Three years ago the Dallas Mavericks were on the precipice of fulfilling their potential.
They held a two-games-to-none lead over Dwayne Wade's Miami Heat. They had completed a playoff run that included a Game Seven win in San Antonio (in overtime, no less) and a Conference Finals-clinching win in Phoenix over Steve Nash's Suns.
And then everything fell apart.
Dallas lost a heartbreaking Game Three in Miami in which the Mavericks blew a 13-point lead with six minutes remaining. Final: 98-96.
Wade, Shaquille O'Neal and Co. blew out Dallas in Game Four and then won Games Five and Six (the latter in Dallas) by a combined four points to stun the Mavericks and take home the NBA Title.
Since then, a once-proud Dallas organization has floundered.
In 2007 Dallas finished the regular season with an NBA-best 67 wins, only to be trounced in the first round by former coach Don Nelson's upstart Golden State Warriors.
In 2008 Mark Cuban shook things up and traded future All-Star point guard Devin Harris to New Jersey for aging superstar Jason Kidd. The move was vilified by analysts. They pointed out that Kidd had lost a step and could not guard the West's quicker point guards.
Dallas snuck into the playoffs as a seven seed, losing four games to one to Chris Paul's New Orleans Hornets.
The 2008-09 NBA season began with Dallas looking like the team that would fall out of contention in the West. Improving young teams like Portland and New Orleans looked to join the Lakers and Spurs at the top of the conference. Dallas stumbled out of the gate to a 2-7 record and the collapse of Big D looked complete.
And then something changed.
Whether it was new coach Rick Carlisle's system finally clicking or Jason Kidd meshing with the offense, Dallas went on an 18-5 run and never looked back. Fifty wins secured Dallas the sixth seed and a date with in-state rival San Antonio.
Much was made of the Tony Parker-Jason Kidd matchup. Most Parker would outplay Kidd by a mile.
Instead Dallas has San Antonio one loss from elimination.
In Game One, Dallas had six players score in double figures. The Mavs held Parker to 24 points (off from his 31 PPG average against Dallas in 2009) and shot better than 50% to win in San Antonio.
After the Spurs took Game Two, Dallas stormed back at home in Game Three, winning 88-67. It was the first time in San Antonio's illustrious playoff history that the Spurs had been held below 70 points.
All of this led up to last night's Game Four.
Parker started out on fire, tying the Spurs' record set by George Gervin for most points in one half of a playoff game with 31. But Dallas refused to allow the rest of the Spurs beat them. Parker and Tim Duncan scored 68 points. The rest of the Spurs could muster only 22.
Dallas, meanwhile, used a 29-16 third quarter and stifling fourth-quarter defense to beat San Antonio 99-90.
Dallas had five players in double figures, led by Josh Howard's 28 points. Dirk Nowitzki finished with 12 points and 13 rebounds while Jason Kidd scored 17 to go along with seven rebounds and seven assists.
Unnoticed in the box score was the contribution of Ryan Hollins, Dallas' second-year big man out of UCLA.
Hollins played 19 minutes, including most of the fourth quarter guarding Duncan. Hollins held Duncan to just two points in the fourth quarter while grabbing eight rebounds to go along with three blocks.
The series now heads back to San Antonio for Game Five with Duncan, Parker and the Spurs looking for answers. The Spurs have lost nine of their last 10 road playoff games while Dallas is on a 16-1 run at home since the All Star break.
The Mavericks have been getting valuable contributions from their entire roster. Jose Juan Barea has been inserted into the starting lineup to guard Parker and is averaging 10 PPG.
Despite poor shooting thus far from Jason Terry, the NBA's recently crowned Sixth Man of the Year, Dallas is getting all the offense it needs from Nowitzki, Howard, Kidd and role players Barea, Brandon Bass, Antoine Wright and Erick Dampier.
Dallas has committed the third-fewest turnovers thus far in the playoffs (a direct result of Kidd's leadership and playoff experience). They lead the NBA in playoff free-throw percentage and are fifth overall in rebounding.
No one on the Mavericks is looking ahead to the next round, not with the 2006 NBA Finals so fresh in everyone's memory. "They're not going anywhere," Kidd said after Saturday's victory. "It's not easy to put a team away, especially a team that's won championships."
But without a remarkable comeback by a San Antonio team that does not seem to have the fire power without injured star Manu Ginobili, Dallas is looking at a Round Two date with either Denver or New Orleans.
Should Dallas win one of the remaining three games in this series, focus will shift away from Parker vs. Kidd and onto whether this underrated Dallas team can take the next step toward the NBA Finals. On Tuesday, April 28, we'll begin to find out.