Posted Oct 25 2010 2:04PM
The 2006-07 version of the Dallas Mavericks took the court with a rally cry. They routinely broke huddles, whether during practices or games, shouting the same one word in unison.
Stories were written about it, and neither coach Avery Johnson nor the players shied away from explaining it that season. The genesis of "Finish" was rather obvious. The Mavericks were oh so close to winning the 2006 championship before an epic meltdown in The Finals.
What isn't as well known was the motto of the team that fell just short against Miami. Johnson's slogan for the 2005-06 squad -- my favorite team in over a decade of covering the league -- was a well-guarded secret from those outside the Dallas locker room.
Know when to party.
The Mavericks, in the end, didn't heed what ultimately was Johnson's warning. Off-the-court distractions, i.e. premature partying by some, contributed to the ship veering off course in South Beach. But the voyage taken during '05-06 by a franchise that was once a decade-long laughingstock remains grand.
And it remains the closest the Mavericks have come to a title.
The Mavericks went into training camp in '05 knowing they had a good team. Dallas was coming off a trip to the Western Conference semifinals under Johnson, who took over for Don Nelson with 18 games left in the regular season.
The strides made during Johnson's short run were obvious, but few believed the Mavericks had enough to get out of the daunting West. The defending NBA champion Spurs were the benchmark. Steve Nash had just won his first MVP with the rejuvenated Suns. The Mavs, though, believed.
"Everyone on this team had a belief we would get to that level," backup forward Keith Van Horn said that season. "Sometimes coaches say it and not everybody buys into it, but with the talent level we have on this team, we all bought into that and believed it. When you have every player who steps on the floor believing you can win a championship, it's a powerful thing."
Johnson's task was molding the Mavs in the image of a champion. He experienced such a high in San Antonio, and took much of what he learned in South Texas to North Texas. In addition to suiting up for Gregg Popovich, the Little General also served playing apprenticeships with Larry Brown, Rudy Tomjanovich, Bernie Bickerstaff and Nellie.
Johnson knew what he wanted, though there were missteps along the way to greatness. The Doug Christie Experiment blew up seven games into the season. The high-maintenance existence of Christie and his wife led to the premature release of what was supposed to be the starting off guard. An ankle injury was conveniently used as the excuse.
Erick Dampier also flamed out as starting center, getting the hook in January in favor of Gana Diop. That switch wasn't without its issues. Johnson had gone to bat for Dampier when Dallas signed the former Golden State big man to a monster contract in the summer of '04. Now, the Mavs were going with Diop, a former lottery bust who flamed out in Cleveland.
The move seemed to jumpstart a stagnant team. The Mavs won 13 straight, vaulting to the top of the Southwest Division at 39-10. Trouble was the Spurs were just as hot, setting up a mad sprint to the finish line. San Antonio would edge out Dallas for the division, but that was just the prelude to a playoff clash for the ages.
Dallas would tie its franchise record with a 60-22 regular-season mark. Looking back, it was pretty amazing 60 wins were squeezed out of that team. By this point, Dirk Nowitzki had elevated his game to an MVP level and he would win the award the next year. Internal doubts, though, still plagued the Big German.
"Some nights I think I'm pretty good and I can help this team," Nowitzki told me before the All-Star break. "And some nights, when I have an off game, I'm so hard on myself that I think I'm one of the worst players in the league.
"That's just how I am."
The rest of the roster was, well, okay. Jason Terry had a solid campaign as the secondary scoring option behind Nowitzki. Josh Howard, Jerry Stackhouse, Marquis Daniels, Devin Harris and Van Horn had far from their best years. And each one of those guys missed at least 20 games to injury.
The Mavs had fight and grit, and it didn't just come from their Cajun-cooked coach. Crusty vets like Stackhouse and Darrell Armstrong infused the locker room with attitude. So much so that it rubbed off in the most unlikely of places.
"Dirk gets into it all the time," Armstrong said then. "He doesn't back down and I like that. Dirk talks [stuff] the same way everybody else talks [stuff]."
The Mavericks wiped the floor with Memphis in the first round before setting up the classic showdown with Big Brother. The Spurs supposedly had more than the home-court edge. They had the psychological one. Dallas had never beaten San Antonio in the playoffs. Until ...
The Mavs jumped ahead 3-1 in the series, in part due to Johnson's switch to Harris as starting point guard after Game 1. There wasn't anyone Johnson was harder on during his Dallas tenure than Harris, and the second-year playmaker rewarded his demanding coach by running circles around the Spurs.
Then came the punch. Terry decked former teammate and Dallas fan favorite Michael Finley below the belt late in Game 5. The Mavs would lose that game and the sixth back in Dallas with Jet serving a suspension. The seventh and deciding game would be in the Alamo City. Not only would it turn out to be arguably the biggest game in franchise history, it undoubtedly provided the most defining moment.
The Mavs were down three in the final seconds of the fourth when Nowitzki took the ball. Driving hard -- yes, he didn't try to tie it with a 3-pointer -- Nowitzki met Manu Ginobili at the rim. Foul. Basket. Free throw. Overtime. Mavericks win.
"The moment that sticks out the most was Game 7 at San Antonio," Nowitzki said. "That's something we'll all remember. In that series, San Antonio was always the big brother that was beating up on us.
"To go there and win on their home court in Game 7 was a very special moment for this organization. And the way it went, down three, come back, go to overtime and win. That game will always stick out."
I still remember talking to Johnson in his office in the days that followed. He swelled with pride when asked about Nowitzki's growth as a player.
"Dirk's drive against San Antonio," Johnson said. "We worked on that so much, and I pleaded and begged and disciplined, and I've done all kinds of things, took him to dinner, just trying to get that move right there."
Dallas would dispatch of Nash and Phoenix in the Western Conference finals, locking up its first and only trip to The Finals. The Larry O'Brien Trophy essentially slipped away in Game 3, as the Mavs coughed up a 13-point lead and 3-0 series advantage in the last six minutes of the fourth quarter.
Dwyane Wade made his legend in that series. The Mavs were stuck with a much harsher label for choking away such a golden chance. The Mavs lost their way and their heads at the most inopportune time. Johnson showed signs of cracking, snapping at a reporter during a postgame press conference. Mark Cuban racked up fines, griping about referees and hinting at hidden agendas.
Tales of late-night carousing by several players forced Johnson to relocate the team from Miami to Fort Lauderdale to avoid the South Beach diversions. It didn't work. The Mavs lost all three in South Florida and returned home only to drop Game 6. That remains as the only game D-Wade has ever won inside American Airlines Center.
As rewarding as that season was to witness firsthand, I also remember those behind-the-scenes moments afforded by this job. One night before a game, I was camped out in front of Dampier's locker. He seemed to think I was invading his personal space and declared the area around his locker off-limits.
Being a smart aleck, I told Damp I didn't see any walls around his locker impeding my stance. Fast forward to the postgame scene and, yep, Dampier had white tape taped to the carpet to form a perimeter around his locker. Well played, sir. Dampier now had walls, Les Nessman-style. (For you kids: WKRP in Cincinnati reference.)
The stories don't end there. I always thought the exploits of the '05-06 Mavs would make for a helleva book. Probably still would. As I look back, it sure was a helleva party.
It's just the other guys celebrated in the end.
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