For the fourth time in these playoffs, Dirk Nowitzki clambered onto the dais, dislodged the microphone from its stand and draped his left arm over an adjacent chair as he took questions about the multitude of problems caused by the Oklahoma City Thunder.
For the last time, too.
Four looks at Nowitzki’s signature routine at the postgame podium are all you’re getting this postseason, amazingly, after the Thunder ran the same pick-and-roll play an astounding 16 times in Saturday night’s fourth quarter to broom the defenseless defending champs right out of the first round.
The last team standing in 2011 became the first team eliminated in 2012 when Thunder coach Scotty Brooks, having lost Kendrick Perkins early and facing a 13-point deficit late, simply handed the ball to James Harden and watched him dice up Dallas repeatedly on a play called “Angle.”
“If you look at the team we just lost to, it was [Russell] Westbrook in Game 1 and Game 2, it was Durant [in Game 3], and today they just throw it to Harden and he goes off,” Nowitzki said.
“If you want to be an elite team in this league right now, you have to have at least two or three guys that can just go off at any time. I just thought they had more weapons than us. That was pretty clear.”
That’s apparently not all the maturing Thunder have, either.
“The thing that impressed me most about them is that they have a certain look in their eye right now,” Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said. “Not just that they belong, but that this could be their time. They came at us like a buzz saw in the fourth quarter.”
It’s a gleam that Carlisle knows and remembers well. The Mavs had it this time last year and used that edge, along with their considerable experience and hunger, to boss the Thunder in the Western Conference finals in another deceptively short series, filled with close games like this one.
That, though, was last season … something else Carlisle knows better than anyone. Nowitzki (34 points) and Jason Kidd (16 points, eight assists and seven rebounds in the finale of his first season without a single triple-double) stubbornly tried to drag Dallas to a Game 5 in Oklahoma City on Monday night, if only for pride, but ultimately they couldn’t prevent a hasty end to one of the most bizarre, conflicted and ultimately disappointing title defenses in the history of North American team sports.
Of its key personnel, apart from bargain signing Brandan Wright, Nowitzki and Kidd are the only two Mavericks who know for sure that they’re welcome back in 2012-13. That even applies to Carlisle, whose original four-year contract expires in June and whose status as one of just three active coaches to have won a championship (alongside San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich and Boston’s Doc Rivers) hasn’t yet moved Mavs owner Mark Cuban to make an exception to his longstanding aversion to extending current contracts for anyone not named Nowitzki.
These are the circumstances that everyone in Big D at least understood, if not accepted, when the lockout ended in December and culture-changing center Tyson Chandler was sign-and-traded to New York. The failed gamble on Lamar Odom — billed as Dallas’ answer to a wild card like Harden for a season — realistically snuffed out any hope of a playoff run of any substance … which only strengthened the notion around the league that the Mavs’ primary objective this season was winning the offseason.
Only now the offseason has arrived faster than any Mav imagined even in their nightmare scenarios. Nowitzki, for starters, insisted from the interview podium that he couldn’t yet process the idea that title-team stalwarts such as Jason Terry and Shawn Marion might have made their final appearances in Mavs colors on Cinco de Mayo, despite Dallas’ well-chronicled intentions to clear as much salary-cap space as possible in July to try to steal North Texas’ own Deron Williams away from the Brooklyn Nets.
“The end kind of snuck up on us now,” Nowitzki said.
Carlisle tried to sound an optimistic note, comparing Chandler’s departure to Steve Nash‘s in 2004: “I remember when Nash left, everyone thought this thing was over. But Donnie Nelson and Mark Cuban, they have a resourcefulness about them.”
The reality, though, is that, to use the local football parlance, Dallas has seen the goalposts move since letting Chandler go. Sources close to the situation told ESPN.com this week that the Mavs were convinced early on in their 2012 planning that having sufficient salary-cap space to be able to legitimately recruit Dwight Howard alongside Williams was the surest route to landing Williams. The problem there, of course, is Howard’s unexpected decision in March to delay his free agency to 2013 has left Williams solo on the Mavs’ list of “big fish” — to use a term both Nelson and Nowitzki have mentioned to local reporters — while they remain well shy of possessing the requisite trade assets to offer Orlando for Dwight via trade.
And it naturally doesn’t take a great leap from there to start asking yourself if a frontcourt duo of Nowitzki and Chandler, had Dallas independently elected to spend what it took to keep them together, might have appealed to D-Will more than any other potential tandem of teammates he’s offered this summer now that hooking up with Howard is no longer feasible.
We just don’t know yet.
I’ve believed from the start that Cuban, after delivering Dallas its first NBA crown and spending millions in luxury tax over his decade-plus in charge to get there, has more than earned the right to try to build a team any new way he sees fit. Yet the huge risk remains for him that Dallas has no fish of consequence to pursue if Williams chooses to stay with the Nets, who can offer one more season contractually than the Mavs along with added marketing opportunities because of their new address.
One source well-acquainted with Williams’ thinking told ESPN.com this weekend that the Mavericks, in their current state, have no better than a “50-50 shot” of getting D-Will’s signature in July … despite the fact that the Nets aren’t any closer to landing Howard than they are.
“We never had cap space [before],” Nowitzki said. “So they made the decision to go for that and we’ll just have to wait and see what comes out of that. We have no idea now. We don’t know what’s going to happen in the summer or the summer after that. We’ll just have to kind of wait and see who can we get, who’s available and who wants to come here. That’s going to be something we’re going to see in the future. We can’t make a judgment on that now.”
Not unless we bring it back to the Thunder.
It’s not like they’re not without their own dramas. They’ll need Perkins’ strained right hip to heal during this suddenly convenient wait for a winner in the Denver-L.A. Lakers series. And as Carlisle said of Brooks’ own expiring contract and Thunder general manager Sam Presti: “I hope Sam’s got enough money to sign him, because he’s going to be in high demand if they don’t get that done.”
Yet the focus, on merit, needs to stay on the floor after OKC closed the Mavs out with that finishing kick: 35-16 in the fourth.
Which only adds to the perception that one year of experience has made a huge difference in this case.
“Their role players look great,” Nowitzki said. “They have defenders and shot-makers and playmakers and a great shot-blocker [in Serge Ibaka].
“They look really good.”
Said Durant: “The Mavericks went on a nice little run in that third quarter and we didn’t crumble. I think that’s part of our team. We’re growing in that area.”
ESPN.com senior writer Marc Stein
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