Believing in Dallas to win the NBA championship was never easy, and now the Mavericks have given us another reason to doubt them.
Most of this concern has to do with Tuesday night, watching a superior team fold in the final minutes of a game it had won. It has to do with Dirk Nowitzki, cool as they come in the clutch, inexplicably missing a free throw with Game 3 of the NBA Finals in the balance.
After that meltdown against Miami — from 13 points up to two points down in the final seven minutes — the Mavericks have two questions to answer before Game 4 on Thursday night:
Are they a great young team going through the usual growing pains of winning its first title? Or are they still a year away, not yet ready to close out a group of playoff-hardened veterans like the Heat?
I'm leaning closer to the latter.
Some of that feeling is irrational, based on the second-round-and-out years under former coach Don Nelson, those pillowy-cushion Mavericks of the past. Dallas didn't hit the boards back then; the Mavs tickled them.
And if anything has become apparent after three games, it's that Dirk's teammates are younger, quicker and more skilled than Dwyane Wade's and Shaquille O'Neal's. But the idea that Dallas is a mentally tough champion-to-be is somewhat misguided.
Most observers here talk about how the Mavericks have buried their postseason past during the last two months. In the second round, they beat San Antonio in Game 7 at the Spurs' SBC Center, The Barn, maybe the toughest place to win on the road in the NBA. They came back from a Game 1 collapse against Phoenix at home to take control of that series and close out the Suns in six to get here.
Fine, but none of that equates to bounce-back in the Finals.
Dallas has yet to win a pulsating thriller on the game's largest stage. And in the one chance they had in three games, the Mavericks folded badly -- worse than any Finals team in recent memory.
The 1992 Bulls came back from 15 points down in the fourth to beat Portland in Game 6, still the largest fourth-quarter deficit overcome in the Finals. In 1987, the Lakers came from 16 down in the third quarter at Boston Garden to beat the Celtics in Game 4 and go up, 3-1 -- in an heirloom Magic sealed with that junior sky hook. The Trail Blazers were devastated and lost the title that night. The Celtics were devastated and went on to lose in six games after their loss.
I would argue blowing a 13-point lead in the final 6 minutes 34 seconds is even more of a mind-wrenching loss. Game 4 was looming as a chance to sweep the Heat rather than for Miami to get even.
Dallas has two more games at American Airlines Arena to think about its collapse. Instead of talking about their long climb from playoff obscurity to the precipice of a title on Wednesday, the Mavericks spent their afternoon analyzing their collective psyche.
"We are always talking and addressing the mental state of our team," Avery Johnson said. "It's not like it's fragile or anything. We've come a long way mentally. Early in the season, you know, it was pretty much an overhaul process."
Johnson also knows, however well hidden, that doubt is still there; he knows it crept up in the final minutes when Wade was unguardable, Jason Terry committed a dumb turnover and Nowitzki could not send the game into overtime with merely the purest shooting stroke in pro basketball. That's not physical; that's mental. Johnson always talks about the playoff experience Jerry Stackhouse and Darrell Armstrong bring to his squad of youngsters, but neither of those players starts and Armstrong isn't even in the rotation.
After Nowitzki's 73 games of playoff experience, Terry, Devin Harris and Josh Howard had not been beyond the second round before this season. DeSagana Diop had never competed in a playoff game less than two months ago. Erick Dampier's fame clock is at about 14 minutes right now.
Gary Payton, the hobbling curmudgeon who managed to knock down the game-winning jumper with 9.3 seconds left in Game 3, has been to three Finals at age 37. O'Neal, 34, has been to six Finals and Pat Riley has coached in nine championship series to Johnson's one.
These Mavericks are good enough to take at least one of the next two games here and close out the series at home in Game 6. But they also have shown the character of one of those old Bulls or Pistons teams before it was their time.
Remember Michael Jordan's break-the-hex shot over Craig Ehlo in 1989? The Bulls should have never gotten to that game, but they threw away Game 4 of the first-round series in Chicago. As it was, they would not win their first title for another two years.
The Pistons took Riley's Showtime Lakers to Game 7 in 1988 and had multiple opportunities to put away the Lakers. They couldn't, learned their lesson and came back and won the next two championships.
This Dallas team, as constructed, is going to win a championship. I don't care what the Spurs, Suns or Heat do the next few years, I think the Mavericks have the foundation to win two or three titles. But after Tuesday night, it's much too early to coronate them. They still have some psychological lifting to do Thursday night. And I'm not completely convinced all the work can be done in Game 4.