- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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Editor's Note: This story was published on Friday, prior to the San Antonio-Dallas game.
Michael Finley and Dirk Nowitzki sat dejectedly in the Dallas Mavericks' whirlpool, soaking in a Game 6 loss to the Phoenix Suns that ended their season, when Finley hit Nowitzki with another depressing scenario.
With no one else around, Finley told him: "I'm done."
Done as in, done with the Mavericks.
"I just had a funny feeling," Finley says today.
They had just completed a seventh close-knit season together, their bond forged by Finley's willingness to help shepherd Nowitzki from nervous, foreign-born rookie into Finley's old spot as face of the franchise.
Their unfulfilled championship dreams, furthermore, had just been shredded again, this time by their former running mate, Steve Nash. The excruciating manner of the elimination quickly convinced Finley that his career as a Maverick was over.
"I told Dirk, 'This was probably our last game together,'" Finley recalls.
"I didn't want it to be true, but I just knew it."
He didn't even know at the time that the NBA would soon be introducing an amnesty clause that would allow the Mavericks to waive Finley on Aug. 15 and thereby avoid paying nearly $52 million in luxury taxes on the three seasons left on Finley's contract.
Finley was right anyway.
Only now, as he readies to return to Dallas as a visitor for the first time in nearly a decade (just as Finley feared), it doesn't feel like such a painful premonition.
Reason being: Finley always figured he'd be dealt somewhere undesirable as part of a Mavericks overhaul, after enduring more than one February filled with trade-deadline speculation.
He never imagined an opportunity to choose his next team, sign with the mighty San Antonio Spurs and experience a validating week like Premiere Week, as the NBA calls it.
Saturday night at the American Airlines Center will undoubtedly be a strange one for Finley, but probably no more of a whirlwind than Tuesday night. That's when Finley had to hang back a bit with Nick Van Exel before the opening tip in the inspiring but awkward position of a new guy watching teammate after teammate collect a championship ring -- but not really feeling part of it.
The surreal feel didn't fade, either. Finley wound up giving the ring-winners something they didn't have by supplying an 11-point fourth quarter in a come-from-behind victory over Denver, then drove to his new home to watch Nowitzki's Mavericks rally from way back to beat Nash's Suns in double overtime ... all while knowing he'd be headed to Dallas just a few days later as the opposition in the Mavs' home opener.
Weird all around.
"I also think it's a good thing," Finley said. "It's good to be able to get it out of the way early, so I can just focus on being with the Spurs and putting Dallas behind me."
Truth is, Finley appears to be moving on just fine. As entrenched as he seemed in Big D after eight-plus seasons, he quickly started making arrangements to sell his house in North Texas and buy land in San Antonio, hoping to speed the transition.
What's happening on the floor, meanwhile, is already liberating.
"It's been everything I could have imagined," Finley said, "if not more."
For all the questions about how he'll be able to accept a reserve role and slashed minutes in San Antonio, staying in Dallas actually would have been tougher. With his scoring average in decline for five straight seasons, and his salary escalating thanks to the $102 million contract he signed in the summer of 2001, Finley had become a somewhat controversial figure in spite of his stately manner. As a Mav, the 32-year-old was doomed to constant comparisons to what he was at his All-Star peak.
As a Spur, Finley is seen as an over-the-top acquisition whose arrival might help San Antonio finally win back-to-back titles for the first time. The Spurs wanted Finley for his shooting, pegging him to fill a long-standing void with some dependable punch off the bench, but also for his hunger to win a ring of his own. The numbers that sparked debate in Dallas -- a slip to 15.7 points per game last season and an average of 14 games missed through injury the past four seasons -- don't matter as much to the Spurs as the fact that Finley's 3-point shooting is getting better as he gets older.
Despite a nagging ankle problem that would ultimately require offseason surgery, plus the defection of Nash to Phoenix and the subsequent disappearance of the easy shots Nash creates, Finley shot a career-best 40.7 percent from the 3-point line in 2004-05. Playing with Tim Duncan gives Finley an opportunity to better that success rate.
He could have reunited with Nash and the team that drafted him by signing with the Suns. He also could have teamed with another good friend in Miami -- Dwyane Wade and Finley share Henry Thomas as an agent -- and might have if the Heat hadn't first acquired Antoine Walker and Jason Williams.
Finley ultimately couldn't resist the opportunity to be a Spurs specialist, especially knowing that he and Duncan have similar personalities.
Chuckling at the irony, Finley said: "When Tim and I got a chance to sit down and talk for the first time [as teammates], he said: 'You really wanted to kill us, didn't you? You never used to smile during our games.'"
Finley isn't sure how he'll react or what to expect from the crowd Saturday night, simply hoping for the warmth Nash received upon his return to Dallas at a similarly early stage last season.
"You never know what fans are thinking," Finley said. "Steve's situation was a lot different than mine, and I really didn't hear any boos the first time he came back.
"I never wanted to leave Dallas. I wanted to win a championship there and end my career there, but I didn't demand a trade or leave [by choice]."
Either way, it has been a deep start to the season already, and not necessarily because a return to the AAC will inevitably remind Finley of how low he felt the last time he was there.
Maverick memories haven't flooded Finley's mind yet because he hasn't stopped thinking about that ring ceremony.
"I kind of got emotional there," he said. "Nick and I were standing near some fans and a couple of them said, 'That's why you came here, you're going to get one, too.' I hope they're exactly right."
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.
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