On Sunday night, Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks finished off their 2011 NBA Finals victory, four games to two, over LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and the Miami Heat. It was a stunning conclusion to a series that many felt Miami would control from the outset.
For most of the first two games, it certainly looked like that would be the case.
The Heat jumped on the Mavericks in Game 1, with their stifling defense holding Dallas to 37 percent shooting—their worst shooting performance of the postseason—and James and Wade lived up to their superstar billing, finishing off the Mavs in the fourth quarter.
In Game 2, the Mavericks were down just four points after the third quarter. But after the first five minutes of the fourth, it looked like the Heat were finally going to assert their dominance and cruise to a 2-0 series lead, going on a 13-2 run to go up by 15 with 7:13 left.
Wade capped the run by draining a contested three right in front of Dallas' bench. We all know what happened next: Wade decided to show off a bit, posing and holding his follow-through for a few extra obnoxious seconds. James came over to join the celebration, yelling at Wade and playfully punching him in the chest.
However, just like the day after James' infamous "Decision," when the Heat put on their equally infamous premature victory party, they had jumped the gun just a bit.
The Mavericks stormed back to win, finishing the game on a 22-5 run of their own. Nowitzki scored 10 points during that run, including the winning left-handed driving layup with three seconds to go.
Miami, however, deserves as much blame for losing Game 2 as Dallas deserves praise for winning it. Wade and James set an unnerving precedent during the Mavericks' fourth-quarter comeback, settling for long jumpers and missing most of them. James especially struggled in the fourth, scoring just two points as his team puttered away a 15-point lead.
James' fourth-quarter disappearance foreshadowed what would become perhaps the dominant storyline of the 2011 NBA Finals. He averaged only three points in the fourth quarter during the series, a stunning drop-off for the player who salted away each of the Heat's two previous opponents, the Boston Celtics and Chicago Bulls, with great clutch performances.
The Heat won Game 1 fairly easily, would have won Game 2 if not for their late collapse, and held off the Mavericks for a victory in Game 3. In Game 4, Miami blew another fourth-quarter lead to allow Dallas to tie the series at two games apiece.
Miami lost Games 2 and 4 by a combined seven points; James could have easily made up those deficits by himself had he not been mired in the worst series performance of his career.
His eight points in Game 4 were the fewest he had ever scored in a playoff game, and his effort ended a streak of 433 consecutive games, regular season and postseason, in which he had scored at least 10 points.
Had he not suffered through his well-documented fourth-quarter troubles, the Heat could have swept the series.
But they didn't.
The dysfunction of the supposed "super team" opened the door for the Mavericks, who probably embody the antithesis of what the Heat represent.
Miami has three superstars, home-grown talents who have been accused, not without reason, of being egomaniacs. Two of them were willing to leave their loyal fan bases to join forces with the other, anticipating winning a plethora of easy championships.
Dallas has just one superstar, a foreign-born, relatively reclusive seven-footer who has spent his entire career with one team.
Miami's Big Three gets minimal support from their supporting cast, scoring 66 percent of the team's regular-season points by themselves. In the postseason, that number increased to 72 percent.
Nowitzki, meanwhile, has no standout sidekick—it was supposed to be Caron Butler, but he was injured midway through the season—so he instead relies on a deep pool of supporting role players and former stars; Dallas' "veteran" (i.e., "old") squad has nine members over the age of 30, including core players Nowitzki, Jason Kidd, Shawn Marion, Jason Terry, DeShawn Stevenson and the injured Butler.
The Heat had been universally cast as the NBA's villain in the aftermath of the "Decision," mainly because of its tastelessness, as well as the arrogance displayed by the Heatles the next day in Miami.
With the Heat scorching their way through the playoffs en route to the NBA Finals, the loathing reached its climax. When the Mavericks finished off the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference Finals, they became America's team. Everyone rooting against James and the Super Friends finally had a team to put their passion behind, and the Mavericks did not disappoint.
Nowitzki, despite running a 101-degree fever, brought the Mavericks back from the brink of a 3-1 deficit with a heroic performance in the fourth quarter of Game 4. He scored 10 of his 21 points in the fourth to power Dallas' 21-9 run over the game's final 10 minutes, dropping in the winning layup and tying the series.
With that win, the Mavericks had snatched the momentum, and they would not relinquish it. They won Game 5 in Dallas behind another great performance by Nowitzki, who scored 29 points.
Terry played the role of sidekick in that game, scoring 21 points and dishing out six assists off the bench. He also hit what may have been the biggest shot of the game, draining a three-pointer in front of two defenders with the shot clock running down and the Mavericks up only four. The deep three gave Dallas a seven-point lead with just 33 seconds left, effectively sewing up a 3-2 series lead.
Terry's heroics carried over into Game 6, as he led all players with 27 points, including 19 in the first half.
Miami underperformed yet again on Sunday night, especially in the fourth quarter. James and Wade combined for 11 turnovers in the game, with three of those coming in the fourth. When they weren't turning the ball over, they were missing long jump shots, exactly what did them in in Game 2.
Wade dribbling the ball off his foot with just under nine minutes left was perhaps the most deflating Miami turnover of the series, but it wasn't even his most egregious mistake. In Game 4, with the Heat down three and six seconds left on the clock, Wade bobbled the inbounds pass, almost losing it into the backcourt. This prevented Miami from getting off a good shot, allowing the Mavericks to escape with a win.
But the sheer volume of turnovers in Game 6 by the two Heat stars prevented them from having any shot at forcing a Game 7.
In the end, though, it was Dallas' depth that allowed them to outlast the Heat. Every Maverick who played in Game 6 made some meaningful contribution, while three of the nine Miami players that saw game action did not score a point.
However, everyone knew that the Dallas bench would not have had their chance to shine if it weren't for Dirk Nowitzki. The 32-year-old German won the Finals MVP award, and rightfully so; his postseason performance was one of the best in history.
Nowitzki's legacy is now complete. As both a regular season and Finals MVP, not to mention a world champion, he is undoubtedly one of the five best power forwards of all time, and arguably one of the 20 best basketball players ever.
Jason Kidd, another all-time great without a ring, finally won his first at the age of 38.
The aforementioned aging of Dallas' core means that their championship window is closing. There are a host of young NBA teams looking to take the reins from the veteran Celtics, Los Angeles Lakers, San Antonio Spurs and these Mavericks.
This was probably the best shot Dallas will have at a championship for a while, as the Thunder, Bulls, Heat and others gain more experience and assemble better teams.
With that in mind, you have to feel good for Kidd, Nowitzki, Terry and the Mavericks organization, which suffered through a stunning Finals loss to the Heat in 2006, even if you have nothing against the Heat, or are, in fact, a fan (GASP!).
Miami, meanwhile, did pretty well in their first season after a major personnel overhaul. Despite limping out to a 9-8 record to start the season, the Heat came together as the year wore on, eventually powering through the first three rounds of the playoffs and looking like they would do the same in the Finals.
But that's when their lack of depth caught up with them. Mike Bibby, Joel Anthony, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Mario Chalmers all started playoff games for the Heat; you would be hard-pressed to find another playoff team that any of them would start for. Mike Miller, Eddie House, Juwan Howard, James Jones and Erick Dampier are not the answers off the bench either.
Pat Riley knows that, and you can be sure he will assemble some better pieces to complement his Big Three once this summer's collective bargaining dispute is resolved.
At the Miami Ego-Fest the day after the "Decision," James was asked about the potential of winning multiple championships during his time there.
"Not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven," he said, sending the Miami fans into a frenzy. "And when I say that, I'm not just up here blowing smoke...We believe we can win multiple championships if we do it the right way."
And that could still very well happen. If Miami Thrice were two wins from a title with the supporting cast they had this year, just wait until they put together anything close to what Dirk had to work with.
We could very well see the NBA's next decade controlled by the Miami Heat.
But for now, the Dallas Mavericks are the best basketball team in the world.