For the Dallas Mavericks, the trouble began nearly five years ago. Up 2-0 against the Miami Heat in the 2006 NBA Finals, they lost the next four games and the championship. The following year, they entered the playoffs with a league-high 67 victories, but lost in the first round to the Golden State Warriors and their former coach, Don Nelson. The past three postseasons haven’t brought much more success: two more first-round exits and a second-round series that netted just one victory.
With the Mavericks now in position to finish with a top three seed for the second straight year, the same tired, old question hangs over them as the playoffs near: Why should anyone believe this Dallas team is better equipped to make a long run in the postseason?
"We showed it this year already. We can’t really worry about what the so-called experts think.”
The Mavs would prefer to ignore their recent playoff history altogether. Since taking the 2-0 lead over Miami in the Finals, they’ve gone 10-21 in the postseason. The most embarrassing defeat came in 2007 when they lost to the eighth-seeded Warriors in one of the biggest postseason upsets ever.
“At some point you got to get over it,” Nowitzki said of the loss to the Warriors. “You can’t hold grudges forever. It is what it is. They got hot that year and then they beat us in the playoffs. You move on from there.”
The Mavericks have looked like a title contender for much of the season, putting together winning streaks of 12, 10 and eight. With five games left in the regular season, they have 53 wins, an impressive total considering they lost shooting guard Caron Butler(notes) to a knee injury on Jan. 1.
Dallas, however, has lost its past three games – including a blowout at the hands of the Los Angeles Lakers – to once again raise questions about whether this team is capable of making a serious run at the NBA Finals. Hopes of moving into the Western Conference’s second seed now appear slim.
Another reason for the Mavericks to be concerned: They haven’t beaten one of the West's elite teams since defeating the Lakers on Jan. 19. Since then Dallas has lost to the Lakers (twice), Portland (twice), San Antonio, Denver, Memphis and New Orleans.
“Lately we’ve been struggling,” Nowitzki said. “We just got to get back to playing defense and moving the ball offensively. That’s how we were beating them early. The playoffs are a different momentum. We will see what happens.”
The Mavericks aren’t the only team to hit a bump as the playoffs approach. The Spurs recently lost six straight games and even the Lakers, who looked so formidable a week ago, have dropped consecutive games.
With the Spurs close to locking up the West’s top seed, the Mavericks look like they’ll have to upset Kobe Bryant(notes) and the Lakers in the second round if they hope to reach the conference finals. Nowitzki admits the Lakers have an advantage over most of their opponents.
“The luxury they have is Kobe can coast for three quarters by just dumping it into [Pau] Gasol and [Andrew] Bynum, just watch and just take over in the fourth,” Nowitzki said.
Despite their recent struggles, Nowitzki believes these Mavericks are better than the team that reached the Finals in 2006. They have a future Hall of Fame point guard in Jason Kidd(notes), another battle-tested forward in Shawn Marion(notes) and plenty of size with centers Tyson Chandler(notes) and Brendan Haywood(notes). But will that be enough to beat the Lakers? Or even the Spurs or Thunder?
“This is the best team I’ve been on, but the problem is the top teams are better,” Nowitzki said. “Basically, all of the top teams have two or three Hall of Famers. Back in ’06, ’07, that wasn’t the case. I think we are deeper than any team that I’ve been on here … but that doesn’t translate automatically to winning a championship.”