- Tim MacMahon, ESPNDallas.com
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MIAMI -- Let's be brutally honest about this merry band of basketball misfits, to borrow Donnie Nelson's term of endearment for the flawed but phenomenal team he helped build.
How many times did you write off these Dallas Mavericks as legitimate title contenders?
Full disclosure: To describe every moment of doubt, I'd still be typing at tipoff of Game 6, when the Mavs have a chance to clinch the first NBA championship in franchise history if they finish off the megahyped Miami Heat.
So, in the interest of saving time and cyberspace, let's limit this to when the pessimism peaked.
• The Tyson Chandler trade: This deal ended up being arguably the Mavs' best since a prearranged draft-day swap that sent Robert "Tractor" Traylor to Milwaukee for a goofy German kid named Dirk Nowitzki and fellow first-rounder Pat Garrity, who ended up being part of a package for Steve Nash.
However, when Dallas pulled the trigger on this trade, it was widely considered a disappointment. That's because so much hope had been built up that the Mavs could use Erick Dampier's unique contract -- essentially instantly evaporating $13 million -- as the centerpiece in a sign-and-trade package for one of the big-fish free agents, such as one of the stars they're facing in these NBA Finals.
They settled for a 10-year veteran center who had never been an All-Star and was coming off two seasons ruined by a serious ankle problems, playing it safe instead of rolling the dice and investing much more in a deal for Al Jefferson. Little did we know that a completely healthy Chandler would instantly become the Mavs' emotional leader and the most imposing force the franchise has ever had in the middle.
"We got a little lucky," said Nowitzki, who calls the big man the Mavs' MVP.
• The Caron Butler bummer: The Mavs roared to a 24-5 start before Nowitzki sprained his knee. There was at least comfort in the knowledge that the injury to their superstar wouldn't be a long-term issue.
Less than a week later, Butler went up for a rebound and collapsed in a heap on the court in Milwaukee. With many friends and family members in the crowd, the Wisconsin native shoved his kneecap back into place and walked off the floor. But the damage was done: a ruptured right patellar tendon.
Just like that, the small forward who was in the process of establishing himself as Nowitzki's best sidekick since Steve Nash was lost for the rest of the season.
The Mavs had no choice but to make due. They signed Peja Stojakovic for the veteran's minimum salary weeks later to fill some of the scoring void. They added Corey Brewer, too. They increased Shawn Marion's minutes.
But Nowitzki has admitted as recently as the second round of the playoffs that he'd catch himself wondering how good the Mavs could have been with a healthy Butler.
• The laugher in Los Angeles: The West's second seed was essentially at stake on March 31 at the Staples Center. It's rare that a regular-season game felt as important as this one.
And the Mavs were absolute no-shows, lying down against the Los Angeles Lakers, who rolled to a 110-82 rout.
Mavs owner Mark Cuban crudely compared his team's performance to soiling the sheets -- using a little stronger language -- saying it happens to every team once in a while. But it certainly felt like the men with back-to-back NBA championships were separating from the one-and-done boys.
"I feel like we're not where we need to be," Chandler said in the losers' locker room, challenging his team to be tougher. "We need to accept that. That's not saying that a few weeks from now, we won't be there."
• Rodrigue Beaubois' benching: Even the most ardent backers of the Free Roddy B. campaign, the grassroots movement to get the Mavs' most dynamic athlete more minutes, couldn't argue against this decision.
After showing so much promise as a rarely used rookie, Beaubois' sophomore season was simply a waste.
A broken left foot sidelined Beaubois for the season's first 54 games. He was handed a starting role soon after his return, but Beaubois never regained his rhythm or confidence and ended up being the wrench in the Mavs' rotation.
Carlisle vowed repeatedly to "stick with the kid" whom many believed the Mavs needed as a weakside shooter and creator to complement Nowitzki, including the big German himself. However, after it became painfully clear that Roddy B. simply wasn't ready to help the Mavs this season, Jason Kidd and Nowitzki convinced Carlisle to return rugged role player DeShawn Stevenson to the starting lineup for the regular-season finale.
"It was time," Carlisle said that night.
• The Rose Garden gag: Even by the wretched standards of recent Mavericks playoff history, this was a horrible choke job, blowing a 23-point lead in the final 13-plus minutes of Game 4 in the first round.
"I'll take a lot of the blame," Carlisle said immediately after the series-evening loss, which was the Mavs' 18th in 20 road playoff games, acknowledging that he should have adjusted Dallas' defensive scheme down the stretch.
Carlisle set a tone of accountability while also echoing the message Nowitzki delivered in the locker room: The Mavs had to stick together. That's what they did, ignoring all the discussion about their playoff demons to close out the series in the next couple of games.
• The mental meltdown: The Mavs played solid for almost 24 minutes in the Western Conference semifinals opener, only to unravel in the final moments of the first half. Jason Terry inexplicably hacked Lamar Odom on a half-court heave with seconds remaining to donate three free throws to the Lakers. Nowitzki made matters worse by picking up a technical foul for popping Ron Artest with an elbow while wrestling for room on the third free throw.
And the Mavs still appeared rattled at the start of the second half, committing three quick turnovers to allow the Lakers' lead to swell to 16 points.
At that point, a loss to the two-time defending champion Lakers seemed inevitable. Considering the fact that Phil Jackson's teams had won all 48 playoff series they opened with a win, it felt like doom for Dallas.
At least it did until Brewer was summoned from the end of the bench. The little-used string bean sparked a 17-4 run in his only extended playing time of the postseason, putting the Mavs in position to steal the series opener, setting the tone for a stunning sweep.
• The South Beach celebration: Never mind the debate about whether Miami's co-superstars did anything wrong. Dwyane Wade and LeBron James had a right to be happy after Wade's corner 3-pointer extended the Heat's lead to 15 points with 7:14 remaining.
So Wade left his right wrist hang in the air, preening and prancing while walking past the Dallas bench. James giddily greeted him with playful punches, clearly confident that the Heat would close out the game to take a 2-0 lead in the NBA Finals.
The odds certainly sided with the Heat. After all, you had to go all the way back to Michael Jordan's 1992 Chicago Bulls to find a team that rallied from 15 down in the fourth quarter to win a Finals game.
Some Mavs made it clear that they were motivated by what they perceived to be a premature celebration. Other Mavs said they didn't even see it. None of the Mavs were rattled by the moment.
The Mavs responded with a 22-5 run, capped by Nowitzki driving and finishing with his injured left hand, to close the game and even the series.
That was Dallas' second rally from a 15-point fourth-quarter deficit in four games. The miracle Mavs also accomplished the feat -- which had occurred only once in the previous decade of playoff action -- on the road in Game 4 against the Oklahoma City Thunder to seize control of the West finals. It was the fourth time Dallas won after digging a double-digit deficit during this postseason.
At that point, even the Mavs' biggest skeptics started believing, something the Mavs never stopped doing during this roller-coaster ride of a season.
"Not once did I ever doubt this team," Chandler said emphatically.
"It's just crazy," Stevenson said. "Everybody in this locker room believes in each other. When you do that and have some great pieces, you can make history. A lot of people didn't believe in us, but we did and look where we're at right now."
Dallas is one win away from what feels like destiny, without a doubt.
Tim MacMahon covers the Mavericks for ESPNDallas.com.
The Mavericks have been written off over and over but never lost faith.