finals, where they are now four wins over the Phoenix Suns and old friend Steve Nash from their first appearance in the NBA Finals against either the Detroit Pistons or Miami Heat. FYI, tickets for Wednesday's Game 1 go on sale this morning at 10 a.m. at the AAC Box Office or by calling 214-747-Mavs. Maybe all this time Dirk was just waiting for the right moment. To finally use his height. To finally allow us to gloat "toldja so." Better late than never. --Richie Whitt

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