I never, ever, thought, in a million years, that I'd be rooting for the Dallas Mavericks.
Then the 2011 playoffs happened. Our beloved Spurs got bounced in humiliating fashion to an 8-seed, in a series where almost everything that could go wrong, did. I was as depressed about it as I've ever been. But I'm still a sports geek in general and a basketball fan in particular. It was either stop watching or find another hero. And that's when Dirk Nowitzki turned into Beatrix Kiddo before our very eyes.
Like "The Bride" from Kill Bill fame, Dirk had some impressive kills on his playoff resume, but he was largely left for dead when the postseason began. Most of the so-called experts picked Dallas to lose in the first round to Portland. At the time, the pick made sense. Since their Finals collapse in 2006, the Mavs had lost in the first round three of the next four post-seasons, with the lone exception in that stretch coming in 2009 against the Spurs, who were missing one Manu Ginobili that year. It was basically a first-round "bye" for Dallas. The Spurs, with Manu, bounced them in six games last year, despite Dallas having had the home court advantage.
Nowitzki, who at 32 was the only legitimate star on the team as well as the only one thought to be anywhere close to his prime, would be facing a younger, deeper, far more athletic Portland team who had a big guy of their own in LaMarcus Aldridge who played like a man possessed for a couple of months after learning that he didn't make the All-Star team in February. The prevailing wisdom was that the Blazers would wear down the mentally and physically softer Dallas team, who were, after all, even older than the geriatric Spurs. Once Brandon Roy fueled a dramatic fourth quarter comeback from 20 points down in Game 4, it was all but assumed that the Mavs would fold as was their custom and that would be that. However, Dallas rebounded with a strong defensive effort at home in Game 5 and closed out the frisky Blazers at Portland a couple days later behind Dirk's 33 points on 11-of-17 shooting. I wasn't really paying attention because I was too wrapped up in the Spurs series and also with work, as the NFL was in the midst of their draft around then.
Then came a series against the defending champion Lakers, and absolutely nobody gave Dallas a shot. Kobe was a bad match-up for them as they had no wing defenders equipped to guard him -- Marion was too tall and slow, Stevenson was too inconsistent and crazy -- while they had more than enough size with the triumvirate of Gasol, Odom and Bynum to neutralize Nowitzki. Surely somebody was going to knockout the champs, but it wasn't going to be this team of slow has-beens and never-weres led by their soft-Euro jumpshooter. There was a reason, after all that despite all their mutual 50-win seasons that Dirk and Co. never faced off against Kobe's crew in the postseason. They weren't tough enough to consistently make it into the latter rounds of the playoffs.
Well, you know that went. Dallas stole Game 1 at LA with an impressive late comeback and emboldened by that result, pretty much throttled the Lakers the rest of the way, sending Phil Jackson into retirement, full of regrets over why he returned to coach a flawed roster that featured a thoroughly worn-down Bryant, an enigmatic and injury-prone Bynum, a distracted Gasol, a fat and sated Ron Artest, and no bench to speak of whatsoever. Dirk shot 39-of-68 from the floor during the four game sweep, including 8-of-13 from downtown, and badly outplayed Bryant.
Then came the conference finals against a young, energetic and maturing Oklahoma City team that not only featured in Kevin Durant a younger and springier doppleganger to Dirk, but also, in Russell Westbrook, another star who they weren't supposed to have any answers for. It took Dallas five games to take care of them, keyed by a rally in the pivotal Game 4 where they rallied from a 15 point deficit with 5:30 to go and won in overtime. Dirk averaged a mere 32.2 points in the series, including a couple of 40-point efforts. Guys like Nick Collison were praised to the heavens if they could limit him to one bucket per every two shot attempts.
Their last test was the Finals, appropriately enough against the Heat. No one gave the Mavs a chance and the way Miami had run roughshod over Boston and Chicago in the Eastern playoffs, it's hard to blame them. Not only did LeBron James positively destroy this year's MVP, Derrick Rose, in the Eastern Conference Finals, but Dwyane Wade loomed as a devastating match-up nightmare for them, much the same as he was five years ago, where Dallas had a similar hole at the two-guard. All those problems and Miami had home court, too. A relatively easy 92-84 Heat win in Game 1 only reinforced perceptions, and Miami's 15 point lead with 7:30 to go in Game 2 added to them.
You pretty much know how the rest went. Something clicked inside Dirk, Terry and the rest of the Mavs and they not only came back to win that game but three of the next four after that. They dominated fourth quarters. While LeBron James was intimidated by the stage for reasons only he knows, Dirk was determined to go down firing, without regrets, without fear. He was on a mission. He played much better games in the postseason than his 9-of-27 night in Game 6, but the bottom line was he undaunted by the moment. He didn't back down from anyone. He wanted it. He wanted it a helluva lot more than Miami or anyone else did.
I'd like to say that as a Spurs fan I only started rooting for Dallas in the Finals, and only then because they were facing the most unlikable team in the history of basketball --well except maybe the '06 Mavs -- but the truth of the matter is I was pretty much in their corner ever since their Game 1 comeback against the Lakers. There's certainly no love lost for me and LA, and while I like Durant and am fond of Collison and James Harden as well, I find Westbrook very off-putting and in my old age I found it difficult to relate on any level to the Thunder. Maybe all that Bill Simmons cheerleading for them turned me off, who knows?
The sad reality Spurs fans, as loathe as we are to admit it, we have more in common with the Mavs than most teams. A Hall-of-Fame big man who's easy to ignore and dismiss (Dirk because of his playoff failures, Duncan because of his unexciting play and aloofness). A clutch fourth-quarter irritant that is beloved by the home fans and absolutely reviled by the rest of the league. A foreign point guard who gets to the paint and has slept with Eva Longoria (you know J.J. Barea has tagged that). A bunch of unathletic old farts and a coach who preaches defense 24-7 -- expect Rick Carlisle actually means it.
I don't know. Dallas just got less annoying over the years. Jerry Stackhouse was gone. So was The Big Bug (Josh Howard). Caron Butler, whom I've never cared for, was injured. Terry stopped being such a punk. Mainly Mark Cuban shut his yap. Really, I think that was the main thing. I don't think it was a coincidence that they won when he did his best Peter Holt impression this postseason.
What I do know is that I'm very happy for Dirk and am extremely impressed by the gauntlet he went through in the 2011 playoffs. Kobe and Gasol, Durant and Westbrook, LeBron and Wade -- dude slayed a lot of dragons. Heck even Portland in the first round was rough. I don't think the Spurs ever successfully completed a road like that. 2005 was close, but the Sonics in round two were a pretty meh team. The 2003 and 2007 teams didn't have to play anyone worthy in the Finals. For crying out loud the '03 Spurs faced a Nets squad that had Richard Jefferson on it. No foolin', RICHARD JEFFERSON. What kind of self-respecting halfway-decent team would have that loser on their roster let alone their starting lineup?
Dirk is Beatrix Kiddo. He went through hell and beck and he got his bloody satisfaction. Maybe it would've been more impressive if he went through the Spurs too, but I'm kind of glad he didn't. I would've been too biased and bitter and upset to appreciate his brilliance if he had. I can't speak for other Spurs fans, but I'm glad he got his ring and the Mavs have my respect. I'll never call them soft again.
There are plenty of other four-letter words I'll use though.