Nowitzki books return trip to NBA Finals

DALLAS – Follow the path of the ball. From Dirk Nowitzki(notes) to Tyson Chandler(notes) to Jason Terry(notes) to Jason Kidd(notes) to Shawn Marion(notes) to Nowitzki again. Five desperate veterans, five redemptive basketball souls, each pulling on the other, forming a rope all the way to the NBA Finals.

Dirk Nowitzki launched that 3-pointer, and everything stunningly aligned for these Dallas Mavericks. The ball caromed off the rim, off the hand of Chandler, through the hands of Russell Westbrook(notes) and legs of Eric Maynor(notes). Terry scooped up the ball, pitched it to Kidd, who rifled a pass to Marion, who found Nowitzki spotting up again, in rhythm, from 25 feet.

"You don't give a shooter like him two shots on the same possession," Terry would later say, and this, too, was fitting. These Mavericks are a cast of second and third chances, each of them living in the moment, and here was the greatest opportunity of all.

A little more than a minute left in the fifth game of the Western Conference finals, the Oklahoma City Thunder clinging to the last two points of their lead, Nowitzki rose up once again. The ball traced toward the basket, rising, falling, settling into the net for one more comeback in what's become the ultimate comeback for Nowitzki.

Nowitzki to Chandler to Terry to Kidd to Marion to Nowitzki. Follow the path of the ball, and it traces the career arc of the greatest player in these playoffs. From the Finals collapse in Miami to that history-making flop in Golden State to all those early exits, Nowitzki has been bumped here, bounced there. He's still standing, and now he's returning to the sport's biggest stage, likely in Miami, precisely where this tortuous five-year trek began.

"It's been a long stretch," Nowitzki said.

It's been that for way all of them. Terry is the only other holdover from that Dallas team in 2006, but there isn't a single NBA championship on this 15-man roster. These Mavs have bonded over their shared misery, emerging stronger than ever. Kevin Garnett(notes) and Ray Allen(notes) did the same when they joined Paul Pierce(notes) in Boston four seasons ago. Thunder center Kendrick Perkins(notes) played on that Celtics championship team in '08, and by Game 3 of these West finals he saw the same look from the Mavs that he saw from K.G., Pierce and Allen. The Thunder could have played smarter, made more shots and stops, but never could they match the hunger that's consumed these Mavericks.

"Their window is short on chances of winning a title," Perkins said that night. "… You have a veteran team over there with guys who really have their eyes on the prize."

This begins with Nowitzki. Since the Mavs blew that 2-0 lead to the Miami Heat five years ago, he's had reason to wonder if he'd ever return to the Finals. The Mavericks lost in the first round three of the next four seasons as they overturned their roster in search of the right supporting cast. The experience hardened Nowitzki, and the evidence has been easy to see in these playoffs: From Portland to Los Angeles to OKC, he played his best when the pressure peaked.

"I don't think anybody's questioning his greatness right now," Terry said.

Nowitzki knows his mission isn't finished, and that's why he didn't celebrate much as the Mavericks received their Western Conference championship trophy on the court after the game. "We got one of those trophies already," he said, "and it didn't mean anything at the end."

Nowitzki's more equipped to complete the job, to have his revenge in Miami, because his team is more equipped. From their coach on down, the Mavericks are a stronger team than the one five years ago. Avery Johnson was a young coach who cracked under the pressure of the Finals, forcing the Mavs to switch hotels in Miami once they began to stumble. Rick Carlisle is more measured, but just as hungry as so many of his players after losing in the Eastern Conference finals with the Detroit Pistons and Indiana Pacers. Even Mark Cuban has learned a thing or two: He's kept his mouth shut through these playoffs, long enough to let everyone appreciate the moment.

Cuban also helped general manager Donnie Nelson build this roster to a championship-worthy level. The trade that brought over Caron Butler(notes), Brendan Haywood(notes) and DeShawn Stevenson(notes) two Februarys ago didn't pay off immediately, but it's since made the Mavericks deeper than ever. When Butler was lost for the season, the Mavs picked up Peja Stojakovic(notes). The trade for Chandler last summer gave the Mavs the defensive anchor they lacked.

"We just haven't had the personnel to get to this point," Terry said. "We just weren't good enough. Every player is going to say we are – we're going to try to make you believe that – but if you look, to a man, this team is better than '05-'06. To a man. Each player."

These Mavericks have fit so well together because they're united in failure, all of them chasing that elusive championship. Kidd lost consecutive Finals with the New Jersey Nets and now returns as a 38-year-old, possibly in the last weeks of his career. He's played this postseason like he always has: with a purpose. He's helped chase Kobe Bryant(notes), Kevin Durant(notes) and Westbrook. He made the 3-pointer to win Game 4 of this series then helped close out the Thunder with 10 assists and only a single turnover.

Marion starred for all those years in Phoenix, twice losing in the West finals. He spent a couple lost seasons in Miami and Toronto, and his first year in Dallas didn't go much better. This season, he's learned where he fits, defending and filling the cracks in the Mavs' offense. He scored 26 points in the Game 5 victory, running loose on the break and throwing down the clinching dunk.

Chandler is the accidental Maverick. Two seasons ago, the New Orleans Hornets traded him to the Thunder for a day only to have him sent back after OKC's medical staff expressed concerns about his left big toe. He eventually ended up with the Charlotte Bobcats, who were on the verge of sending him to the Toronto Raptors last summer until Michael Jordan backed out of the deal. Cuban swooped in and picked up the 7-foot-1 center, who's infused the Mavericks with his positive energy.

"You never know in this league where you'll end up," Chandler said. "You'll never know if you can make it this far. To me, you have to relish the moment."

Terry has learned the same lesson. He was with Nowitzki for the collapse in '06, and says the journey back feels like it has lasted "10, 20 years."

"I never let it go," he said. "Every time I go to sleep, every time I lift my arm up."

Terry was pointing to a tattoo of the NBA championship trophy he had inked on his right arm this year. In the center of his locker is a picture of the trophy. Four more wins, and he can put his hands on the real one.

"Let's go finish our business," Terry said.

From Nowitzki to Chandler to Terry to Kidd to Marion to Nowitzki again, these Mavericks have come full circle. They're headed back to the Finals with another likely trip to Miami. For Nowitzki, for all these wayward veterans, redemption awaits.