MIAMI — For so many nights, in so many arenas over 13 seasons, Dirk Nowitzki was great but the team around him just wasn't good enough. It was true on January nights in Milwaukee and it was true during first-round playoff exists.
On the greatest basketball night of his life, Nowitzki wasn't even that good until the very end. The teammates he has carried for so long put together one marvelous night of basketball to defeat the Miami Heat, 105-95, and crown the Mavericks champions of the NBA.
The Mavericks survived an awful shooting first half from their all-time greatest player as he made just one of 12 shots. But Nowitzki came up big when he was needed down the stretch to finish with 21 points and a game-high 11 rebounds to end LeBron James and Dwyane Wade's hopes of combining their superstar talents to create an unbeatable team.
In fact, the Mavericks beat Miami four times in five games including twice here at American Airlines Arena after losing the NBA Finals opener.
It wouldn't have happened without Nowitzki, who suffered a torn tendon in his left middle finger in Game 1, then fought through a high fever in Game 4 to capture NBA Finals Most Valuable Player honors.
He now has that trophy to go with his 2007 regular season MVP crown, his 10 All-Star trips and, most significantly, a championship on his resume.
"Dirk Nowitzki is one of the very greatest players in the history of the game," Mavericks coach Rick Carlise said. "That has been validated here tonight."
Despite struggling with his shooting touch for three quarters Sunday night, Nowitzki finished the series with averages of 26 points and 9.7 rebounds along with 98 percent free throw shooting.
When the Mavericks were dribbling out the final seconds on their biggest night, Nowitzki hopped over the scorer's table and headed to the locker room for several minutes before rejoining his teammates on the court for the title celebration.
"I still really can't believe it," he said. "This team has ridden a lot of ups and downs, always stayed together. Still just can't believe it."
To get your arms around Mavericks as world champs, the suspension of disbelief may take a while — not just for Nowitzki, but for Mavericks fans everywhere.
During the regular season, this team was very good, winning 57 games. But how often has that been the case with teams led by the perennial first-team or second-team all NBA forward?
Since losing the finals to Wade and a very different Miami Heat team in 2006, Nowitzki had struggled badly in a first-round loss to Golden State in 2007, his MVP season. He played better the next three postseasons but the Mavericks had only a first-round series win over San Antonio in '09 to show for it.
Somehow it all came together for Nowitzki and for this team after that ugly Game 4 loss in Portland when the Trail Blazers erased an 18-point fourth quarter lead. From that moment on, the Mavericks were an incredible 14-3.
Without question, the supporting cast and the cool calculations made by Carlisle provided the backdrop for the Mavs' success.
But Nowitzki owned these playoffs. More than Wade, much more than James, more than NBA leading scorer Kevin Durant, more than five-time champ Kobe Bryant — the Mavericks ended the seasons for all these star players because none of them performed at consistently as high a level as Nowitzki.
That's why late Sunday night, the NBA's Larry O'Brien Trophy passed from the arms of original club owner Donald Carter (at Cuban's request) to Cuban and then quickly into the valuable hands of Nowitzki.
And with that, while his exact ranking in the pantheon of NBA greats will continue to be debated, Nowitzki permanently escaped the superstar group of Karl Malone, Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing and others who never earned a championship ring.
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company