With nobody on their side, the Dallas Mavericks finally proved us wrong. They won the NBA Finals on Sunday night, with a 105-95 conquest of the Miami Heat, destroying, in an instant, whatever doubts we still had about this team. Dallas earned this title, Miami didn't give it away, and the Mavericks are as deserving a champion as we've seen in this league. What a difference a half-decade makes.
It took months for us to find out what the Mavericks knew they had in them from the start. Nobody doubted Dallas' abilities as a fringe championship contender before the season, but it was just one in a group of strong Finals hopefuls from the Western Conference when the season started. Losing what many assumed to be its second-best player to a season-ending injury midway through 2010-11, a slow start to finish the regular season that actually had coaches hoping to pair up against Dallas in the postseason, few picking it to win the first round, and a second-round meeting with the defending championship Lakers all added to that doubt.
This wasn't a team of destiny like Miami, on the vanguard like Chicago, or battle-tested like the Lakers, Celtics and Spurs. This was just an expertly coached group of talented players who, working with the whole as greater than the sum of its parts, just had enough to win it all, with nary a caveat to be found.
Some will try to create some. Miami's top-heavy roster had the home-court advantage, and several chances to pull out wins in each of Dallas' four Finals victories. LeBron James, as he's been all series, was uncomfortable and not much of a contributor down the stretch of Sunday's Game 6, despite roaring out of the gate with four straight made shots to begin the game. Dwyane Wade was carrying the team, but he could barely carry the ball at times as he registered five turnovers. Chris Bosh shot well, making 7 of 9 turns from the floor, but not all that often. And Miami's depth paled in comparison to Dallas'.
For good reason. Jason Terry was brilliant off the bench with 27 points on 16 shots. DeShawn Stevenson nailed three needed first-half 3-pointers. J.J. Barea was a riddle Miami couldn't solve, as he got to the rim time and time again. Brian Cardinal was huge, coming through with his usual plus/minus (a game-best +18) heroics. Eight assists from 17-year vet and two-time Finals runner-up Jason Kidd. Needed made shots from Ian Mahinmi (!). All-over defense from Shawn Marion. Championship ball.
And, late in the game with Miami threatening to make another close game of it, there was Dirk Nowitzki. Jumpers, spinning runners, scores and finishes. Nowitzki struggled with his shot in Game 6, missing 11 of his first 12 from the floor and finishing with 21 points on 27 shots with 11 rebounds. It wasn't his best, but it was enough, topping off a six-game run that won the 2006-07 NBA MVP the 2011 NBA Finals MVP.
Dirk couldn't have picked a better set-up to exorcise those demons. Not only did he avenge Dallas' loss in the 2006 Finals (a series that Miami earned and Dallas didn't give away), but he did it in Miami, against Miami, the same Miami. The not altogether sainted Miami.
In a season that has always been about Miami, Dallas made it its own. For the first time since LeBron James took his talents to South Beach, the focus is elsewhere, even in Miami's defeat. Not because Dallas is the better story, and not because Big Three ennui has finally set in.
No, it's because Dallas is the better team. Stronger, deeper, smarter and more resilient than 29 others. Deserving champions who should be proud of what they overcame on their way toward taking what was always theirs.