Editor’s note: In a call back to days gone by, we’re occasionally going to revisit a series we did years ago, when the Mavericks were bad and Andrew Tobolowsky had words to type. Those to take on the mantle are to be honored.
There were so many times it could have gone the other way. A bounce of the ball here, a phantom foul call there. A bad matchup or a sprained knee could have altered history, creating a completely different timeline for Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks.
The first bullet dodged was in 2003, against the San Antonio Spurs. In Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals, Nowitzki sprained his knee in a loss that put the Mavericks down 2-1 in the series. “His knee is very sore. I don’t expect he’ll play [in Game 4], and I’m not sure if he’ll play in this series,” head coach Don Nelson said after the game.
But an MRI showed no damage to the ligaments in Nowitzki’s knee, and when he tested it in warmups before Game 4 in Dallas, he decided to give it a go. Nowitzki didn’t play up to his usual standards, but still contributed, scoring 15 while collecting 12 rebounds and six assists. The Mavericks won the game on a Nick Van Exel buzzer beater to even the series.
The real Dirk showed back up the next two games, as the Mavericks closed out the Spurs behind back-to-back 40+ point games by Nowitzki. They advanced to their first NBA Finals, slightly favored to beat former Maverick point guard Jason Kidd and the New Jersey Nets. Nowitzki continued his hot shooting, averaging 29 points and 12 rebounds per game as the Mavericks triumphed in five games. Nowitzki credited his personal coach Holger Geschwinder with helping him keep his focus after suffering the knee injury. Whatever Holger told Nowitzki worked, as he took home Finals MVP in the Mavericks’ first championship season.
Then there was 2006. We all know what could have happened. The Mavericks were up 2-0 on Dwyane Wade, Shaquille O’Neal, and the Miami Heat. Game 3 was a heartbreaker, as the Mavericks lost despite leading by 13 with six minutes left in the game. They lost Game 4 behind 36 points by Wade, and Jerry Stackhouse was suspended for the next game after a flagrant foul on O’Neal.
And then came the infamous Game 5. Wade shot 25 free throws, the same amount as the entire Mavericks’ team. Still, Dallas took the Heat to overtime, but they ultimately dropped their third straight to Miami when Wade hit free throws to go ahead with 1.9 seconds left. The Mavericks vowed to come back stronger in Game 6.
And at first it looked like it was just talk. Wade scored 36 points. The Heat led most of the way. But Terry hit a 3-pointer to tie the game late, sending the teams to overtime. From there, Josh Howard took over, scoring almost at will against several different Miami defenders. The Mavericks won 102-98, forcing Game 7.
With a championship on the line, Nowitzki came out on fire, going 6-6 from behind the arc in the first half. He finished with 42 points, and Terry chipped in a strangely fitting 31. The referees whistles quieted, and the Mavericks won easily, 104-92. Dirk took home another Finals MVP. Just think if they had faded under all those phantom calls by the officials.
The next season provided yet another close call. The Mavericks stumbled out the gate, losing their first four games. But then they went on an incredible 67-11 run, finishing the season 67-15, the seventh best record in NBA history. They dominated the entire season, and Nowitzki won the regular season MVP for the first time in his career.
In a strange twist of fate, however, the Mavericks were matched up with their former coach Don Nelson and the Golden State Warriors. Despite winning a championship with Dallas in 2003, Nelson left the Mavericks after a dispute with owner Mark Cuban. It was the worst possible matchup for the Mavericks, as Nelson knew exactly how to neutralize Nowitzki.
Mavericks head coach Avery Johnson, perhaps unnerved by facing his coaching mentor Nelson, made the mistake of changing his starting lineup to match up better against the Warriors small ball roster. Devean George replaced Erick Dampier in the starting lineup, and the Mavericks promptly dropped Game 1. Dallas bounced back to even the series in Game 2, as Johnson learned his lesson and inserted Dampier back into a lineup that won 67 games.
We all know the rest of the story. The Mavericks finished the Warriors off in five games, then romped through the West bracket to the Finals. They faced off against a precocious LeBron James and an overachieving Cleveland Cavaliers team. The Mavericks dispatched the inexperienced Cavaliers in a four game sweep, and Dirk won his third Finals MVP trophy. Dallas capped off one of the greatest season in NBA history, and Nowitzki joined the lofty ranks of players like Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and Larry Bird.
Then came 2011, the capstone to Nowitzki’s playoff achievements. After a couple of early playoff exits, the Mavericks, now under coach Rick Carlisle, put together a team of vets hungry for their first title to aid Nowitzki in his quest for a fourth ring. Shawn Marion, Tyson Chandler, and Jason Kidd were brought on board, and by the time the playoffs rolled around, the team was firing on all cylinders.
After a six game scrap with the Portland Trailblazers, the Mavericks swept the Los Angeles Lakers, and took out the young Oklahoma City Thunder in five. It set up a rematch against both the Miami Heat and LeBron James in the Finals. The loaded Heat team featured James, Wade, and Chris Bosh, who were heavily favored.
The Heat took Game 1 easily, and looked poised to go up 2-0 with a 15 point lead and seven minutes left in Game 2. But then Wade hit a 3-pointer in front of the Mavericks’ bench, and stood posing for a second or two afterward. Wade’s little extra flare inspired Dallas to stage a 22-5 run to close the game, evening the series 1-1.
“Just seeing them celebrate like that, man, it was disheartening for us,” said Jason Terry. “Then I took another glance at the score and at the time; there was a lot of time left.”
The Heat won Game 3, but the Mavericks had regained their championship composure. They rattled off three consecutive wins to wrap the series up in six. Nowitzki won Finals MVP for the fourth time. That put him in a tier with only Michael Jordan, though James would accomplish the feat later in his career.
Nowitzki retired with one of the most incredible resumes in NBA history. Not only does he have the four Finals MVP awards, Dirk is also a 14-time all-star and has 12 all-NBA selections. He’s sixth in scoring all-time in NBA history. All this with one franchise.
Just think of all those close calls. A knee injury that didn’t heal fast enough, or getting rattled by some phantom fouls. A bad matchup here or there, and who knows, Nowitzki might only have one ring. Maybe not even one. But that’s the fickle nature of basketball, where a couple of bad bounces are the difference between one championship and four.