MIAMI — Here’s where all their age and experience, heartbreak and disappointment actually benefit Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks.
They’ve had two days to get ready for Game 6 of the NBA finals — plenty of time to daydream about commissioner David Stern handing them the shiny, gold Larry O’Brien Trophy as confetti falls and they pull on hats and T-shirts with the words 2011 NBA champions.
Yet their steely resolve remains.
They’re strictly thinking about what it will take to beat the Miami Heat on tonight, not what will happen if they do.
“I don’t allow myself to sit back and relax now,” Nowitzki said Saturday. “In these playoffs, one win or one loss can switch the whole momentum. You don’t ever want a snowball to start. I don’t allow myself to sit back all of a sudden and be satisfied. We got one more big win hopefully to get, and then I can be satisfied.”
Nowitzki isn’t giving his version of the “one game at a time” cliche. He’s been this way the last two months — the last five years, really, ever since the Mavericks went from being on the verge of taking a 3-0 lead in the 2006 finals to losing in six games. The Mavs wound up watching the Miami Heat celebrate their first championship on Dallas’ floor.
Nowitzki and Jason Terry are the only players left from that club, and the emotional scars from that collapse haven’t healed.
They could Sunday night.
But until it happens, they aren’t about to let their guard down. Terry, for instance, said Saturday he’s still haunted by the memory of his off-target jumper that could’ve sent the ’06 finale into overtime.
“Sometimes middle of the night, a lot of times first thing when I wake up in the morning,” he said. “Definitely every day when I walk into that gym, into that arena. It’s something you live with.”
The burden remains for everyone else in the organization.
Case in point: owner Mark Cuban’s continued silence, likely to be cracked only when the series is done.
“I think the first time in the finals, the experience was a little blissful,” said Donnie Nelson, the team’s president of basketball operations in ’06 and still today. “Eventually, we did get caught up in (thoughts of winning). Then that opportunity was ripped away. We didn’t understand how bad it was going to be.”
How bad was it?
Dallas lost in the first round of the playoffs three of the last four years. Nelson and Cuban kept surrounding Nowitzki with older players, many past their prime. This season, the entire lot of them has a total of zero rings. They also are mostly in their 30s and veterans of at least 10 NBA seasons — guys like Jason Kidd, who has been to two NBA finals; or Shawn Marion and Peja Stojakovic, who in their prime were key players on perennial contenders that couldn’t get out of the conference finals.
“Every second-place guy goes through this, whether it’s the Olympics or minor league baseball,” Nelson said. “You’ve got to go through that pain. What it does, it creates an insatiable hunger. It forces you to be non-emotional about the moment because you will not allow yourself to get your hopes up. … When someone steals your car or your girlfriend, you seldom get a second chance. For us to get a second chance, in this fashion, it’s really unique.”
The wait has felt interminable to Mavs fans because the club hasn’t even been close since 2006.
Dallas has been KO’d in the first round of the playoffs three of the last four years, winning a single series the other time.
Whenever they were bounced, Nowitzki would shrug and say it didn’t matter the round because they’re all lost seasons if they don’t end in a title. That same we-ain’t-done-nothing-yet vibe has spread across the locker room.
“We addressed it today,” Nowitzki said Saturday.