Bye-Bye Baboon

After his team upset the 49ers in San Francisco in the 1992 NFC Championship, exuberant Dallas Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson climbed atop a chair in the locker room with an interrogative declaration: "How 'bout them Cowboys?!"

After his team upset the defending champion Spurs in San Antonio Monday night in Game 7 of the NBA Western Conference Semifinals, elated Dallas Mavericks coach Avery Johnson sat on the edge of his seat in the interview room with a similar interrogative declaration: "How 'bout those Mavericks?!"

So long, heartbreak. Hello, cathartic release.

Not saying that, like the Cowboys, the Mavs will springboard off a watershed win to three championships in four years. But I am saying this: After 26 years, countless disappointments and the pulsating 119-111 overtime victory that vanquished the Spurs, the Mavericks have finally arrived.

Pronounced owner Mark Cuban, "That monkey that's been on our back for so's gone."

And not a moment too soon.

One missed shot from one of the NBA's all-time choke jobs, the Mavs instead are closer than ever to a championship. Owning home-court advantage in the Western Conference Finals for the first time in franchise history, Dallas hosts the Phoenix Suns and old friend Steve Nash in Games 1 and 2 this Wednesday and Friday at American Airlines Center.

"Beating the Spurs is a big step in the right direction," says Mavs guard Jason Terry. "But our goals are bigger than just getting past the second round."

Having navigated eight miles of glass shards and rusty nails, the remaining road to the title appears smoother than Barry White. To the Mavs, it's starting to feel like the euphoric beginning of the end.

The end of the frustration for original Mavericks such as founding father Don Carter, assistant general manager Keith Grant and radio analyst Brad Davis, all a part of the organization since the early 1980s. The end of the embarrassment for longtime fans who've suffered the Three J's, Quinn Buckner and Chris Anstey. The end of the futility for a certain sportswriter, who once witnessed--swear--an opposing player getting discombobulated and attempting to dunk the ball into his own basket, only to have Mavs rookie Samaki Walker block the shot, a strategy so pathetic and perplexing it prompted prolonged paralysis on my keyboard and eye-watering laughter from the referees.

Then: Mav-wrecks.

Now: NBA Champs?

If it ain't destiny, it's at the very least irony--that two players blocking the road to the Mavs' first NBA Finals are none other than former Dallas stars Michael Finley and Nash. Two springs ago forming the Big Three with Dirk Nowitzki, the trio has splintered into solo acts.

With Finley eliminated, Dirk must now shoot down a friend he often downs shots with. With a berth in the Finals at stake, safe to say the two who share a hate for the league's dress code and a love for late-night beer won't be engaging in the sort of debauchery that led to the infamous Internet photos back in 2003. For two weeks, it'll be foe over friend.

"Dirk's had a great year, an MVP-type year," Nash said at a press conference after Phoenix eliminated the Clippers. "Let's just say it'll be great to see my old buddy."

The Mavs will beat the Suns, and they'll do so by altering identities. After playing hare against the Spurs, Dallas must now turn Tortoise.

Against the methodical Spurs Johnson spent most of the series impersonating a baseball third-base coach, arm windmilling and always shouting one-word instructions: "Run!" In its four victories, the Mavs scored 113, 104, 123 and 119 points. But if the scores get that high against Phoenix, Dallas can lose.

Sure, Nash's back was so wrenched recently he couldn't hoist three-pointers to the rim. With Devin Harris and Jason Terry and even Darrell Armstrong the Mavs have the speed to keep pace in a track meet. And, after two Game 7 escapes against the Lakers and Clippers, the Suns are supposedly emotionally spent.

But with star center Amare Stoudamire injured and no hint of an interior game, the Suns thrive on speed. In beating Dallas in last year's Western Conference Semifinals 4-2, the Suns averaged 117 points. In two losses to Phoenix in the regular season Dallas surrendered 115 and 117 points.

Bottom line: The lower the score, the higher chances of a Mavs win.

During training camp last October, Suns coach Mike D'Antoni was asked about his team's philosophy.

"If we don't score 110 points," D'Antoni said, "we're just Dallas."

No, it shouldn't be taken as a compliment. But versatility is why the Mavs will beat the one-trick Suns. Dallas has the coaching and the characters to put San Antonio on the treadmill and Phoenix in the cement mixer.

If longtime skeptic Charles Barkley is a believer, how can you not be?

"Dallas is gonna win this thing," said the robust, irreverent TNT studio host. "They're at home. And they just beat the other best team in basketball. In my mind, Mavs-Spurs was the Western Conference Finals."

After a series of Texas Hold 'Em in which Dirk finally emerged as Dallas' Seven-Game Stud, anything short of lifting the NBA trophy will prove anticlimactic. A reality TV drama that featured the Mavs staggering the Spurs with supersonic paces and sucker punches climaxed with Dirk--who else?--finally slinging Jabari off his team's back.

Having coughed up a 20-point lead and on the verge of losing a 3-1 series lead, Dallas trailed by three points with 30 seconds left in Game 7. But just when you thought the Mavs weren't mature enough and that Wile E. Coyote was going to get duped yet again by the Roadrunner, Dirk produced the defining moment of his All-Star career.

Hounded by nemesis Bruce Bowen, who for years harassed him into settling for finesse jumpers, Dirk turned David Blaine and this time tricked the Spurs by aggressively dribbling to the basket. Hammered by Manu Ginobli at the rim, Nowitzki capped a 37-point, 15-rebound night by making the layup and the ensuing free throw to force overtime and allow Dallas to survive one of the greatest series in NBA playoff history.

Game. Series. Legend.

Says a satisfied Johnson, "Dirk made a great drive. It's something we've been working on with him for quite a long time."

Lost in the post-game celebration was a sobering fact, a testament to the rigors of winning an NBA championship: With eight playoff wins, Dallas' journey is only half complete.

But after finally beating the Spurs, it's all downhill from here.

How 'bout those chances?!

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Richie Whitt
Contact: Richie Whitt