DALLAS — Their best player can hardly jump. Their fastest player hasn’t played a minute all postseason.
So it’s not breathtaking athletic ability that’s gotten the Dallas Mavericks three wins from the NBA title.
Their strength is their resolve.
The Mavs are a collection of guys in their 30s who haven’t won a championship, but clearly know what it takes. They have the determination to keep fighting in every game, no matter how out of it they might seem — such as trailing by 15 points with 7:14 left on the road against a Miami Heat team waiting to be crowned NBA champions since LeBron James and Chris Bosh joined Dwyane Wade last summer.
Instead of continuing on their runaway path to an 0-2 deficit, the Mavericks sloughed off 7½ underwhelming quarters in the NBA finals and scored 22 of the last 27 points. Their astonishing display of veteran poise and savvy completely changed the outlook of this series just in time for the action to shift to Dallas. Game 3 is Sunday.
Maybe the Heat’s youth and athleticism will still rule. But the mettle of these Mavericks — it’s as much of a constant this postseason as Dirk Nowitzki’s step-back, one-legged jumper — means it won’t be the coronation many were expecting. And it could produce the first title in the club history.
“We just understand what we’re playing for,” said center Tyson Chandler, the least-experienced of Dallas’ starters yet in his 10th season. “Some of the guys are on their last legs. We’ve got a lot of guys who may not be here next year. We’ve got a lot of guys that come from situations where they’ve never been this far. We just want to win it for one another. We’re never going to give up.”
The importance of the next game can’t be underestimated. All 11 times an NBA finals has been tied 1-1 under the 2-3-2 format, the Game 3 winner has gone on to win it all.
The best-case scenario for Dallas is to win the next three games and not even return to Miami. Only two teams have won the middle three games at home on their way to a title, the Pistons in 2004 and the Heat in ’06, against the Mavs.
“You cannot get a split and get a huge emotional win in Game 2 and then go home and lose Game 3,” said Nowitzki, who scored Dallas’ final nine points, getting the winning basket on a layup using his injured left hand. “Hopefully our crowd will be rocking. They’ve been great to us and carried us throughout the playoffs so far.”
Dallas’ comeback was the biggest in an NBA finals since Michael Jordan and the Bulls wiped out a 15-point deficit in Game 6 in 1992, beating Portland and claiming their second title.
For the Mavericks, it was their biggest comeback win in … 10 days.
That was the night the Mavs wiped out a 15-point deficit with 5:06 left to beat the Thunder in overtime in Oklahoma City in Game 4 of the conference finals.
Three weeks before that, they erased a 16-point, third-quarter deficit to beat the Lakers in Los Angeles in Game 1 of their second-round series.
A few days before that, they bounced back from a 12-point, second-quarter deficit to beat the Trail Blazers in Portland to close out their first-round series.
That makes four times — once each round — that they’ve won after trailing by double digits, all on the road. And all have come while relying on their core of 30-somethings, not youngsters like Rodrigue Beaubois, the lightning-fast guard whom Nowitzki, and the rest of the organization, was counting on to bring “unpredictability” to their attack this season. He’s been hurt and ineffective when healthy, putting the burden back on the guys used to carrying the load.
“We don’t want to get in these situations,” said Jason Terry, who got the latest rally rolling with a jumper, a layup and two free throws in less than a minute. “But if this situation does present itself, we’re a veteran team. And we pride ourselves on being calm, being even-keeled. If there’s time on that clock, there’s still time for us.”
Funny thing is, this club’s reputation coming into this postseason was the exact opposite. They seemed to lack the mental toughness needed to win 16 playoff games.
They got to 14 in the ’06 finals, then melted down. They lost in the first round three of the next four postseasons. Another early exit was in the making when they blew a 23-point lead with 14 minutes left in Game 4 against Portland.
That game has become both a rallying point and a reminder. If a veteran team like theirs can get that complacent and sloppy, then it can happen to anyone. Keep scrapping and there’s no telling what might happen.
“If you’re going to win a championship, you’ve got to have the wherewithal to hang in when things are tough,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “You have to keep believing. All year our guys have believed.”