Ralph Orlowski - Bongarts/Getty Images
Comeback Day: Game 2, NBA Finals, 2011
I thought about this one a lot. In fact, I over thought it, since it seemed so obvious.
For example, I really considered, for a while, Game 4 against the Thunder in the same playoffs. Honestly, that was probably a more IMPRESSIVE comeback. The Mavericks were legitimately down 15 with under 5 minutes to go. At the five minute mark in the game I'm talking about, they were (only) down 9.
I also watched it in a more appropriate environment. Happened to be home, and got to watch the way you're supposed to watch--in a room full of friends in Mavericks jerseys, a room full of shouting, depressed people, then a room full of screaming, delirious people.As an experience, it could hardly be topped.
What I most remember about that one, by the way, is that, still down 10 with 2:32 to go--which is insane--I saw Dirk take the kind of three he never takes, even under duress--a rushed three, a desperation three. And it went in. And I thought now hold on a minute. He'd just made a two, he'd make two more in the next minute to drop the deficit to 3, our Tyson Chandler led defense would not let Westbrook or Durant get free (and they were at the apex of their not passing to each other days, then), somehow Shawn Marion missed a free throw, somehow Dirk made two, and Marion made up for it with a tremendous block on a trademark KD 30-foot trey at the buzzer, and Kidd and Terry took us the rest of the way. Tremendous moment.
But since the Mavericks won that series 4-1, it just doesn't seem as important.
Lisa suggested I might write about the Mavericks franchise, coming back from 2006 to 2011. Great idea, especially given the eerie parallelism, and the heightened level of difficulty (The 2011 team, as we saw in 2012, was the 2006 team on steroids). But it didn't sit right with me because there wasn't a year in the middle I felt like the Mavericks were really DOWN. We never stopped having Dirk. I never stopped being able to talk myself into our chances.
So it had to be this one. Really, it always had to be this one. You know why. It's because I've never been so low. Like to Doctor, at the Battle of Demons' Run, in reverse. I've never been that low.
Because it was my worst nightmare.
I cannot overstate, I cannot stress enough, how much 2006 ruined things for me, maybe for a lot of you. Because people say that winning is all that matters, but it's not. Championships don't make basketball any more of a sport, therefore just a game, then any other part of it. Arguing sports in a bar is sports. Reading columns on ESPN about your favorite players is sports. It's okay for that to be sports. You can take your post-modern "all that matters is championships" and shove it, because if you don't love defending your best player on the message boards, to your friends, to complete strangers, then you're enjoying some weird, clinical version of sports that at the end of the day doesn't matter an iota more than the other kind.
After 2006, you could not get anyone who was not a Mavericks fan to listen to an argument about Dirk Nowitzki. You could not talk anyone into the Mavericks. Your team, the team you loved more than any team in any sport, was routinely brushed aside, like a gnat, with a "great regular season team"--as if making it to the NBA Finals and winning 2 games was somehow not being in the postseason.
Every part of the sport that a guy like Kobe, Duncan, LeBron gets so effortlessly, and you and I were getting Steve Kerr talking about how Pau Gasol was the best PF in the NBA. We were getting Adrian Wojnarowski picking the Mavericks to get swept in every series. That matters to me, I don't care if you think it should. It's all pink hearts and candy flowers anyway, even the "real" stuff. I watched every game from 2006 on with one eye on the game, one on Dirk's stat-line. I needed his dominance. I needed to see it.
So this was---I mean this--the worst thing that could happen to me in sports, period. It wasn't the Mavericks going down 0-2 and eventually losing the series. That, obviously, I could have imagined. It was even likely.
But to finally, finally silence the doubters, get to the verge of that cliff, after half a decade, a longer span than most NBA careers, to get to that place where, for the first time since that awful Finals, the eyes of the world were on the Mavericks, willing to believe again and to have the Mavericks not only lost, but to have Dirk suck?
It wasn't his fault. He'd torn a tendon right in the middle of his shooting hand. But I knew--because I'd been trying to convince people for five years--that no one would care about that. And I care about that. I deeply care about that.
And there it was on my TV screen, the worst sports-related thing I could see, and it was about to happen. I couldn't stand it. I literally don't know how I would have.
And in five minutes, both those things changed in the blink of an eye, in a towering, coruscating blaze of brilliance that erased both those possibilities, forever. The Mavericks didn't just come back from the unthinkable, they did it with the same spirit they'd had all playoffs, the one you could believe in. And Dirk didn't just win the game, he did it twice. When after Dirk hit a sure game-winning three, with 26 seconds left, then, unthinkably, someone goofed on defense and Mario Chalmers got a wide open three to tie it again with 24 seconds left, he won it again.
With a long, looping layoff of his injured hand.
We now know that had the Mavericks lost that game, in all probability they would have gone down 0-3. We now know, that Dirk would continue to struggle through the series, because, in addition to his tendon, he got a 100 degree fever. And we know, now, what we couldn't have known, watching everything, the twin poles of everything, slip down the drain just beyond our grasps---that no power, no disease, no injury, could stop Dirk from scoring10 points in the fourth quarter, and nothing did.
It was my favorite thing in that playoffs, after the games were over, to go read the daily dime live that ESPN does. Because about midway through round two, you could feel it shift. Suddenly everyone was EXPECTING Dirk to win the game. They can't have known what that meant to us long suffering Mavs fans, who had always believed it, and had had five years of watching fans of other teams pee on the notion. They all came along. They all became Mavs fans, for a minute. I remember the shock in the chat room, when Dirk missed the game-winner in Game 3--they KNEW Dirk was going to win the game. Can you imagine? After all these years?
And can you remember that moment, that terrifying moment, when it seemed like that was all gone again, certainly never to return, this time?
And then it wasn't?
In many ways, that comeback was HIS comeback, in the national consciousness. A career validated, long after most of us had had to stop hoping for it. Only the Mavericks front office could have immediately peed that one down the drain as fast as they could, in service to a greater good--not that it may not turn out to be a smart move, yet, but it was heartless and heartbreaking.
And only the Dallas Mavericks could have had that horrible lockout happen to them right after---and the new rules that meant they weren't going to keep the team together, a rushed season designed to make an aging team look ancient. I wrote a zillion times before that playoffs, that with the lockout looming, this was very likely the end of the world for the Mavericks, no matter what happened, that if we were going to win before the lights went off, this was it, and while I still hope I'm wrong, the odds aren't exactly great.
I thought the Mavericks could lose. But I did not think Dirk could let me down again. I just couldn't believe it, couldn't take it. Then I did believe it--and I was wrong. Deliriously, thrillingly wrong.
God, what a night.