Posted May 26 2011 2:52AM
DALLAS -- As the noise rose to a deafening crescendo and the temperature bubbled up to a steamy boil, the ball seemed to make its way around the court seeking pilgrims on the road to redemption.
There was Dirk Nowitzki, a former MVP, future Hall of Famer and the 13-year-veteran perhaps best known for not being able to close the deal in the 2006 NBA Finals, pulling up and missing a 3-pointer that could have given his team the lead.
There was Tyson Chandler, a one-time No. 2 pick in the draft who had bounced through three different teams and so many questions before arriving in Dallas, keeping the play alive on the offensive glass.
There was Jason Terry, the only remaining teammate of Nowitzki's who had lived through the Finals agony against Miami, seeing the ball squirt through Eric Maynor's legs and scooping it up.
There was Jason Kidd, the 38-year-old perennial All-Star who had been to the Finals twice with New Jersey only to lose, catching Terry's toss outside to the right of the basket and swinging it across the court.
There was Shawn Marion, who could never get over the hump and lost twice in the Western Conference finals during nine seasons with Phoenix, never hesitating to shuffle one more return pass out to the top.
So the ball came back to Nowitzki and he buried the 3-pointer with 74 seconds left that finally broke the Thunder and sent the Mavericks back to the Finals.
"When he got another shot, you knew Dirk wasn't going to miss that," said Marion. "Second time around, man."
You could call them the Salvation Army. They could be sponsored by a used car dealer. They might as well sleep on trampolines.
Nobody expected this to happen. Nobody figured the Mavs to be here more than a month ago when the playoffs began.
Nobody, that is, except the Mavs.
"I think in training camp we knew we had the pieces," said Terry. "Last season when when we made the trade for Brendan Haywood, Caron Butler and DeShawn Stevenson, we thought with that team we would do it. But it was steps that needed to be taken."
Steps like overcoming a loss with a blown 23-point lead in the first round against Portland. Steps like annihilating the two-time defending champion Lakers with a 4-0 sweep in the second round. Steps like out-fighting, outsmarting and outlasting the young and talented Thunder.
The Mavericks are not merely a team on a run, but a franchise on a mission to erase the ugly memory of holding a 2-0 lead in the Finals, then being up by 13 points on Miami with under five minutes left in Game 3 and then crashing in a heap.
"It's been long," Terry said. "We've had to sit back and listen to a lot of critics. We're still gonna have to listen to the same people until we finish the task. But it's been long. It's felt like 10-20 years and it's only been five.
"We never talk about the struggle to get back. We only talk about when we do what's gonna happen. Talk is done now.
"I never let it go. Anytime I go to sleep. Anytime I lift my arm up I got the trophy tattooed on me this season. If you look in my locker, it (photo) is right there."
While the memory of the devastating Finals loss was supposed to drive the Mavericks on, for the past four seasons it seemed to have turned them into a collection of emotional basket cases.
The year after, in 2007, the Mavs won 67 games, Nowitzki won the MVP Award and Dallas was bounced in the first round of the playoffs by No. 8 seed Golden State. In 2008, they lost to New Orleans in the first round. In 2009, they were beaten by Denver in the second round. In 2010, they were booted out by San Antonio in the first round.
"Yeah, it's been a long stretch here," Nowitzki said. "Been trying to get back to this stage ever since and fell short a bunch of times. But this is a bunch of veterans who want to play and are unselfish."
While those failures haunted them for half a decade, it seems to be the collective strength from all those past bruises that has now made the veteran bunch stronger. Everywhere you turn in the locker room there is someone else with a long, deep scar. Peja Stojakovic is in his 14th NBA season with his fifth different team after knocking his head against the Lakers wall all those years with Sacramento. Even coach Rick Carlisle had been to the Eastern Conference finals with Indiana in 2004, but lost to Detroit.
So when they lost Game 2 of this series at home to the Thunder, it was just a stumble and not another fatal flaw. Even when they found themselves down by 15 points with five minutes to play at Oklahoma City in Game 4, it was just a flesh wound and they miraculously healed themselves to win in overtime. Then they trailed for most of the night in Game 5, down by six with 4:27 to go, and never wavered.
The Thunder have a pair of undeveloped All-Stars in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, a team with four core players 22 or younger. All they are missing is to go through the growing and living pains that the Mavs know on a first-name basis.
"Well, I mentioned we've got a bunch of experienced guys, a bunch of veterans," Nowitzki said. "Everybody has kind of unique stories on this team."
Stories of life and losses and disappointment and disrespect that even the ball itself seemed to know in those critical seconds as it touched five pilgrims and came back to Dirk on the road to redemption.
"Second chance," said Terry. "That's us."
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