(Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavericks have been the underdogs since the NBA Playoffs started. Now Dallas sits won win from a return trip to the NBA Finals.
The Dallas Mavericks looked defeated on Monday night in Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals. Down by 15 points to a streaking Oklahoma City Thunder squad, with 5:05 left in regulation, in front of the Thunder's raucous crowd, the situation was indeed dire.
But something changed. Thunder guard James Harden fouled out, Oklahoma City fell apart, Dirk Nowitzki took control, and Dallas went on a 17-2 run to knot the score at 101 and force overtime. What's more, the Mavs scored the final seven points in OT, which provided the final margin: Dallas Mavericks 112, Oklahoma City Thunder 105.
The more important tally, though, is this: Mavericks 3, Thunder 1. It'd take an unexpected burst of competency by the young, at-times overmatched Thunder to keep Dallas away from the NBA Finals now, where they could potentially face the Miami Heat in a rematch of the 2006 championship series.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves. Lost in all the (deserved) praise of Nowitzki and the (premature) eulogizing of the Thunder is the fact that Dallas isn't meant to be this clutch. Since squandering a 2-0 series lead in the Finals five years ago, the Mavericks don't have the reputation of a team that "gets things done," especially "when it matters most." Surely Nowitzki and his mates would crumble under the pressure.
Except they didn't on Monday, and haven't in these playoffs, save for one night in Portland in the first round.
I have no rooting interest in these playoffs, but Dallas has drawn my support. For one, it's very difficult for me to dislike Dirk Nowitzki, whose brilliance should be obvious to all now. But the bigger reason I dig the Mavericks? They're turning those old talking points upside-down.
Dirk is soft? Soft players don't do what he did Monday.
They're too old to compete? They sure as heck have made the Thunder look too young.
They lack depth? Ask the Lakers about the Mavs' depth... if you can track them down at whatever vacation spots they've retreated to.
They're not clutch? Putting aside, for the moment, how silly "clutch" is ... what they accomplished in Oklahoma City on Monday was clutch.
A team built with a billionaire's riches, around a player as gifted as Nowitzki, has somehow become the underdog in these playoffs. Think about it. The Chicago Bulls, this year's feel-good antidote to the Heat, have the MVP in Derrick Rose. The Heat, given their free-agent haul of LeBron James, Chris Bosh, and veteran hangers-on, are the ultimate favorites (or frontrunners, if you prefer that term).
And the Thunder? They're everyone's darlings, what with Kevin Durant's humble brilliance, Russell Westbrook's manic energy, their hipster attire, Kendrick Perkins' scowl, small-town appeal... you get the idea.
And yet here are the Mavs, whose nine-man playoff rotation includes six men over the age of 30; whose highlight packages feature not kinetic athletes throwing down monster dunks, but rather precision passing and accurate jump-shooting; whose goofy superstar comes from another continent. They are, by a wide margin, the least sexy team left standing.
But they are still standing. And the way in which they've done it--by bucking convention, by perhaps prompting the talking heads to re-evaluate their positions and biases--has won me over.