Monday, June 13, 2011

Vindication: Mavs, Nowitzki Revel in the Wildest of Victories for Title

Even before he reached the locker room, gazing around to embrace the overjoyed moment, Dirk Nowitzki was overwhelmed, walked through the hallway of a hostile environment and then cried alone. He may have well been the best player of these Finals, relentless in shooting, savvy in his play and bearing his own criticism.

The night for the Dallas Mavericks was indescribable and unbelievable, a night when Nowitzki finally conquered vengeance, abiding vindication after meeting standards of the greatest triumph in franchise history. So now, he won't be ignored given history, but appreciated as one of the greatest shooters in NBA history, a team leader and a clutch finisher to lead the Mavs to its first NBA championship in franchise history. Once he emerged from the tunnel and reappeared onto the floor for the trophy presentation, Nowitzki brought exhilaration and smiles, greeted with prolonged hugs and walked onto the podium to hoist the MVP hardware and the Larry O'Brien trophy.

"We're world champions," Nowitzki said in the conference room, with his Finals MVP trophy and a bottle of champagne.

"It sounds unbelievable."

Nowitzki, the seven-foot German who won the NBA Finals Most Valuable Player award, a player with self-consciousness, wasn't afraid of shooting the ball. Although he couldn't drain a bevy of missed shot attempts early on, he continued hurling shots and hit 8-of-15 in the second half, scored 18 points and guided the Mavs to an exceptional 105-95 win over the Miami Heat at American Airlines Arena Sunday night for the NBA championship. There once was a bombastic owner who relished the spotlight for being the focal point of the Mavericks.

In this glamorous moment, Mark Cuban, the cyber nutcase that separates him from the normal owner of pro basketball, was finally humbled and celebratory just as his players jubilated and embraced the beauty of a title. When the Mavs were crowned champs, capturing a remarkable accomplishment of his 11 years of ownership, the famously loudmouthed owner carried himself with dignity and class. Most of all, for some time, Cuban has waited patiently to hoist the Larry O'Brien trophy and indeed he has won the grandest prize by putting together a brand of talented stars, pampering his players and paying his athletes.

It's not as though Cuban was a terrible owner with an infamously outspoken mind that has gotten him into trouble in recent years, but it was the NBA fines he amassed because of his infantile hissy fits and absurd remarks. However, on a night that he honored the franchise's original owner, Donald Carter, who stood on the podium proud and speechless wearing his tall cowboy hat, there was nothing that Cuban uttered foolishly.

The growing idiocy wasn't what drew the attention, not even his harsh criticism of the officials, but his innovative framework to fittingly lure talent and manufacture a charismatic core. Here is Cuban now, all grown, knowing when to talk and shut up, tired of being inflicted with fines that cost millions. By now, no one is blinded by the product he has placed on the floor in Dallas, becoming the only owner in Mavericks' history to be honored in such a sterling night.

"Mark wanted to do it this way," said an overjoyed Carter. "He just wanted the trophy to go through the progression. We started it and he took it to the finish line. And with class."

It's perfectly the reality no one ever imagined in the most electrifying closure for the Mavs, a franchise nobody ever believed in and doubted entirely throughout the postseason, calling Dallas the one-and-done team. For once, in his lifetime, Nowitzki never choked in the Finals and carried the Mavs to astounded exultance.

Forgive me for doubting Nowitzki.

It was only five years ago, a point in his career that Nowitzki wasn't a stud or even one of the best shooters, when he and the Mavs collapsed in the '06 NBA Finals. It wasn't long ago, finally mentioned in the company with a myriad of NBA greats, when he was incapable of hailing as the MVP or team leader, he was disqualified as one of the all-time greats and couldn't beat the eighth-seeded Golden State in a stunning upset. It ought to be considered one of the greatest redemptive tales in basketball, a defining ending for Nowitzki to hush the disbelievers with his shooting clinics, determination, mentality and thirst for a legitimate title.

And now, of course, Dirk is purging the haunted memories at last, ousting all the painful mischances. It's the era we live in, one which the Mavs capped a stunning postseason to clinch a victory in the Finals, lifting beyond all expectations this season, not even Mavs president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson beheld a surprise party. It's the culture every basketball franchise wish it had, one which has persistence, tenacity and chemistry, particularly in a sport where it requires at least three solid players.

By any notable accounts, the Mavs had the proper ingredients to bring home the prize, fueled by the presence of Nowitzki and even veteran point guard Jason Kidd, along with his counterpart Jason Terry, who backed up his trash-talk and carried the Mavs with a stellar performance. The Mavs, as the better team, responded well to adversity and defeated arguably the greatest trilogy in basketball all-time. As a unified core, stuck together through the toughest road of each series and played impressively.

"It was not our motivating factor going in," Terry said of the awful '06 experience. "But now that we have done it, you can say it was sweet vindication."

When it was over, Nowitzki embraced Kidd and celebrated the moment, but the man worth endearing was Terry. The truth here is, he doesn't have to remove his Larry O'Brien tattoo on the inside of his right arm, after vowing that he would remove it had the Mavs lost. The prophecy from Terry was true after all and he played brilliantly ever since Nowitzki publicly said that he needed contributions.

The relief on Nowitzki, in retrospect, was convenient in Game 6, because Terry not only played as the sixth man building upon his legacy as he has done at a very young age in his hometown Seattle and stifled James but he posted 27 points on 11-of-16 shooting. For all of the superstars no one ever generates conversations about, Kidd at the age of 38 had eight assists and phenomenal ball-handling and DeShawn Stevenson launched threes off the bench.

"Was he unbelievable tonight or what?" Nowitzki said of Terry.

The best of the Mavs' pursuit of excellence happened in the title-clinching win, based on the adjustments by the well-respected coach Rick Carlisle. The highest level of quality for any team is adjustments and the sizable role players to pour in points off the bench. And the amazing player in this game was J.J. Barea, for scoring 15 points. Greater than it all, Shawn Marion produced 12 points and grabbed eight rebounds as usual, and impeccably Brian Cardinal nailed a three-pointer and had an assist.

As in every human, Dirk struggled with his rare misses for much of a peculiar Game 6, the unanticipated shooting debacles to score a manageable 21 points with 11 rebounds. But leave it to Terry with five crucial baskets in the final 7:22 to stain the Heat's potential dream of being crowned champs. By the second half, under his own willpower and willingness, he bounced back from a horrifying 1-for-12 shooting calamity. It's more woeful for the Heat, and as poorly as LeBron James played in the NBA Finals disengaged to endure greatness, he diminished as Nowitzki rose because of his fourth-quarter brilliance. And yes, in the elimination game, LeBron finally scored in the fourth.

"It was weird. In the first half, I had so many good looks," Nowitzki said. "I can't even explain it. I had some 3s top of the key. I had a wide-open 3 in the corner. I had some pull-ups. I had some one-legged fadeaways that I normally make."

Then too, the Mavs entered the series with more swagger and urgency as Dirk wasn't allowing another heartbreaking collapse smear an earnest run for the NBA title, enough to convince us worldwide that Dallas can precisely beat Miami to win the championship on the road. It was already discovered in Game 4 of the Mavs' improbable second-round sweep of the Lakers. While there was plenty of shame on a video that unveiled Friday featuring Wade and James ridiculing Nowitzki's illness, it may have angered the Mavs to play harder and be more engaged for the moment and indeed Dallas attacked with more ferocity, intrepidity, certainty and perseverance.

"Our guys took it personally tonight," Carlisle said. "They were not going to be denied. Dirk and [Terry] have had to live for five years with what happened in 2006. And as of tonight those demons are officially destroyed."

All playoffs, Nowitzki was undoubtedly the best player, enduring pain from a torn tendon in his middle finger on his left hand and then a sinus infection, including a high fever in this series. Amazingly, he pressed on. He's not devoid of an NBA tile suddenly, when there are six NBA MVPs deprived of a championship. To name a few: Among active players, there is Steve Nash and Derrick Rose. In that company, nonetheless, Allen Iverson, Karl Malone and Charles Barkley all never won a title. At the end of the night, Nowitzki and the Mavericks were seen partying on South Beach at the famous club LIV at the Fontainebleau Hotel with the Larry O'Brien trophy where Cuban was wildly dancing and jiving with his players after Dallas had avenged their failures of the '06 Finals.

A week from his 33rd birthday, and he just built a monumental legacy surrounded by the profound supporting cast. The Mavs were worthy of the title all alone. And since the NBA is the one sport where it is not a rarity to win back-to-back titles, determined by how the collective bargaining agreement fares, Cuban still has the motive to pursue a free-agent in the summer of 2012 for the Dwight Howard or Chris Paul sweepstakes, particularly if he can clear salary-cap space and influence some of his free-agents to demand less in salary.

"This is as mentally tough a team as I've ever been around, and I was fortunate enough to play in the '80s with those great Boston teams," Carlisle said. "And that team had four Hall of Famers. What this team was able to do with guys like Cardinal, Mahinmi, Barea -- those guys played major, major roles in a championship game."

Through six games, Nowitzki had the highest-scoring fourth quarter. If you haven't noticed, he was resilient in Game 6 after a 4-of-21 start, a rare and slow start for a gifted shooter of Nowitzki's caliber. But all that mattered was how he finished, shooting 5-for-6 near the end. At one point, late in the game of course, he couldn't miss shots and drove to the basket with his incredible size and upper body strength, he couldn't miss shots popping jump shots continuously. With four points and 11 rebounds off the bench, Ian Mahinmi hit the biggest shot of his career, if not of Game 6 and nailed a 14-footer as the clock expired to end the third that gave the Mavs an 81-72 advantage.

In a remarkable run, it took teamwork and effort. And Cuban surrounded Nowitzki with enough star power for the sweetest victory in Mavs existence. Plain and simple, the Mavs were just the better opponent and wanted it more than the Big Three in South Beach.