MIAMI — Dirk Nowitzki knocked down a jumper in front of the Miami Heat bench, clenched his fist and held a pose. He slowly marched down the floor, not to gloat, but to hold onto a moment that he didn’t want to escape. He was minutes away from winning his first NBA championship — the one Nowitzki heard he would never win because he lacked the necessary intangibles and fortitude to deliver the Larry O’Brien Trophy for the Dallas Mavericks.
As the clock wound down on the Mavericks’ 105-95 victory over the Miami Heat in Game 6 of the NBA Finals on Sunday, Nowitzki held his hands above his head, almost in disbelief, and leaned over, as if he was finally free of the burden that he has carried the past 13 years — getting hammered for his toughness and inability to win the big game. Jason Terry later walked up to him and gave him a hug.
For five years, Nowitzki and Terry had to live with the agony of having Dwyane Wade and the Heat stomp on their championship dreams in Dallas. But they were able to turn it around, despite being severe underdogs, and closed out the star-studded Heat in the same arena that Wade, Chris Bosh and LeBron James celebrated their merger with a smoke-filled entrance 11 months ago.
“Obviously, that was one of my most disappointing losses in my career, to lose the final series after being up 2-0,” Nowitzki said of the loss in the 2006 NBA Finals. “It took so long just to get here. I don’t really know if it would have made a difference. Just this feeling, to be on the best team of the world is just indescribable.
“That’s why this is extra special,” Nowitzki said. “If I would have won one early in my career, maybe I would have never put all the work and the time in that I have over the last 13 years. So this is amazing.”
Nowitzki, the lone all-star on his team, was able to trump a heralded and hyped team with three all-stars in James, Bosh and Wade. He didn’t have the best shooting night, as he missed 18 of 27 shots, but became the second European player to win Finals MVP after scoring 21 points and grabbing 11 rebounds. He averaged 26 points throughout the series, playing despite a torn tendon in his left middle finger and overcoming a sinus infection to have the winning basket in Game 4.
Though Nowitzki struggled in the finale, Terry continued to encourage him as he walked up to Nowitzki during a fourth-quarter timeout to tell him, “Keep pushing. Remember ’06.”
Terry had the championship trophy tattooed on his right biceps during the preseason, believing that the Mavericks were destined to win it all. Still carrying memories of that forgettable collapse against the Heat in 2006 — and his missed three-pointer that could’ve forced overtime in the closeout game — Terry led all scorers with 27 points as the veteran-laden Mavericks were finally able to claim the rings that had eluded each of them for their entire careers.
None had waited longer than the 38-year-old Jason Kidd, who finally won after two failed trips with the New Jersey Nets. Dallas also won the title for the first time in its 31-year history and Don Carter, the Mavericks’ first owner, initially accepted the trophy from NBA Commissioner David Stern.
“This is a special team,” said Rick Carlisle, who became the 11th coach to win a title as a coach and a player. “This is the most special team that I’ve ever been around, because it’s not about what you can’t do; it’s about what you can do. It’s not about what your potential shortcomings are; it’s what we could accomplish as a group together. It was just phenomenal to be around them.”
Nowitzki initially didn’t celebrate the win, as he immediately walked through the tunnel, almost in disbelief, as Wade and Bosh both broke down in tears. James led the Heat with 21 points but was unable to carry the team when it needed a heroic performance. Bosh had 19 points, but Wade had just 17.
“We ran into a team that at this time was obviously better than us,” Wade said. “No mater what, you are never ready for your season to come to an end. We understand our goal was to win a championship. We wasn’t able to accomplish that in Year One. But this ain’t the end of the Miami Heat. We’ll use this as motivation and come back and try to do it again.”
Wade encountered some lean years after winning his first title, with Miami failing to get out of the first round and missing the playoffs altogether in the subsequent seasons. Wade didn’t like to have some of his prime wasted, but he was presented some hope last July, when Heat President Pat Riley pulled off the greatest free agent coup in NBA history, as he retained Wade and lured Bosh and James, who famously said he would “take my talents to South Beach” during a controversial television special.
James, Wade and Bosh came together to win not just one championship, but to form a dynasty and rule the league for the foreseeable future. The Heat went through the Eastern Conference with relative ease, needing five games each to dispatch of Philadelphia, Boston and Chicago. During those series, James emerged as an unstoppable force, especially in the closing minutes of crucial wins against the Celtics and Bulls. But that James disappeared in the Finals, or was rather replaced by a player lacking confidence or any ability to be remotely engaged when it mattered most. He tried to motivate himself on Twitter or with his words, but it couldn’t come together. James lost his composure in the fourth quarter, stepping out of bounds on an offensive rebound, failing to recover a rebound and repeatedly swinging the ball without shooting.
“Sometimes you got it, sometimes you don’t. And that was the case in this series,” James said. “It hurt of course. I’m not going to hang my head low.”
The Mavericks hadn’t wasted any time to close out opponents this postseason, using the first opportunity they had to close out Portland, the Los Angeles Lakers and Oklahoma City. They played with abandon on Sunday at American Airlines Arena, building their first double-digit leads of this hotly-contested series. They got contributions from all over, with J.J. Barea scoring 15, Shawn Marion adding 12 and DeShawn Stevenson scoring nine points before getting into a shoving match with Miami’s Udonis Haslem and Marion Chalmers.
Usually loud-mouthed Mavericks owner Mark Cuban took a vow of silence during the run, wanting the focus to be on his team instead. His only comments were after the Mavericks clinched the Western Conference and he stated, “We ain’t done yet!” Cuban had spent several hundred million dollars over the past 11 years to assemble a champion, rebooting the roster several times. He went through two coaches before finding Rick Carlisle, switched from a fun-and-gun team with Steve Nash, to a more rugged, defensive-minded team. Through all of the changes, Nowitzki remained. Nowitzki had to handle the criticism that came with losing in the Finals, with losing to Golden State, New Orleans and San Antonio in the first round. Nowitzki spoke the day before about getting “hammered” for his shortcomings, but the clinching game proved that he was able to acquire the ultimate prize with the help of his supporting cast.
The Mavericks made several trades and free agent signings, brought back Kidd for his second run, landed center Tyson Chandler last summer and finally found the right combination of moxie and toughness. Despite losing Caron Butler to a season-ending knee injury Dallas became the first team to win a title from the Western Conference other than the Lakers and Spurs since Houston won back-to-back titles in 1994-95.
“It feels amazing to know that no one can ever take this away from us again, and for one year, we’re the best team that was out there,” Nowitzki said. “That feels amazing.”