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Finals-bound Mavs have come a long way, baby

DALLAS -- Like most longtime Dallas Mavericks fans, Mark
Cuban remembers the bad old days, when "postseason play" meant
being part of the draft lottery.

Boy, how times have changed.

Injected with Cuban's cash, Dirk Nowitzki's jumper and Avery
Johnson's leadership, the Mavs are headed to the NBA Finals for the
first time, starting Thursday night at home against the Miami Heat.

"We're excited, obviously," Johnson said after the Mavericks
erased an 18-point deficit to beat Phoenix 102-93 Saturday night
and earn the silver trophy that goes to the Western Conference
champion. "Nobody is ripping their shirts off or going too crazy,
but they should celebrate.

"But we know we still have a lot of work ahead of us."

With the Mavs taking Sunday off and several days after that to
delve into how they will try slowing Dwyane Wade and Shaquille
O'Neal, it's worth looking back at how far this franchise has come,
both over the long term of its 26 years and the short term of an
uncertain start to this season.

The Mavericks were born in 1980, became contenders amazingly
quickly, then faded faster than you can say Roy Tarpley. They were
so bad in the 1990s that they had the lowest winning percentage of
any team in major pro sports in North America -- yes, even worse
than the Clippers.

"You could walk up two minutes before game time and buy a
front-row seat for $10," said Cuban, a cheap-seat regular long
before he became an Internet billionaire.

When he bought the team in January 2000, Dallas was 9-23 and
well on its way to collecting lottery pingpong balls for a 10th
straight year.

"Just to speculate we would make the playoffs in the next five
years was heresy," Cuban recalled Saturday night in Phoenix,
wearing his new Western Conference champion hat and T-shirt. "Now,
we've gotten to this."

Beyond making the Finals, Dallas has re-established itself as a
playoff perennial. The Mavs have made six straight trips to the
playoffs, the longest run in team history, and done so with only
one constant: Nowitzki.

While the players, coaches and even the home court have changed,
the most important shift was the dedication to defense that Johnson
brought when he replaced Don Nelson late last season.

"He demanded it," said Donnie Nelson, the team's president of
basketball operations and Don Nelson's son. "That's the
difference."

The way Nowitzki and the Mavs have played lately, this Finals
breakthrough isn't surprising. Think back to October and it's a
different story.

Dallas was widely seen as a middle-of-the pack playoff team,
with the ever-improving Nowitzki leading the way, a deep rotation
of solid players around him and Johnson, in his first full season,
having to sort it all out.

The top story line was Doug Christie replacing longtime star
Michael Finley. Christie ended up being gone quickly and Adrian
Griffin, who was sitting on a sofa waiting for his phone to ring,
ended up becoming the designated defender in the starting lineup.

Injuries were a big challenge, too. It was never anything like
Phoenix losing Amare Stoudemire, but for a long while it seemed
like every time someone came out of the trainer's room, someone
else went in.

"I missed the first 20-some games of the season, then we had
other guys that were injured," forward Jerry Stackhouse said.
"And we were still able to just hold everything together. I think
that built a lot of character for our team."

Johnson's biggest in-season move was making a starter of
DeSagana Diop -- until then, known only for being a huge bust in
Cleveland -- and turning Erick Dampier into a high-priced reserve.
All the Mavericks did after that was win 13 straight games and 20
of 21.

Asked Saturday if that's when he knew this might be a special
team, Johnson instead pointed to their only three-game losing
streak, all on the road in late March.

"From the beginning, I thought we could be very competitive and
I thought we would have a chance," said Johnson, who coached the
West in the All-Star Game and was voted the coach of the year.
"But you never really know how it's going to turn out."

Dallas wound up tying a franchise record with 60 wins. Josh
Howard established himself as a terrific player at both ends of the
court and Jason Terry proved to be a reliable scorer and a clutch
shooter. Nowitzki finished third in MVP voting for a second
straight year and likely would win if the voting was done now.

The Mavs were the only team to pull off a first-round sweep,
then they outlasted the defending champion Spurs in a tense
seven-game series. They knocked the Suns out in six games, despite
losing the opener at home and dropping Game 4 by 20 points.

In the finale, Dallas was awful early, but got within 12 at
halftime. The defense kicked in during the third quarter and the
offense broke things open in the fourth.

"It's about sticking together when you're down and when you're
up," Nowitzki said. "You have to believe in the coach and the
system, and I think ultimately that's what we did."

What they've done is something the 25 previous Mavs teams
couldn't.

And there's still one round left.

"The expectations just grow," Cuban said. "Now, we're not a
team that couldn't make it, we're not a team that's soft. We're a
team that's going to the Finals."