After 26 years, Mavs reach NBA's grandest stage
PHOENIX -- They were once the model franchise. Then they were the Mav-wrecks.
Now, they're headed to the NBA Finals for the first time.
In their 26th season, the Dallas Mavericks finally are headed to the championship round, thanks to an impressive 102-93 comeback victory over the Phoenix Suns on Saturday night that ended the Western Conference finals in six games.
Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry struggled as Dallas went down by 18 early, then the duo powered a 20-4 run that put the Mavs ahead early in the fourth quarter. They never trailed again, ensuring that the most important victory in franchise history would be a memorable one, too.
"When I first got to Dallas, nobody really knew us," Nowitzki sad. "Nobody was paying attention to the Mavericks really. Then Mark [Cuban] took over and we got better and better and we got to be a playoff team. It's been a fun ride. Hopefully we can take it to the next level and bring this franchise a ring."
In the postgame exuberance, there were chants of "M-V-P" for Nowitzki, tears in the eyes of Cuban and lumps in the throat of former stars such as Derek Harper and Rolando Blackman, plus assistant GM Keith Grant, one of the club's first employees.
Most of all, though, there was praise for their unquestioned leader, coach Avery Johnson, who kept his team focused on winning a championship since the day he replaced Don Nelson in March 2005.
"This opportunity comes from a guy by the name of coach Avery Johnson being able to implement that thought in the guys' heads, that they can get this done," said Blackman, now an assistant coach. "All he's talked about is having the opportunity to win a championship: How many guys are on board? Who really wants to be able to get it done? He's made them live up to that standard throughout the whole year."
As Cuban received the trophy for winning the Western Conference, Johnson stood a few feet away, an arm on a hip and looking down. Cuban's voice cracked as he discussed his appreciation for Johnson pushing the club this far. Seeing how solemn Johnson looked during it all, reserve guard Marquis Daniels hollered, "Smile, AJ!"
"We signed up to win the championship," he said. "We're delighted to be there. But we're not satisfied."
As a reward for winning 60 games in the regular season, the Mavericks own home-court advantage, meaning the first two games -- and Games 6 and 7, if necessary -- will be in Dallas.
With Miami also a first-time finalist, this will be the first time since 1971, when the Milwaukee Bucks beat the Baltimore Bullets, that both teams are making their championship-round debut.
The Mavericks also got themselves off the list of teams that have never made the Finals. Only the Cleveland Cavaliers, Los Angeles Clippers and Denver Nuggets have been in the league longer without making it.
Amid the celebration, Cuban thanked Nelson for being the patriarch of the team's turnaround.
"Nellie" lifted the franchise from the dregs starting in the late 1990s, turning over the entire roster save for Michael Finley, later surrounding him with Steve Nash and Nowitzki. He also brought in Johnson as a player, first making him part of the staff when he was left off the 2003 playoff roster.
"When we first got here it was rough," Nowitzki said. "We were in that old arena. It stunk. It was bad. So we fought through a lot of stuff. ... It's been fun the whole ride so far."
Nowitzki also brought up Nash -- who now plays for the Suns -- and Finley.
"We kind of built that triangle for a while, which was great," Nowitzki said. "They're great friends and it hurt losing them. I wish, obviously both would still be here to enjoy this moment with me."
Nash has been voted MVP both seasons since he left Dallas. But he hasn't made the Finals.
"To see Dirk be able to play for the championship, it's exciting," Nash said. "I mean, it hurts a lot that I won't be able to do it, but I really admire what he's been able to do. I'm proud of his accomplishments and what he's meant to that team."
Johnson was only a few months removed from his playing career when he replaced Nelson. He forced players to take defense seriously, demanded that they be tougher mentally and physically and constantly talked about winning it all, something he learned as the starting point guard on San Antonio's 1999 title team.
Dallas came into this season widely viewed as a middle-of-the-pack playoff team, but Johnson molded the supporting cast around a still-blossoming Nowitzki and the result is something the previous 25 Mavericks teams couldn't accomplish.
"There were times when you went to games in the 1990s and people wore bags over their heads," said Harper, now a team broadcaster. "They have to lift those bags and be proud of what this franchise has been able to accomplish."
Said Grant, who has gone from equipment manager to assistant GM: "It's been quite a ride."
Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press
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