Mavs Return to NBA Finals

Standing at center court with fans, teammates and team owner Mark Cuban living it up all around him, Dirk Nowitzki watched the presentation of the Western Conference championship trophy with all the enthusiasm of a guy being named player of the week in November.

His indifference at such a proud moment shows just how locked in he is this postseason.

"We've got one of those trophies already," Nowitzki said. "This is nice for a day, but we set our goals in October to win it all. We haven't done it yet."

The superstar who has dominated this postseason added yet another highlight Wednesday night, hitting a straightaway 3-pointer with 1:14 left that put the Mavericks ahead for good on their way to a 100-96 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder and into the NBA finals for only the second time in franchise history.

The Mavs got there in 2006 and were up 2-0, with a big, late lead in Game 3. They wound up losing to the Miami Heat in six games and had won only a single playoff series since until a tremendous run this postseason. Dallas is 12-3, with wins in 10 of the last 11 games.

"It's been a great playoff run for us so far, but everyone knows what this next step means," said Jason Terry, who along with Nowitzki are the only holdovers from the 2006 team.

The veteran-filled Mavericks have been playing with what coach Rick Carlisle calls "a laser-like focus." It showed when they clawed back from down 15 with 5:06 left in Game 4, and again in this game, when Dallas was down by six with 4:37 left.

The Mavericks outscored Oklahoma City 14-4 the rest of the way, with many of their most-accomplished -- but ring-less -- players making the key plays: Nowitzki, of course, but also Jason Kidd, Shawn Marion and Terry.

"We just kept our poise at all times," said Marion, who scored 15 of his 26 points in the final quarter. "It seemed like we never got rattled and just chipped away and chipped away."

Nowitzki also scored 26 points, nine in the fourth quarter. For the series, he averaged 32.2 points, 11.8 in the fourth quarters.

When the Mavs last made the finals, they advanced with a win in Phoenix. This time, they got to share the moment with their fans. Franchise founder Don Carter was right in the middle of it all, trading his signature white cowboy hat -- the one that used to be featured in the team's logo -- for a black baseball cap that read "The Finals 2011" with a Mavs logo and the championship trophy.

"All I can tell everybody is, we ain't done yet," Cuban said during the on-court trophy presentation ceremony.

Yet as the biggest on-court celebration in franchise history roared on, the greatest player in franchise history smiled at times but hardly savored it.

"It feels good to finally go back," Nowitzki said. "This time, hopefully we can finish the job."

Funny thing is, Dallas could face Miami again. Fans seem to hope so, chanting "Beat the Heat!" so loudly after Cuban spoke that they drowned out Carlisle's on-court interview.

LeBron James and Miami lead the Chicago Bulls 3-1 in the Eastern Conference Finals. If the Heat win Thursday night, the finals will begin Tuesday in Miami. If the Bulls win Thursday night, the finals will begin next Thursday in the East winner's city.

The Mavericks' big edge this series was experience, and it showed in the final two games. Age never slowed them, in part because their legs were refreshed by eight days off before the opener. Winning this game is huge because it earns them at least six days off before the finals.

"Any time you can get rest this time of year is a bonus," said Kidd, who at 38 could become the oldest point guard to ever win a title -- by several years. "For us to close it out here is huge."

Oklahoma City led for most of this game, even staying ahead during a stretch of 11 straight missed shots. But the Thunder were just too young and too inexperienced to understand how to close out a game.

When Dallas started to surge at the start and middle of the fourth quarter, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook came up with some answers. Yet when the pressure really ratcheted up, and 21,092 fans were at their loudest, the veteran Mavericks made all the right moves.

"Their time will come, but it's not now," Carlisle said. "We feel like now is our time to move on."

Marion got Dallas within 94-92 off a pass from Kidd, then Nowitzki stole a pass from Westbrook. Nowitzki actually missed his first 3-point try on that possession, and Westbrook got the rebound, but Terry stole it and got the ball to Marion, who fed Nowitzki for the go-ahead 3.

Eric Maynor wound up taking Oklahoma City's next shot, and teammate Nick Collison got the rebound on the baseline. He flung the ball back toward the paint, Marion caught it and took off for a breakaway dunk. He was fouled on the play and hit the free throw for a 98-94 lead.

Westbrook made a pair of foul shots with 39 seconds left to get the Thunder within a basket. Nowitzki missed a shot against tight defense with 18 seconds left, but Kidd got the rebound and passed back to Nowitzki. He was fouled and made a pair of free throws with 13.3 left. Durant and Harden missed 3-pointers, and that was it.

"It's tough now," Durant said. "But we can learn from it. The only way to get better is to keep pushing."

Westbrook scored 31 points, and Durant and James Harden each scored 23. The Thunder bowed out with only their second three-game losing streak of the season.

"I just think we played hard and just couldn't come up with the win," Durant said.

Considering its youth and the experience gained in this series, Oklahoma City can expect to close in on many more titles. That was little consolation Wednesday night.

"You can't skip [developmental] steps," coach Scott Brooks said. "We all have to get better, including myself."

NOTES: Teams with at least eight days off before a series, as Dallas did, are now 12-7 in the next round during the shot-clock era. If the Bulls win Thursday night, the Mavericks would have seven days off before the next series. ... Dallas is 7-1 at home this postseason. ... The Mavs, Spurs and Lakers have combined to win the last 13 West titles. ... Dallas-area sports fans are getting spoiled. The World Series was here in October/November, the Super Bowl in February and now the NBA finals are coming. ... Since blowing a 23-point lead in the final 14 minutes of Game 4 of a first-round series against Portland, Dallas has won 10 of 11 games. The Mavs joined the 1994 Rockets and 2002 Nets as the only teams to squander at least an 18-point lead going into the fourth quarter of a playoff game, and now all three of those clubs have recovered to reach the finals. The '94 Rockets won the title, the '02 Nets (with Kidd) didn't.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
Contact Us