Reporting from Miami
Dirk Nowitzki threw a fist in the air and flashed the smile he had been waiting 13 years to display. After shouldering much of the blame for years of Dallas disappointments, he will finally have his ring and vindication.
Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks claimed their first championship with a 105-95 victory over the Miami Heat on Sunday in Game 6 of the NBA Finals. They did it by winning the last three games, including the clincher in Miami.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Nowitzki said when he realized victory was assured. “We’ve had our ups and downs, but we always stayed together.
“This feeling to be on the best team in the world is just indescribable.”
But although many in Texas will remember this as a Dallas victory, redemption for blowing a 2-0 lead to the Heat in the 2006 Finals, most of America will see this as a victory of good over evil. When LeBron James left Cleveland and said he was “taking his talents to South Beach,” it was a slap in the face of those who thought titles are earned, not bought.
This version of a South Beach cartel of NBA superstars was immediately installed as the favorite to win the title. ESPN, the barometer of all things sports, even installed a Heat-meter to see if Miami could beat the Chicago Bulls’ record of 72 wins. The regular season didn’t turn out that way as the Heat struggled through the first half of the season and didn’t even earn the top seeding in the Eastern Conference.
But the playoffs came and the superstars took over and rolled all the way through Game 3 of the Finals, holding a 2-1 lead over the Mavericks. It was three against one. Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and James against Nowitzki, a title-less star from Germany who is closer to the end of his career than the beginning.
Then something went terribly right for the Mavericks. Game 3 was the last game the Heat would win.
There is no doubt the Mavericks had some talent, but, outside of Nowitzki, no one was a household name. It was a team full of role players, guys better known for filling out rosters than headlining them.
There were veterans Jason Kidd (17 years), Shawn Marion and Jason Terry, who had the championship trophy tattooed on the inside of his right biceps in anticipation.
And in the end, this game of three on one was won by the one. A victory for the working man, the dreamer.
Nowitzki said he had worked half his life for the dream of being an NBA champion. Along with the chance to hoist the championship trophy over his head, he received the Bill Russell trophy as the most valuable player of the Finals.
“If you win, it’s great for you, and everybody looks at you. And if you lose, you’re going to get hammered. It’s just part of the business,” he said before the finale. “I got hammered the last 13 years, basically.”
Now it will be James feeling the hammer after once again failing to provide the lift expected of a superstar who was being compared to Michael Jordan when the series began. He remains without the championship he hoped to achieve by joining forces with Wade and Bosh in Miami.
James made his first four shots and had nine points in the opening minutes but had only five more through three quarters. Criticized for producing only 11 fourth-quarter points in the first five games of the Finals, he spent the first 2½ minutes of the fourth quarter on the bench.
James scored seven in the final period this time and finished with 21, but it wasn’t nearly enough.
“LeBron has been a lightning rod for a lot of criticism and a lot of noise. I think it’s unfair. He made a tremendous sacrifice to come here. He’s been an ultimate team player. He should not be criticized for that,” Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra said. “There’s no excuses, no blame. Sometimes you simply come up short.”
Averaging 27 points on 50% shooting in the first five games, Nowitzki had an off night by his standards. But after going one for 12 with three points in the first half, he found his touch and finished with 21.
The concern when the Mavericks trailed 2-1 in the series was whether Nowitzki would get enough support to finally get over the hump. His teammates provided a resounding affirmative in the final three victories.
Terry scored 27 and made three three-point shots. A jumper by Terry gave the Mavericks a 10-pont lead with about nine minutes remaining. A turnover by Wade and a James miss followed, and the deficit grew.
“When you do something as crazy as I did [trash talking], you’ve got to back it up,” Terry said. “This team never gave up, when faced with adversity, it rose to the occasion. … Tonight we got vindication.”
A three-point play by Bosh brought the Heat to within seven with just under six minutes remaining. A jumper by Nowitzki pushed it back to 10 at the 3:30 mark.
Wade, who willed Miami to the title in 2006 with one of the greatest Finals performances, made only six of 16 shots and finished with 17 points. Bosh had 19.
As in the previous game, three-point shooting made the difference for the Mavericks as they made 11 of 26 from beyond the arc. They also played a stifling defense that kept Wade and James from dominating the paint.
The Heat hurt itself the foul line, missing 13 of 33.
Frustration grew for Miami as Wade was called for an offensive foul and a technical late in the third quarter. Ian Mahinmi’s shot at the third-period buzzer gave Dallas a nine-point advantage.
This has been a series of runs, one team going off and the other answering with a topper. The Mavericks opened the second quarter on an 8-1 run, pushing the lead to 12 on consecutive three-pointers by DeShawn Stevenson off a couple of Heat turnovers. The Heat responded with a 14-0 counter that featured a pair of three-pointers by reserve Eddie House, who was playing in place of James.
That run provided a rare extended rest for James, whose heavy minutes may have contributed to his fourth-quarter struggles in the series. It also provided the last lead the Heat would attain in the series. It was short-lived.
The Mavericks’ three-point shooting was the impetus for a 53-51 lead at the half. The Mavericks made seven of 14 from beyond the arc in the half. That masked the quiet start by Nowitzki.