Posted May 27 2011 9:10AM
DALLAS -- NBA Finals tickets went on sale here Saturday morning.
If the team on the other side of that ticket was anyone other than the Miami Heat, this trip to the NBA Finals wouldn't be the same for the Dallas Mavericks. They wouldn't admit it after locking up the Western Conference crown and their first return ticket to the Finals since falling to the Heat in the championship round in 2006. But this is the matchup they wanted all along.
Dirk Nowitzki's somewhat-muted celebration at the end of that Game 5 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder had everything to do with a potential rematch with the Heat, not that the Mavericks' superstar would admit it or anything.
"Once you get to the Finals, there is no second-place finish," Nowitzki said. "I was already thinking about the Finals, and I know you've got to stay in the moment, obviously ... it's been a long stretch here. After the year we lost in the Finals we came back and won almost 70 games, had a great season and then lost in the first round. That was another tough one. We've 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. I think that's what makes this group special, everybody sacrificing for each other and we just want to win."
There is no visible scar for Nowitzki or Jason Terry, the only two regulars on the Mavericks' current roster from that 2006 Finals, but it's there, on the souls of this franchise's biggest star and the psyche of a city that you can't mention the words "Mavericks" and "NBA Finals" without mentioning the Heat.
The Mavericks have been running from the ghost of 2006 ever since they melted down just minutes away from a commanding 3-0 lead during that series. Now they are ghost chasers. They have an experienced team of veterans with the skills, mettle and chemistry needed to defeat the Heat, Bulls or any other team the Eastern Conference offered up.
LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh ... the names don't matter to the Mavericks this time around. It's the Heat. A team they handled twice during the regular season without Nowitzki playing the way he is now. They're locked in and ready.
"Our goal is to win four more games no matter who we play in the Finals," Terry said, that tattoo of the Larry O'Brien trophy on the inside of his right bicep serving as a season-long reminder. "This time it's going to be even more special. We're going to leave it all out there on the floor. This is what you play for."
Nowitzki and Terry will have some seasoned help this time around. Jason Kidd, Tyson Chandler, Shawn Marion, Peja Stojakovic, J.J. Barea and Brendan Haywood all have their own redemption stories to write against Miami. They all have playoff pain to remedy in one way or another.
Terry knows each and every story by heart.
"Peja Stojakovic, Sacramento versus LA, he didn't get it done," Terry said. "Myself and Dirk, 2-0, Finals and didn't get it done. Coach (Rick) Carlisle, two Eastern Conference finals, never made it to the championship. Jason Kidd, two Finals appearances, didn't hoist up that trophy. Shawn Marion has been to the Western Conference twice, hasn't gotten to the Finals.
"We all have unique stories," Terry said. "Shawn Marion, Peja, coach Carlisle, Jason Kidd being there twice and not getting it done. Those unique stories are what drive us and motivate us to get it done this year. That's what's driving us. And that's why we're going to try and get it done for all of those guys."
The Mavericks don't have a specific deficiency any team they've faced has been able to exploit consistently. Whatever your method of attack, they've had a solution.
Portland was supposed to be more athletic than them in the first round, but the Mavericks countered that with superior defense, better execution and plenty of late-game firepower from Nowitzki to finish off the Trail Blazers in six games.
The two-time defending champion Los Angeles Lakers were supposed to be better up front and had Kobe Bryant to close games for them in the conference semifinals. The Mavericks countered with diabolical 3-point shooting from the bench, monster efforts from Chandler and Haywood up front and more Nowitzki when it mattered most, sweeping the Lakers into an early summer break.
The Thunder offered up the greatest challenge, Carlisle insists, because they had two stars in two-time scoring champ Kevin Durant and All-NBA point guard Russell Westbrook to deal with and the most athletic and explosive team the Mavericks had faced to that point. The Mavericks punched back with stifling defensive work from Kidd, Marion and DeShawn Stevenson, and once again Nowitzki and crew stayed poised down the stretch to finish off Oklahoma City in five games in the Western Conference finals.
Whatever challenge put before them, the Mavericks have found a way to respond and eventually dominate the situation.
"People have been doubting us from the start," Marion said. "And I've been saying the same things from the start. It's not about them. It's about us. It's about this team and what we're about and what we're trying to do. The past is the past. The 2006 Finals and what went on then, that's not going to help us reach our goal. We've got four more wins to get before we can finish this thing off the way we planned. Four more wins."
Still, this Heat team would appear to be a more difficult challenge than anything the Mavericks have seen thus far.
"We've showed everybody our mental toughness," Terry said. "It's been questioned the last five years. But we're a different team now. And we're not going to settle for less."
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