OKLAHOMA CITY — Dirk Nowitzki wasn’t just avoiding the suffocating defense of Nick Collison when he leaned, twisted or kicked out his right leg to make off-balanced jumpers in the fourth quarter of the Dallas Mavericks’ improbable 112-105 overtime victory on Monday over Oklahoma City. He was also dodging past playoff failures — the classic meltdown to Miami in the 2006 NBA Finals, the collapse against the eighth-seeded Golden State Warriors a year later — that have haunted him and tainted an otherwise stellar career.
When Shawn Marion stuffed Kevin Durant’s potential game-winner at the end of regulation, he let out an exultant scream that he never had an opportunity to release before, because postseason runs with the Phoenix Suns were cut short because of a fluke injury to Joe Johnson in 2005 or the unfortunate suspension of Amare Stoudemire two years later.
And when Jason Kidd pump-faked Russell Westbrook and watched him fly over his shoulder before hitting the decisive three-pointer, the 38-year-old future Hall of Fame point guard was moving further away from when he reached the NBA Finals with inferior New Jersey Nets teams.
The Mavericks are one win away from reaching the Finals for first time in five years as they prepare to host Game 5 of the Western Conference finals on Wednesday. Although Nowitzki and Jason Terry are all that remain from the wreckage of past letdowns in Dallas, the team is loaded with veteran players — and a head coach — who have experienced their share of postseason heartache.
“I think it’s fueled this run a lot, because a lot of guys are hungry,” said reserve center Brendan Haywood, who is in the conference finals for the first time in his career but suffered three straight first-round losses to LeBron James while with the Washington Wizards. “Their energy and their will to win weighs on this team because we know how important it is to them.”
Dallas has the oldest roster remaining in a conference finals that features some young upstarts in the Thunder, Chicago and Miami. Its top five scorers this postseason — Nowitzki, Terry, Kidd, Marion and Peja Stojakovic — have an average age of 34 but no championship rings between them. Each can share tales of playoff disappointment. “It’s the reason we are where we’re at and why mentally, we’re locked in,” Terry said. “For all that we’ve been through, our veteran leadership, guys realize that the opportunity doesn’t come often and that the time really is now.”
Stojakovic was a member of the Sacramento Kings in 2002, when he shot an air ball with the opportunity to hit a game-winner late in regulation during a Game 7 overtime loss to the Los Angeles Lakers. Mavericks Coach Rick Carlisle won a title with Boston in 1986 but has failed to reach the Finals as a coach, losing in the conference finals with Detroit and Indiana in 2003 and 2004, respectively, and having perhaps his best chance of winning disrupted the next season by the infamous Ron Artest brawl at the Palace of Auburn Hills.
“We’ve got a lot of unique stories on this team,” Nowitzki said. “A lot of guys have been through a lot in this league and have been around forever. It’s a bunch of experienced guys that ultimately have come together and fought through some stuff. And we all understand that in an 82-game season there are a lot of ups and downs, and you’ve got to fight through some stuff, fight through injuries. Ultimately, you’ve got to keep your eyes on the prize and keep going.”
The Mavericks’ dramatic comeback from a 15-point deficit with five minutes remaining in Game 4 was just the latest example of this team overcoming hardships. They lost Caron Butler to a ruptured patella tendon in his right knee, and another projected starter, Rodrique Beaubois suffered a lost season because of foot problems. “We’ve got a resilience in us that’s hard to find,” Marion said. “We know what we want. We want this.”
“That’s what we play the game for is to try to win a championship,” said Kidd, who is in his 17th season. “We talk about it at training camp, but sometimes, those thoughts or dreams come to a halt early, at the end of April, but sometimes, May. Everybody is hungry. We’re desperate.”
Terry wanted to let his teammates know how serious he was about winning a championship during the preseason. Terry, Butler, Haywood, Marion and Dominique Jones all gathered at DeShawn Stevenson’s home in Orlando, where Terry decided to have Stevenson’s personal tattoo artist stitch the Larry O’Brien trophy inside his right biceps. “I told them: ‘I’m very serious about this team. I know we have the potential to do it, so I’m going to show you,’ ” Terry said. “Now, does getting a tattoo show them that we can do it? Not necessarily, but I guarantee, I’m going to do everything in my power to get it done.”