It was Dirk Nowitzki’s lowest moment.
He had the NBA championship almost literally in his hands on two free throws. He shot 90.1 percent on free throws for the season and 89.5 percent during the Playoffs. It seemed like making two free throws late in Game Three would be seemingly automatic. Dallas had been crumbling, but you would think it still had this one sure thing to salvage a road victory and take a commanding 3-0 series lead.
Nowitzki missed both and the Heat would win four straight to win their first NBA title.
Dallas has largely been a disappointment since. Blown leads and missed expectations followed. Even in the first round, the ghost of Dallas’ disappointing past seemed to hang over the team. A 24-point deficit lost in Portland had many thinking Dallas was due for an early round exit.
The Mavericks have gone on an incredible tear since them. The 2-2 tie Portland forced turned into a 4-2 Dallas win. Then the Lakers met the Mavericks buzzsaw including a simply earth-shattering performance from Nowitzki. Nowitzki continued his big run by averaging 32.2 points per game and shooting 55.7 percent from the floor against the Thunder in the Western Conference Finals.
This looks more like the Mavericks team we always come to expect in the regular season… just not in the postseason.
Something feels very different about this version of the Dallas Mavericks. Much different from the 2006 squad that fell to the Heat in the Finals.
Nowitzki himself has been significantly better than 2006. His 27.1 PER during this postseason is not a career best, but his 31.7 percent usage rate is. Nowitzki is putting up a career-best 28.8 points per game this postseason. He is shooting 51.7 percent in the postseason, a staggeringly high number for a player with such a high usage rate.
Nowitzki is rolling and playing at a much more efficient rate than he did back in 2006. He is displaying his growth and maturation. Some things seem to get better with age.
But it is not just Nowitzki playing at a much better level than back in 2006. Aside from Nowitzki only Jason Terry was on the Mavericks squad that lost to the Heat in 2006.
The Avery Johnson-led Dallas team espoused a new defensive mindset that Don Nelson could not bring in 2006. The 2006 Mavericks were first in the league in offensive rating, but 11th in the league in defensive rating at 105.0 points per 100 possessions. In 2011, Dallas is eighth in both offensive and defensive rating (despite the same 105.0 rating).
The difference is a little more subtle.
Dallas may have had the best offensive rating in 2006, but shot 49.5 percent effective field goal percentage. The 2011 team is shooting a 52.5 percent effective field goal percentage. Dallas has become a much more efficient team. Nowitzki is using his possessions better and so is Dallas as a team.
Terry too has become more efficient. His 19.7 PER this postseason and 55.2 percent effective field goal percentage are significantly better than the 16.1 PER and 48.4 percent effective field goal percentage in 2006.
And that, as you can see, is the big difference between the 2006 Mavericks and the 2011 Mavericks. They may not be scoring as much, but with an improved defense, they are scoring more effectively. Each time they score, they are getting the most out of that possession. and that could be seen in the way Dallas quickly erased deficits against Oklahoma City throughout the Western Conference Finals.
There were not many 3-point shooters in 2006. Only three players for Dallas shot more than 100 3-pointers and better than 35 percent from beyond the arc. In 2011, Dallas has four such players and two more at 34 percent. This is a much more versatile team that can spread the floor much better than the 2006 team could.
It is also worth noting how much Jason Kidd facilitates at the point. Kidd does not quite have the first step he used to, but is still a precise passer and has become a better 3-point shooter. Having a pass-first guard should be an advantage over the Devin Harris/Jason Terry platoon Dallas sent out in the 2006 Finals. Kidd has a pretty astounding 35.1 percent assist rate, his best since coming to Dallas.
What Kidd does is somewhat intangible. This might be the biggest difference between 2006 and 2011.
Dallas has an ability to bounce back that it has simply not had. Even when it was racing to the Finals in 2006. That intangible quality has always been what separates good teams from championship teams.
Miami certainly has that quality after crazy comebacks against Chicago. But so does Dallas. And the Heat cannot be expecting to face the same old Mavericks. Those guys do not exist any more.
Photos via DayLife.com.