DFW Sports Psyche: The Mavs Double-Or-Nothing
On one side is redemption. If the Mavericks pull this off, all debts are settled and the slate is wiped clean for everything that's gone wrong since 2006. Dirk Nowitzki cements his legacy as a top-20 player ever while Jason Kidd removes any trace of doubt that he is the greatest point guard of his generation as well as one of the five best in the position's history. Rick Carlisle is officially recognized as a great coach rather than a very good one, while Jason Terry probably takes another step toward one day having his jersey retired.
There is no further mention of what happened in the first go-around with Miami, other than by bitter Heat fans or snarky Mavs fans who lament that Dirk would boast two rings instead of one were it not for some dubious officiating.
On the other side?
The worst contribution yet to what can only be described as a culture of self-defeatism among DFW sports fans, one that's steadily gained steam over the past decade with reservoir of stomach-punch losses.
In fairness, that's hardly limited to the Mavericks. Mention the word ‘Seattle' to any semi-cognizant Cowboy fan and they'll snap into a war-movie-like flashback of a snapped ball clanking of Tony Romo's hands, and that's before even discussing the playoff debacle against the Giants in 2007 or the bludgeoning by Philadelphia in the following season's finale that slammed the door on the postseason.
Of course, the Rangers (ending the greatest playoff run in franchise history by getting shellacked by the underdog Giants in the 2010 World Series), Stars (rallying from a 3-1 series deficit against Vancouver in 2007 to force a Game 7 only to lose 4-1 in the decisive game), and FC Dallas (getting upset by the seventh-seeded Colorado Rapids in the 2010 MLS Cup) all did their part as well in helping Dallas hit for the cycle in sports failure, with each loss conditioning the public to believe a little less in their teams' capacity to win a championship.
But only the Mavs, architects of 11x50, demonstrated a sustained ability to contend since the turn of the century and so their failures have reverberated the loudest, their faces on the poster of sports failure thanks to San Antonio, Golden State and, before all that, Miami. Unfair as it may be, they are the ones who have taken the brunt of the public beating, bearing that tired "same old Mavs" label like a scarlet letter through each successive playoff defeat and a "soft" tag that won't go away even if the shoe never entirely fit in the first place to anyone who took more than a passing glance at Dirk's crunch time prowess or high threshold for pain.
Even after ripping off 10 wins in their last 11 games following their Game 4 meltdown in Rip City, the Mavs have merely succeeded in quelling the skeptics rather than banishing them entirely. Sure, some of the Metroplex has hopped back on the bandwagon yet again but for so many others, this ride hasn't been magical so much as ominous, a prelude to what could be the most painful swan dive yet. Only a second Finals defeat to the Heat could top the demons from the past five years, so, naturally, such an outcome is pre-ordained, the latest and greatest cruel joke for the sports gods to play on the city. If that sounds twisted, it's because it is. But it's also how people have begun to think after not seeing a Dallas team win a championship since 1999 – the longest drought in the top seven media markets – and so many agonizing defeats along the way.
It's made us paranoid, a feeling all-too-palpable in the second half of Game 3 against the Thunder, in which the air was gradually sucked out of any room with a television set as Oklahoma City chipped away at a 22-point lead, Mavs fans everywhere in sheer terror despite Dallas never once trailing in that game.
It's made us neurotic, as evidenced by my buddy Jason bombarding me with no fewer than 15 text messages in the first quarter of Game 5 fretting over everything from Tyson Chandler's shot selection in the first four minutes of the game to whether a bad start to the first half could be the catalyst for blowing a 3-1 series lead.
It's made us superstitious, with Exhibit A being my best friend Jonno, whose ongoing, elaborate attempt at a reverse jinx – "Man, this 3-0 lead against the Lakers is really going to suck when we blow it in seven" – could provide even more good karma than Jason Terry's tattoo. (Jonno's Finals prediction? Miami in a sweep, naturally.)
It's probably made us a bit crazy, exemplified by none other than yours truly. I'm between 72 and 86 percent convinced that my facial hair management has sparked the team's resurgence, starting with not shaving following Game 4 in the Portland series and then making a dramatic decision to hack off my playoff beard after the team's seven-game winning streak was snapped by the Thunder in Game 2, a judgment call that was rewarded with the three-game march to close out the series in five games.
It's not that we're looking for something to believe in; we've got that. Rather, after too many tortuous shortcomings, we're looking for a reason to believe in it.
That's why as much as the city covets another Cowboys Super Bowl, and while a Rangers World Series would make for the best zeros-to-heroes story, a Mavericks NBA Championship is the title it needs to start to heal its damaged sports psyche. The Mavs are the team most associated with everything that's gone wrong over the so-called aughts; now, in a task fit for the pages of a fairy tale, they must be the ones to slake Dallas' championship thirst, to prove that things have finally begun to change.
In truth, regardless of what happens in this series, the team has rehabilitated its own reputation. A combination of lopsided series wins and gritty fourth-quarter comebacks have finally put the "same old Mavs label" to bed while Nowitzki, now the darling of the national media, has scrubbed out any residual black marks on his legacy from 2006 and 2007 with a dazzling number of crunch time heroics with the country's eye squarely upon him.
Moreover, barring a historic collapse, the national obsession with the Heat ought to insulate the Mavericks from another media bombardment should they lose this series, with the bulk of the coverage likely to cast Dallas as the unfortunate victim in LeBron's coronation rather than a team that once again couldn't get out of its own way.
But that would be precious little consolation should they fall short, both for the team and the city it plays in. Everybody knows this is the Mavs' best (last?) chance to win a title in The UberMan Era but even more than that, it's Dallas' clearest shot to nab any sort of title in the foreseeable future now that Cliff Lee no longer plies his trade in Arlington and after the Cowboys and Stars both missed the playoffs last season in frustrating circumstances.
Failure to do so seemingly seals Dirk and Kidd's fate as two of the greatest ever to never win a title. It also shatters what little faith the public has in their sports teams. They'll still cheer, certainly, but they'll do with more wariness than ever before, hoping and pining for a winner but never truly believing in one.
The stakes are the highest they've ever been.
Now, with the tipoff of the most important series in the city's history upon us, it's up to Dirk & Company to come up big one last time in this wild, wonderful run – for themselves, and for so many others along the way.