Monday, June 13, 2011

MIAMI — One went from the Decision to the Disintegration. The other went from 2006 NBA Finals failure to 2011 NBA Finals MVP.

In the end — in the Dallas Mavericks' championship and the Miami Heat's incredible implosion — rests the play of two men: Dirk Nowitzki and LeBron James.

On Sunday night the Mavericks disposed of the Heat, 105-95, in Game 6 of the Finals. In doing so, in throwing aside the hopes of South Florida, its team's chance at vengeance and its beleaguered star's hope for redemption, Dirk did as much for his own place in basketball as he did to damage LeBron's.

"Come on, how often do we have to hear about the LeBron James reality show and what he is or isn't doing," Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said 90 minutes after coaching his team to a championship. "When are people going to talk about the purity of our game and what these guys accomplished?"

Right now, Rick. And for a long time afterward.

Because Dirk didn't just lead his team to an amazing win in an incredible series. He elevated his own game, legacy, history and team — he elevated his very basketball self and that of the Dallas Mavericks — at the expense of LeBron James and the Miami Heat.

This wasn't just a win for Dallas. It was a rewriting of two stars' places in the game and two team's approaches to building a winner. And it was Dirk who held the pen.

On Sunday night, after an absolutely abysmal 1-of-12, three-point first-half, Dirk did what LeBron James has proven he cannot: He embraced the enormity of the moment and channeled every bit of talent and greatness he had inside of him.

His second half was the thing of a champion, literally. He went off for 18 points, he shot 8 of 15 from the floor, and with the game close to begin the final 24 minutes of play, he assured through excellence and clutch play that it would not be as it ended.

"I don't think there's any doubt after this series that Dirk has certainly earned the clout of being one of the all-time great players," Carlisle said. "His versatility, how he's done it in the clutch. He goes 1 for 12 in the first half and then in the second half he was just absolute money."

Like Carlisle said, it's LeBron who's lived under the lights of the reality television dynamic of American culture. But in the halls and arenas of the NBA, Dirk was also a man seen as less than he should have been.

He, too, entered these Finals searching for redemption.

He was the 7-1 Euro player who was too weak, too soft, too underestimated to get respect from Dwyane Wade, either after the 2006 Finals or even several games into this series.

Wade and LeBron's decision to make fun of Dirk's illness on camera last week was more than a passing mistake. It was a testament to a shared dislike and disrespect born out of the 2006 Finals and to a lingering sense that Dirk, like LeBron, was a star that dimmed in the big moment.

Dirk responded by going onto Wade and LeBron's floor and simply, in a final act of defiance and greatness, being the better player.

Being the champion.

And so he is the Finals MVP. He is among the greatest of all time. And it is Wade who must answer (and he did so with great class) to the greatness of a rival he disrespected only days earlier.

"I think he's played awesome, man," Wade said. "Obviously, five years ago, it burned in him. There's no question he's been a great individual player, and now that he's a champion it goes without saying what does it mean for his career. So congratulations to him."

Sitting next to Wade was the man whose NBA season can be described a little differently than Dirk's: From the Decision to the Disintegration.

LeBron choked. LeBron failed. LeBron sunk under the weight of the big moment. He is, now, Wilt Chamberlain rather than Michael Jordan. It is surely so that Miami needed Wade's soul and not The King's.

Asked about this — asked of his assessment of his ability to play well under pressure — LeBron answered as best he could, which is to say inaccurately.

"I mean, sometimes you got it, sometimes you don't," he said. "And that was the case in this series. I was able to do things in the last two series to help us win ball games. Wasn't able to do that in this series.

"Once you get to the playoffs, every game is pressure," he said. "You want to win. You have to win. So it doesn't matter which round it is."

I'll say the obvious: Yes, LeBron, it does matter. It so very much does. Because you can't be a champion if you don't, you know, win in the Finals. Which makes playing well in them kind of, well, important.

In the end, it is not just the question of the greatness or frailty of LeBron James that was answered in obvious and brutal form as he vanished at the ends of Games 4, 5 and 6 (Tuesday night, he scored three points in the tightly contested third quarter and seven in the fourth, most of them after the game was out of hand).

It was the question of the Miami Heat experiment, the idea of talent versus teamwork, of stars with an edge versus a team with absolute resilience that also found its answer.

The idea of team won out. And in case you missed it — in case you were understandably too busy ogling and then processing the end of any claim to royalty the King once possessed — there were plenty of folks ready to remind you.

"(Our team) made a statement that's a colossal statement," Carlisle said. "Not just about our team but the game in general. Playing it a certain way. Our team is not about individual ability. It's about collective will, collective grit, collective guts."

"This is a win for playing as a team on both ends of the floor, of sharing the ball, of passing the ball," Dirk said.

"I learned chemistry matters," team owner Mark Cuban said. "That it's a team game."

And the world learned this: Dirk Nowitzki is a better basketball player than LeBron James.

Maybe not more talented. Maybe not more athletic. Maybe not more meaningful to the masses or marketable on behalf of big companies.

But better.

Everything else is mere semantics, facts that add up to everything but what matters most in this game: Winning.

There will be plenty of time in the days ahead to deconstruct the disintegration of the Miami Heat and enormous failing and uncertain future of LeBron James.

But for now, for this moment in time just after the end of one of the finest NBA Finals in many years, it is enough to know that a true team won a championship. And that its leader is one of the game's greatest.

Dirk is the real deal because he helped make sure LeBron James is not.

"We're world champions," Dirk said. "It sounds unbelievable."

Believe it, big guy. And get used to it. Because it's never going to change. And neither is your place in the game.

No comments: