Many people will be piling on the Dallas Mavericks for yet another early playoffs exit but I don’t want you falling into that same pattern. They’ll point to Dallas winning at least 50 games every season in the decade and having nothing to show for it. I say they came damn close in ’06 and the legacy of Shaq and Dwyane Wade wouldn’t be what it is had Dallas held on. They’ll remind you the Mavs have made first-round playoff exits in three of the past four years. I have a more logical explanation for each situation that doesn’t involve the lazy shortcuts most media members take. Most importantly, they’ll remind you that the Mavericks are the first two seed to lose to a seven seed in the first round since the format was expanded to best of seven. Anyone who recites this fact should keep in mind that the Spurs could have just as easily been the two seed.
Three years ago, the Mavericks had the best record in the NBA, the MVP award winner, and they drew a first-round matchup against an eight seed that had beaten them every game during the regular season. The Warriors beat the Mavs in six games pulling off the upset. Two years ago, the Mavs’ window of opportunity seemed to be closing as they squeaked into the playoffs as a seven seed and got bounced by a superior Hornets team. Guys like Josh Howard were more concerned with partying than playing and the result was Avery Johnson getting fired for “losing his team.” The Mavericks still managed to win 50 games last season but they seemed to have faded to become a borderline playoff team in the West.
This year however, the Mavericks highly overachieved, exceeding most NBA analysts’ expectations. Thing is, the Mavs played so well in the regular season that they made everyone forget we all had written them off as an afterthought in the offseason. We figured Dallas had been left behind and surpassed by younger, more explosive teams like the Nuggets and Jazz who would challenge the Spurs and Lakers for preeminence in the West. Only the Mavericks weren’t having any of that nonsense and then they went out and made a huge deadline deal with the Wizards to upgrade their roster and simultaneously raise expectations. While they shot off to become a two seed, the Spurs had been battling injuries and inconsistency until they finally hit their stride late in the year.
Going into the season, San Antonio joined the Lakers, Cavs, Magic, and Celtics as the five teams that were already title contenders who added to their roster. The Lakers signed Artest, Cavs got Shaq, Magic answered with Vince Carter, Celtics signed Sheed, and the Spurs acquired Richard Jefferson and Antonio McDyess. That was it — those five teams were to contend for the title and nobody else would have a say. San Antonio underachieved most of the regular season until the 71st game of the year. On that Friday, they beat the Cavs and followed it up with a road win over the Celtics, a home win over the Magic, and a road win over the Lakers (they had a loss to the Nets and a win over the Rockets in between). In that nine-day span, the Spurs proved that they were amongst the NBA’s elite teams and absolutely ready for the playoffs. They may have only won 50 games to slip into the playoffs as a seven seed, but they were the best team in the conference along with the Lakers in my eyes.
As I constantly proclaimed the Spurs were the most dangerous team in the West and the one team I wouldn’t want to face in the first-round, the Mavericks became the unlucky team to draw the Spurs straw. They lost in six games making my prediction come to life. Had Dallas drawn the injured Portland squad and then the Utah/Denver winner, they could have made the conference finals before being faced with the Lakers or Spurs. If they had lost a six game series at that point would you have called them a choke? I wouldn’t have either. This was a conference finals quality series and the Mavericks had the misfortune of playing one of the top teams in the league in the first round. They were a play here or there away from winning Games 3 and 4 in San Antonio and turning the series around but it wasn’t to be. Call the Spurs sandbaggers if you want because they’re no ordinary seven seed. The Mavericks narrowly lost to a better team. They’re not chokers.
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