DALLAS — Celebrating in their champagne-soaked championship T-shirts, it was easy to look around the Dallas Mavericks’ locker room and laugh off the reputations each of them once carried.
The point guard who was too old. His backup who was too small.
The brash owner with the big mouth. The agile center with the brittle body.
The coach and the star who weren’t strong enough leaders.
Now, they share a new label: NBA champions.
For one year at least, the Mavs showed that superteams can’t be built by a few stars hooking up. With a roster featuring Dirk Nowitzki and no other prime-of-his-career headliner, the Mavericks won the old-fashioned way, with an emphasis on things like camaraderie and unselfishness.
“I just think this is a win of team basketball,” Nowitzki said. “This is a win for playing as a team on both ends of the floor, of sharing the ball, of passing the ball, and we’ve been doing that all season long. … We’re world champions. It sounds unbelievable.”
Team owner Mark Cuban joked that when Nowitzki re-signed for less money last summer, it meant part of it could be spent on the posse he was recruiting: Ian Mahinmi and Brian Cardinal.
Truth is, Nowitzki returned because Cuban said he was committed to winning with this core group of guys and that he would surround them with the best supporting cast he could find.
“You have to have players that believe in each other and trust each other and trust your coach,” Cuban said. “And that’s a process. It doesn’t happen overnight. There’s no quick solutions. There’s not a single template for winning the championship. If there was, everybody would do it.”
Perhaps the most remarkable part is that they pulled it off without two guys expected to be starters: Caron Butler, who was their second-leading scorer until a gruesome knee injury on New Year’s Day, and Rodrigue Beaubois, a second-year guard whose speed and athleticism were supposed to charge up the offense. But Beaubois was hurt until February, then ineffective, then hurt again.
That left coach Rick Carlisle, who played at the University of Maine for two seasons, constantly mixing and matching.
In the finals alone, Carlisle gambled by putting a struggling J.J. Barea into the starting lineup and they won three straight games. The guy he asked to come off the bench, DeShawn Stevenson, thrived in his new role.
Backup center Brendan Haywood hurt his hip and was limited, so Mahinmi filled in pretty well, hitting two memorable shots in the clincher. Backup forward Peja Stojakovic played his way out of the rotation and Cardinal seized his extra minutes with gritty defense and taking open shots when he had them.
“This is the most special team that I’ve ever been around,” said Carlisle, who 25 years earlier was part of a very special team, the ’86 champion Boston Celtics. “When you view it from afar, it doesn’t look like a physically bruising-type team. So a lot of people don’t think we have the grit and the guts and the mental toughness. … You can’t dismiss how everybody stayed ready and how everybody answered the bell.”
Now that Dallas has its title, it’s easy for guys to say they saw this coming “the moment they traded for me,” as center Tyson Chandler said, or “from Day 1,” as Stevenson said.
But when Jason Terry says he “knew it in training camp,” he also can back it up. He felt so confident that in October he got a tattoo of the championship trophy on his right biceps and vowed to have it removed if this team didn’t win it all.
“(Miami) had three pieces, but we have 14 or 15,” Terry said. “With that kind of confidence in each other — the system, the coaching staff — we just believed. … This team has the heart the size of Texas.”
Before Sunday night, these 15 guys had played a combined 133 seasons without a single ring among them. Nowitzki and Jason Kidd were in the conversation of “best players never to win it all.”
Everyone had a right to have a chip on their shoulders about something, from Terry being the consolation prize when Steve Nash skipped town to J.J. Barea being undrafted. From Chandler’s health history scaring off teams to Carlisle having gotten two teams to the conference finals but never beyond, causing him to be fired twice.
Then there was the franchise itself.
Over the previous 30 seasons, the Mavs went through several phases: the “model expansion team,” a 13-year drought between playoff wins when they were best described as the Mav-wrecks, and, since Cuban took over in 2000, a team that was always really good but never the best.
This was Dallas’ 11th straight 50-win season, a feat only two other clubs had ever done: Tim Duncan’s Spurs and Magic Johnson’s Lakers. Both won multiple titles along the way; all the Mavericks had to show was a single runner-up finish in 2006. They went into this postseason having won a single series since.
No wonder they were the team everyone wanted to face.
They lived down to expectations by blowing a 23-point lead over the final 14 minutes of Game 4 in their first-round series against Portland. What could’ve been the beginning of the end for this year’s playoffs became the first of several key moments that turned them into champions.
“We looked at each other and said, ‘That can’t happen again,'” Kidd said.
They turned into comeback specialists themselves, pulling off at least one double-digit rally each round, always on the road. In the finals, they won games when trailing in the fourth quarter by 15, nine and four.
Nowitzki was usually in the heart of the action, often in spectacular fashion: a left-handed layup to win Game 2 after tearing a tendon in the tip of his left middle finger in Game 1; and fighting through a 101-degree fever caused by a sinus infection to have 10 points and five rebounds in the fourth quarter of Game 4.
He’s been leading this club for more than a decade, establishing himself “as a great scorer, but …” The flop in the ’06 finals — going from nearly up 3-0 to losing in six games — followed by a first-round ousting as a top seed in ’07 left the kind of scars only a championship could heal.
His performance the last two months certainly cleared up any doubts about his overall game. His hardware collection says it all: a finals MVP trophy to go with his ’07 regular-season MVP award.
Tim Duncan and Kobe Bryant are the only other active players who can say that.
“The year he won MVP doesn’t even compare to what he did this year in the postseason,” Terry said. “I’m just happy to be a part of it.”