The Dallas Mavericks are in the playoffs. If that still hasn't sunk in, take a moment to make sure it does.
This team was not supposed to make the playoffs. Yet here they are, the No. 6 seed in the Western Conference. Dallas' reward, for the third time since winning the NBA title five years ago, is a date with Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder.
In 2011, the Mavericks' improbable championship run made a stop in Oklahoma City against the young and hungry Thunder. Durant and Westbrook were scratching the surface of superstar status in just Year 3 of the Oklahoma City era. Unfortunately for those young bucks, they ran into an unworldly Dirk Nowitzki in which Dallas won in five games.
Oklahoma City got its revenge the following year against the defending NBA champs. This time, it would be the Thunder making a stop to Dallas on their way to the NBA Finals, with OKC sweeping the new-look Mavs despite highly competitive Games 1 and 2.
Game 1 is on Saturday at Chesapeake Energy Arena, and the Mavericks were swept 4-0 in the regular season series this year. It's the playoffs, and anything can happen. But for now, let's get in our DeLorean and take a trip to yesteryear and revisit the other two times the Mavs and Thunder threw down in a seven-game series.
2011 Western Conference Finals -- Mavericks won 4-1
It almost seems fitting, during the five-year anniversary of Dallas' championship, that it's come full circle with Oklahoma City being involved in some capacity. The Mavericks, fresh off a week-long rest after disposing the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers in four games, welcomed the up-and-coming Thunder to the American Airlines Center in a classic battle of youth versus experience.
Right from the tip, it would be clear this series would be a clinic of Dirk showing these youngsters how it's done.
Let's start with Game 1. Durant scored 40 points on 10-of-18 shooting. He was the reason why OKC was in this game. Westbrook scored 20 points on 3-of-15, but got to the free throw line 18 times while making 14 of them. James Harden (remember that time he was in OKC?) scored only 12 points in 35 minutes off the bench.
Jason Terry and J.J. Barea combined for 45 points off the bench, which was a much-needed boost for Dallas to pull away and win Game 1, 121-112.
But this is why Dallas won: 48 points, 12-of-15 shooting, 24-of-24 free throws, six rebounds, four blocks
Dirk was already on another planet by this point. It didn't matter who the Thunder put on him. Serge Ibaka, while a terrific defender, was not yet polished to take on the task of going one-on-one with the No. 6 scorer in NBA history. Oklahoma City tried putting savvy veteran Nick Collison on Dirk, but that didn't work either. He scored 10 of Dallas' first 12 points, ranging from mid-range jumpers over Ibaka to a spin-move dunk that would become a staple in this series.
Dallas took a 1-0 lead because of Dirk's greatness. The young Thunder responded with one of their better collective performances of their playoff run in Game 2, winning 106-100. Dirk had another stellar offensive performance, scoring 29 points on 10-of-17 shooting, but there was no ammo from the bench. Terry and Barea combined to shoot 7-of-17 for 19 points. Shawn Marion tried to assert himself on the offensive end by taking 13 shots, but made only four.
Harden woke from his Game 1 slumber to erupt for 23 points, 14 of those coming in the final 13 minutes. He made all four of his threes in the final 12 minutes and seven seconds, including a back-breaking four-point play with seven seconds left in the third quarter which sucked the life out of the American Airlines Center. The Thunder stole home court advantage and returned to the raucous confines of Oklahoma City with the series tied 1-1.
And while we're at it, there was this from Durant. Has anyone checked on Brendan Haywood since?
The Mavericks went into Game 3 looking to take Harden out of the game. He was held to 2-of-9 shooting, and the Mavericks weathered the storm of 30 points from Westbrook and another 24 from Durant to survive, 93-87.
Marion rebounded to score 18 points while blocking two shots and recording two steals, and the Mavericks got 13 points apiece from Jason Kidd and Terry. Dirk, meanwhile, scored 18 points on 7-of-21 shooting, by far his worst shooting performance in the playoffs. Despite a 31-point fourth quarter from the Thunder, they didn't have enough in the tank to crack the code of Dallas' defense. The Mavericks held serve, took a 2-1 lead by way of survival. This would set up one of the more memorable games in Dallas Mavericks history.
If there were any nerves for Oklahoma City by this point, they weren't shown in the first quarter. The Thunder jumped out to a nine-point lead after the first and a five-point lead at halftime. Dirk scored 17 second quarter points just to keep Dallas in the game. Dallas cut the lead to four heading into the fourth, but it turned into a mess in a hurry. Durant hit a 3 with 5:06 remaining to give Oklahoma City a 99-84 lead, followed by that iconic Aaron Rodgers-like championship belt celebration, all but sealing a 2-2 series heading back to Dallas.
Then, Dirk went into God mode.
He scored 12 of Dallas' 17 points during its 17-2 run, including some of the more ridiculous off-balance shots you've ever seen this side of the Mississippi. In the matter of five minutes, the Mavs erased a 15-point deficit and forced overtime. That run was capped off by Marion blocking a 3-point attempt by Durant on the final play of regulation. Dallas outscored OKC 11-4 in the extra frame and stole Game 4 by way of highway robbery of the highest order.
Dirk scored 40 points, his second such occurrence of this series, and Jet chipped in with 20 off the bench. Somehow, the Mavs won this game. Probably by divine intervention. But they had a chance to go back home and close the series.
And much like Game 4, the Mavericks needed to come back in the fourth in Game 5. This time, it would be Dirk and 'Trix scoring 26 points apiece, and the Big German knocking down the iconic 3-pointer from the top of the key to give Dallas a one-point lead. The Mavericks shocked the world in back-to-back games to make it back to the NBA Finals for the first time in five years.
But life comes at you fast, as would be evident the following year.
2012 Western Conference First Round - Thunder win 4-0
A lot happened here.
The lockout, for one, completely shredded the Mavericks. No more Tyson Chandler, no more Caron Butler, no more DeShawn Stevenson and so on. Dallas' roster was completely overturned by the additions of Vince Carter, Delonte West, Brandan Wright and some guy named Lamar.
This was an entirely new-look Mavericks team that found a way into the playoffs at 36-30. Dirk still averaged close to 22 points per game and Jason Terry was still a weapon off the bench. The problem was Dallas lost its defensive identity for the year.
Meanwhile, in Oklahoma City, the Thunder were on the rise. They secured the second best record in the Western Conference. Durant led the league in scoring again, and Westbrook was finally entering superstar status. It was the complete opposite of what took place in the conference finals one year ago.
But the Mavericks, the savvy veteran group it is, gave OKC back-to-back scares on its home floor in Games 1 and 2.
Dallas had a four-point lead heading into the fourth quarter. Dirk was having another solid scoring night and even scored 11 in the fourth quarter. But the Thunder found out a way to beat the Mavericks this time around: Get more help for Durant. Westbrook scored 28, Ibaka scored 22 and despite shooting 10-of-27 from the floor, Durant's fortuitous bounce with 1.5 seconds left gave the Thunder a 99-98 victory in Game 1.
Game 2 was the same story, same result. Dirk had 31 points on 10-of-19 shooting and scored 14 in the second quarter. Dallas had a one-point lead with 2:18 remaining after a Carter jumper. Durant made two free throws and Dirk missed two potential go-ahead jumpers in the final 1:30. Terry had a chance to tie the game twice at the buzzer, but missed both 3-point attempts to give the Thunder a 102-99 win and a 2-0 lead, but barely. With Dallas coming back home, after two hard-fought games on the road, it was expected the Mavericks would find a way to tie this series and send it back to OKC.
That would most certainly not be the case.
Dirk went cold in Game 3, scoring 17 points on 15 shot attempts. This was the time Durant turned into a cold-blooded assassin. Knowing Dallas would feel confident going into Game 3, he had his best offensive performance of this series with 31 points on four missed shots, and five players scored in double figures to lead the Thunder in a blitz of the Mavericks, 95-79. Losing those first two games in OKC proved to be too much for Dallas to overcome. Even that team would admit it had a chance to really shock some people, but alas, all Game 4 would be was a formality.
There was this highlight to be had, however, of Vinsanity showing us he still had hops in his game.
Durant decided to take this game off and let Harden put the Mavs away for good this season. Dallas had a 10-point lead going into the fourth. That would evaporate quickly. Harden scored 15 of his team-high 29 points in the fourth quarter, including nine in a 12-point stretch that cut the once-10-point lead to one. It was only a matter of time before the Mavericks would succumb to the Thunder. It was simply their time, and that 103-97 victory over Dallas to seal the series would propel OKC to its first NBA Finals appearance, only to fall short of LeBron James and the same Miami Heat that Dallas disposed of the previous year.
You can call this year's meeting the rubber match. There's no distinct advantage for either team. The Mavericks could legitimately steal a game or two from the Thunder and make this a competitive series for the first time ever. If Dirk and Rick Carlisle know anything, though, they realize it can't be a repeat of 2012. If Dallas has a chance to steal home court advantage, they better take advantage of it.
Get ready, y'all. It's playoff time.