When was the last time an NBA team that was considered as much of an underdog as the Dallas Mavericks won the championship? You could compare this to the Pistons conquering the seemingly unconquerable Lakers in 2004, but the Mavericks were even considered underdogs by many in their first-round series against the Blazers. They were doubted every step of the way, and none of their four series went beyond six games on the way to their first championship in 31 seasons of franchise history.
These fantastic Finals were the culmination of what pretty much everyone should agree was one of the most entertaining NBA playoffs we’ve ever witnessed. The drama was at a high level throughout the post-season, with none of the interesting storylines panning out the way most of us expected.
The key element to any great drama — whether it’s on the screen, the stage or the hardwood — is that there has to be a plot twist that seems surprising at the time but appears inevitable in retrospect. Aristotle called this “Peripeteia: a change by which the action veers round to its opposite, subject always to our rule of probability or necessity.” Most of us are surely surprised that the Mavericks beat the Lakers, Thunder and Heat on their way to championship glory, but it’s clear in retrospect that we underestimated them.
Not only did the Mavericks finish tied for the fourth-best regular season record with 57 wins, but they were 2-7 with Dirk Nowitzki out of the lineup. This isn’t some fluky series of circumstances leading to an improbable conclusion — the Dallas Mavericks are legitimately the best team in the NBA this season. The Spurs and Celtics are too old, the Bulls, Heat and Thunder aren’t ready, and the Lakers are in disarray. This was the Mavericks’ year, we just didn’t see it coming right in front of our eyes.
And why didn’t we see it? Let’s go over the reasons. “The Mavericks are too old. Dirk is too soft. They don’t have a second superstar. The NBA hates Mark Cuban. The NBA has already gift-wrapped this title for Miami.” Perhaps more than all those beliefs, people didn’t take this team seriously because this was the 11th season in a row where they won at least 50 games and they had only been to the Finals once in that time. This was supposed to be a team that “just couldn’t get it done” in the post-season.
What was the difference this time? You can point to the addition of Tyson Chandler, the veteran presence of Jason Kidd, Jason Terry and Shawn Marion, or the irrational but wildly effective confidence of J.J. Barea — but the real difference was in the emergence of Dirk Nowitzki as a truly unstoppable, stone-cold killer on the court.
If I’m going to compare the drama of these playoffs to a great movie, it will be The Usual Suspects with Dirk Nowitzki playing the role of Keyser Soze. I’ve never met anybody who watched that movie and knew that Kevin Spacey as “Verbal Kint” was actually Soze before “the big reveal”, but when the evidence is presented to us, it makes perfect sense. It’s a classic use of Peripeteia in modern cinema. As Verbal Kint said about Soze:
“Some say his father was German. Nobody ever believed he was real. Nobody ever knew him or saw anybody that ever worked directly for him, but to hear Kobayashi tell it, anybody could have worked for Soze. You never knew. That was his power. The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist… And like that, poof. He’s gone.“
As the final buzzer went on tonight’s season-ender, Dirk Nowitzki sprinted right into the locker room. Somehow, his many doubters were convinced he wasn’t a true killer. But he laid the Miami Heat to waste with 18 second-half points in the deciding game, and then he was gone.
It’s a good thing the 2011 NBA playoffs were such a sumptuous feast because we may have a long famine ahead of us with what appears to be a certain lockout. We may be left hungry for a while, but I know I’ll enjoy the aftertaste of this magnificent season for at least the next few months.