Keeping Score

NBA Finals: Redemption for Dirk, A Title for Dallas

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MIAMI – Hours before Game 6 of the 2011 NBA Finals, Dallas starting center Tyson Chandler joined two of his teammates, future Hall of Famers Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Kidd, for a bite to eat. Chandler sized up Nowitzki’s pre-game demeanor.

If the Mavs could knock off Miami just one more time, they’d win the title that had long eluded Nowitzki, a 13-year veteran. “It seemed like he had a feeling,” says Chandler. “’It’s here, but is it possible? Is it really possible, really my time?’”

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As they say in Nowitzki’s native Germany: ja. Nowitzki shook off an nightmarish 1-12 shooting effort in the first half to finish with 21 points, and the NBA Finals MVP award, as his Mavericks schooled Miami, 105-95, in one of the most impressive team performances in recent Finals memory. Dallas received key contributions from almost everyone in the lineup, but in the fourth quarter, Nowitzki was the key. America got its wish. The Big Three didn’t win the title.

“I believed in him,” says Chandler, whose hustle on the offensive boards allowed the Mavericks to keep possession on several key occasions in the fourth quarter. “I believed he would step up at the appropriate time. To see him be able to take that breath, and now go on and be labeled as a champion . . . You can wipe ‘soft,’ you can wipe anything they called Dirk Nowitzki. Now you’ve got to put ‘champion’ by [his] side.”

(MORE: Read TIME’s 2006 profile of Nowitzki)

Before the game, while Nowitzki was practicing his spinning, one-legged jump shots – yes, he actually takes those awkward shots on purpose – a Miami fan tried to heckle him. “You’re not right, sir,” he shouted. “You’re missing.” Nowitzki then buried five in a row. But once the game started, he indeed was off. Nowitzki missed a couple of shots, and then picked up two quick fouls, which put him on the bench. Luckily, Dallas had Jason Terry to catch Kidd’s long-range passes on the fast break, and fire away: Terry, Dallas’ sixth man, scored nine points in just five minutes, and Dallas built a 32-27 first quarter lead.

In fact, Dallas went on a 17-6 run with Nowitzki on the bench. He returned to the game in the second quarter, which turned out to be bad news for the Mavs. Nowitzki missed all nine of his second quarter shots. Many of his attempts were achingly close; he just couldn’t put them down. Again Terry, whom Nowitzki criticized for not coming though in the clutch earlier in the series, carried the team, chipping in 10 more points in the second. Dallas led, 53-51, at half, but if Nowitzki was going to have a historically bad night in the most important game in his career, the Mavs were in deep trouble.

Just twelve seconds into the third, Nowitzki sank a 17-footer. Later, he hit his first three. When Ian Mahinmi, Dallas’ third string center, hit a 16-foot buzzer shot to give the Mavericks an 81-72 lead going into the fourth, this had to be Dallas’ night, right? Before the fourth quarter, the arena played a familiar anthem, House of Pain’s “Jump Around,” to try to pump up the home crowd. It was one of the duller responses to the tune. The chic Miami fans were totally deflated.

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Though the crowd briefly perked up after the Heat cut Dallas’ lead to four, 81-77, with 10:32 left, the fans had little to cheer down the stretch. Miami’s fourth quarter was maddening. Once again, James was not a factor, scoring just four points before he hit a three-pointer late, after the outcome was decided. James completely missed the rim on one try. On another possession, both Wade and James passed up shots, and tossed the ball around the perimeter, like a bunch of grade school kids playing catch. The team’s psyche felt horribly awry. Mario Chalmers was forced to drive, and threw the ball away.

Wade also finished the fourth with four points, while Nowitzki closed the game out with 10, on 5-8 shooting. During the waning minutes, fans started filing out of the arena. Yes, that just happened. Miami went out with a whimper.

Which delights a large portion of the nation. “They’re evil,” said Mike Willard, who has one of the hundreds of Mavericks supporters who traveled to Miami for the game, like college hoops fans, giving Dallas a vocal presence in the arena. Willard was standing courtside, watching Dallas lift the title trophy. The area guards tried to kick them out, but the Mavs fans just lingered, refusing to leave. “In Stars Wars, the Death Star died twice,” Willard continued.  “Miami is an empire made from the evils of NBA free agency.”

As if Heat haters didn’t have enough reasons to despise the team, Wade and James appeared to mock Dirk Nowitzki’s Game 4 illness on camera, causing a controversy going into Game 6. Nowitzki called it “childish, ignorant.” The incident was probably overblown. But it cost Miami’s stars. “It becomes personal,” said Dallas coach Rick Carlisle afterwards, citing the incident. “Our guys took it personally tonight. They were not going to be denied.”

James didn’t offer the most diplomatic message to his critics. “All the people that was rooting on me to fail, at the end of the day, they have to wake up tomorrow and have the same life they had before they woke up today,” he said. “They have the same personal problems they had today. I’m going to continue to live the way I want to live and continue to do the things that I want to do with me and my family and be happy with that.”

“They can get a few days or a few months or whatever the case may be on being happy about not only myself, but the Miami Heat not accomplishing their goal,” James continued. “But they have to get back to the real world at some point.”

In other words, I’m still LeBron James, and you’re not. My life is pretty great: yours kinda stinks.

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On his night, however, you wanted to be a Maverick. No one figured this would be the year that Nowitzki and Terry, who finished with a game-high 27 points, erased the demons of 2006, when the Mavs last four straight games to Miami in the Finals after winning the first two.  Haywood, while celebrating in the beer and champagne-soaked Dallas locker room, was asked if he thought, coming into the season, the Mavericks flew under the radar. “Under the radar?” asked Haywood. “The radar wasn’t looking for us. All I heard was that the Spurs or Lakers would come out of the west. Miami or Boston in the east. We proved a lot of people wrong.”

Water leaked from the ceiling of the Dallas locker room – come on, Miami, that’s no way to treat a champion. When Nowitzki arrived, delirious Dallas staffers serenaded him with“MVP! MVP!” Shawn Marion, the forward who did a solid job guarding James all series, kept repeating a chant that sounded like, “We’re the real s—t of the world!”

We’re not really sure what that means, but upon leaving the arena, Marion left little doubt about his message. “We’re the f—king champions of the world!” he shouted to a group of writers.

We hear you, loud and clear.

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