DALLAS -- Dirk Nowitzki stood on the court wearing a baseball hat celebrating the Dallas Mavericks' return to the NBA finals. As his team received a silver trophy for winning the Western Conference, he looked as if he'd just been named the player of the week in November.
Nowitzki's indifferent attitude during the pandemonium around him shows just how locked in he is right now.
"We've got one of those trophies already," Nowitzki said. "This is nice for a day, but we set our goals in October to win it all. We haven't done it yet."
The superstar who has dominated this post-season added yet another highlight Wednesday night, hitting a straightaway three-pointer with 1:14 left that put the Mavericks ahead for good on their way to a 100-96 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder that ended the Western Conference final in five games.
After clawing back from down 15 with 5:06 left in Game 4, the Mavericks were down by six with 4:37 left when they rallied again, outscoring the Thunder 14-4 the rest of the way. The biggest on-court celebration in franchise history followed, with the greatest player in franchise history hardly soaking it in.
"It feels good to finally go back," Nowitzki said. "This time, hopefully we can finish the job."
The Mavericks have long been among the NBA's elite, winning 50 games for 11 consecutive seasons. However, it's been a bit hollow because they don't have a title to show for it. They reached the finals in 2006, went up 2-0 and had a big, late lead in Game 3, only to lose to the Miami Heat in six games. They'd won only a single playoff series since until this spring.
Dallas is 12-3 this post-season, and has won 10 of its last 11. Nowitzki has been at his best throughout, especially this series. He scored nine of his 26 points in the fourth quarter; for the series, he averaged 32.2 points, 11.8 in the fourth quarters.
But it wasn't just him. A roster filled with guys seeking their first title made big plays down the stretch, from Jason Kidd to Shawn Marion to Jason Terry.
"We just kept our poise at all times," said Marion, who scored 15 of his 26 points in the final quarter. "It seemed like we never got rattled and just chipped away and chipped away."
When the Mavs last made the finals, they advanced with a win in Phoenix. This time, they got to share the moment with their fans. Franchise founder Don Carter was right in the middle of it all, trading his signature white cowboy hat -- the one that used to be featured in the team's logo -- for a black baseball cap that read "The Finals 2011" with a Mavs logo and the championship trophy.
"All I can tell everybody is, we ain't done yet," Mavs owner Mark Cuban said during the on-court trophy presentation ceremony.
Funny thing is, they could face Miami again. Fans seem to hope so, chanting "Beat the Heat!" so loudly after Cuban spoke that they drowned out coach Rick Carlisle's on-court interview.
LeBron James and Miami lead the Chicago Bulls 3-1 in the Eastern Conference finals. If the Heat win Thursday night, the finals will begin Tuesday in Miami. If the Bulls win Thursday night, the finals will begin next Thursday in the East winner's city.
The Mavericks' big edge this series was experience, and it showed in the final two games. Age never slowed them, in part because their legs were refreshed by eight days off before the opener. Winning this game is huge because it earns them at least six days off before the finals.
"Any time you can get rest this time of year is a bonus," said Kidd, who at 38 could become the oldest point guard to ever win a title -- by several years. "For us to close it out here is huge."
Oklahoma City led for most of this game, even staying ahead during a stretch of 11 straight missed shots. But the Thunder were just too young and too inexperienced to understand how to close out a game.
When Dallas started to surge at the start and middle of the fourth quarter, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook came up with some answers. Yet when the pressure really ratcheted up, and 21,092 fans were at their loudest, the veteran Mavericks made all the right moves.
Marion got Dallas within 94-92 off a pass from Kidd, then Nowitzki stole a pass from Westbrook. Nowitzki actually missed his first three-point try on that possession and Westbrook got the rebound, but Terry stole it, got the ball to Marion and he fed Nowitzki for the go-ahead three.
Eric Maynor wound up taking Oklahoma City's next shot and teammate Nick Collison got the rebound on the baseline. He flung the ball back toward the paint, Marion caught it and took off for a breakaway dunk. He was fouled on the play and hit the free throw for a 98-94 lead.
Westbrook made a pair of foul shots with 39 seconds left to get the Thunder within a basket. Nowitzki missed a shot against tight defence with 18 seconds left, but Kidd got the rebound and passed back to Nowitzki. He was fouled and made a pair of free throws with 13.3 left. Durant and Harden missed three-pointers, and that was it.
"It's tough now," Durant said. "But we can learn from it. The only way to get better is to keep pushing."
Westbrook scored 31 points, and Durant and James Harden each scored 23. The Thunder bowed out with only their second three-game losing streak of the season.
"I just think we played hard and just couldn't come up with the win," Durant said.
Considering its youth and the experience gained in this series, Oklahoma City can expect to close in on many more titles. That was little consolation Wednesday night.
"Their time will come, but it's not now," Carlisle said. "We feel like now is our time to move on."
NOTES: Teams with at least eight days off before a series, as Dallas did, are now 12-7 in the next round during the shot-clock era. If the Bulls win Thursday night, the Mavericks would have seven days off before the next series. ... Dallas is 7-1 at home this post-season. ... The Mavs, Spurs and Lakers have combined to win the last 13 West titles. ... Dallas-area sports fans are getting spoiled. The World Series was here in October/November, the Super Bowl in February and now the NBA finals are coming. ... Since blowing a 23-point lead in the final 14 minutes of Game 4 of a first-round series against Portland, Dallas has won 10 of 11 games. The Mavs joined the 1994 Rockets and 2002 Nets as the only teams to squander at least an 18-point lead going into the fourth quarter of a playoff game, and now all three of those clubs have recovered to reach the finals. The '94 Rockets won the title, the '02 Nets (with Kidd) didn't.