Mavs' flameout leaves Dirk frustrated, Nellie avenged

Updated: May 5, 2007, 1:47 AM ET
By Marc Stein | ESPN.com

Moses Malone has lived this nightmare before. Twice, actually.

You might not know that, because it seldom gets recited when his career comes up, but Malone was a first-round loser in each of his first two MVP seasons: 1979 and 1982.

It's a pertinent history lesson with the basketball world suddenly and inevitably wondering whether Dirk Nowitzki will be permanently scarred by what happened to him and his Dallas Mavericks on Thursday night. The hit he takes now isn't going to last forever, provided that Nowitzki can someday rebound like Malone and win a championship.

When Nowitzki moves past the atrocities of his measly eight points on 2-for-13 misfiring and if he eventually follows Malone's lead -- on the assumption that Nowitzki will officially join Malone next week as an MVP who departed the playoffs in Round 1 -- he'll find that all it takes is one ring to make folks forget about whatever letdowns preceded it.

Now for the more immediate, crushing reality of the situation:

The championship that would solve all of the Mavericks' problems, Nowitzki's most of all, seems farther away than ever before.

A 111-86 elimination humiliation inflicted by the Golden State Warriors dropped Nowitzki, Mark Cuban and the rest of the mighty-in-theory Mavericks to 2-8 in their past 10 playoff games. It was such a meek, humbling end that surely Cuban has no choice but to recant his proclamation from earlier this week that "this is not a team you blow up."

Difficult to see how or why you would keep a team this fragile together, even after 67 wins, when it surrenders in the playoffs in a manner that makes its NBA Finals unraveling in Miami this past June seem pleasant ... and when coach Avery Johnson confesses afterward: "We just didn't have the confidence."

Vengeance was supposed to be theirs this season, after following up that Finals flameout with one of the most extraordinary regular seasons of all time, but the only guy with Dallas ties to exact a measure of revenge in this soap-opera series was a Mavs alumnus.

Don Nelson.

You surely know by now that Nelson and Cuban were barely speaking by the time Nelson resigned as Mavs coach in 2005. You've undoubtedly heard that they've actually been feuding privately for years, with that feud spilling out into the open in November.

The Cuban Factor, though, only accounts for some of the glee that a giddy Nellie finds himself basking in.

OK, OK: The Cuban Factor accounted for the majority of Nelson's motivation to slay his old team. But there's an Avery Factor, too.

Although there's no tangible animosity between the 66-year-old Nelson and the up-and-comer who succeeded him on the Mavs' bench, Nelson confidantes report that it deeply stung the former Dallas coach to constantly hear how much better off Dallas was with Johnson's defense-first, system-oriented approach after years of freewheeling under Nellie.

It really won't please Nelson that he got his payback at Nowitzki's expense, since the success they shared in Big D created a strong bond between them and ensured that Nelson could walk away from the game with a positive legacy after messy endings to his first tenure with the Warriors and an ill-fated stint with the Knicks that didn't last even a season.

Yet he'll certainly revel in the fact that Golden State sprung the biggest first-round upset in league history playing Nellie-ball all the way ... and the fact that he had Johnson scrambling to match up with the Warriors' athletes from the start ... and most of all how it was the Warriors' defense, specifically on Nowitzki, that put the Warriors in control in Game 1 and kept them there.

Don Nelson teams, remember, aren't supposed to play defense.

Of course, 67-win teams aren't supposed to lose in the first round, either.

Conventional hoop wisdom, like the Mavericks, took a beating in this series like never before.

The Mavs were just the 12th team in league history to win 65 games or more. Ten of the other 11 went on to win a championship, with only the 1972-73 Boston Celtics -- who featured a certain Don Nelson -- falling short when they failed to use a 68-14 record as a springboard to a title largely because of an injury in the conference finals suffered by John Havlicek.

Dallas didn't even grace Round 2 and has no such alibis, no matter how many matchup advantages Golden State possessed and even though it's never been more clear that the Warriors weren't your typical No. 8 seed. The Mavs' considerable playoff experience, when it mattered, counted for nothing. They were bullied and psyched out yet again in Game 6, even though Baron Davis had to play on one leg for most of Thursday's clincher ... and even though the victorious Warriors, led by longtime Mavs killer Stephen Jackson, hadn't participated in a Game 6 of any kind since (no misprint) 1977.

So you have to figure changes are coming in Mavland, after a wound to their psyches like this one. Mainly because you have to figure that what happened in Miami and then Oakland, with pretty much the same core of players both times, is not unrelated. This group is just not mentally tough enough.

The Mavs will need time to figure out whom to go after with a season of such promise coming undone so quickly, but here's one early suggestion/prediction: Don't be surprised -- given that inexplicable lack of confidence and killer instinct, on top of their playmaking and perimeter D deficiencies -- if they make a run at trading for Mavs alumnus Jason Kidd.

As for Nowitzki ...

Assuming that he'll be holding an MVP press conference Monday or Tuesday, as expected, Nowitzki is about to be subjected to a level of dissection in this new media age that Malone could have never imagined. Yet there will be no resurrection trade to Philadelphia to give Nowitzki new life, like Malone had.

He's going to have to absorb all the forthcoming criticism, with no real opportunity to respond until next April.

It's easy, mind you, to forget how much the 28-year-old has overcome and accomplished to this point, starting with a rookie season so dreadful -- after Nelson touted him as the likely rookie of the year -- he was almost driven back to Germany. As far away as his ring must have felt on Thursday night, Nowitzki is only a year removed from dominating a Game 7 on the road in San Antonio and hanging 50 points on Phoenix in a series-turning game in the conference finals. So Nowitzki has done it on some big stages and presumably can do it again.

"Don't forget that we took away his point guard and his best friend [Steve Nash] and that we went to a totally different style of play [from Nellie to Avery]," Mavs president of basketball operation Donnie Nelson says. "Every time we throw something new at Dirk, he masters it."

The Mavs can only hope that trend continues, because this could be as new and unpleasant as it gets for Nowitzki if his own hunch is correct.

"I've said it a million times: We could go 82-0 and we know it means nothing unless we win it all," Nowitzki said on the eve of the Golden State series. "I know what's going on. If we lose [in the playoffs], you guys will say they can't win the big games and they have no leadership."

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.

Marc Stein | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com
• Senior NBA writer for ESPN.com
• Began covering the NBA in 1993-94
• Also covered soccer, tennis and the Olympics