The 2014 NBA Finals are set, and they have something to offer for everyone. But the first game between the San Antonio Spurs and the Miami Heat doesn’t tip off until Thursday night, so let’s discuss something else. Let’s discuss the fact that, looking back at this year’s playoffs in the Western Conference, one team clearly pushed the conference champions further than any of their other opponents. One team pushed the Spurs to seven games and, perhaps more than that, that same team could claim that they could have swept the Spurs — or at least beaten them in five or six games. That team is the No. 8 seed Dallas Mavericks.
The fact is, in the first game of that series, the Mavericks had a late double-digit lead in San Antonio. Unfortunately for Dallas, as happened several times during the regular season, the Mavericks’ late defensive breakdowns and cold spell from the field allowed that lead to slip away. There are no excuses for that — none — but it’s a realistic thought that Dallas could have won that game.
In Game 2, the Mavericks coasted to a 21-point victory in San Antonio, accomplishing the goal of every lower-seeded team competing in a seven-game playoff match-up: steal one on the road. But even then, the thought of letting Game 1 slip away almost stung even more than it had at the conclusion of Game 1, as everyone realized that the Mavericks not only could, but probably should have taken a 2-0 series lead home to Dallas.
If you remember anything about this series, you remember that Vince Carter hit a heart-stopping three-pointer at the final buzzer of game three to give the Mavericks the victory and a 2-1 series lead that could have been a 3-0 series lead. Mavs nation was elated when that shot went in, but that haunting thought of Game 1 continued to rear its head.
In Game 4, San Antonio led by 20 points at one time, but Dallas rallied. They came back and took a late lead before it got away. DeJuan Blair was a beast in the game and brought enough energy for the entire building, but the wind came out of the Dallas sails when Blair was ejected from the game for apparently kicking San Antonio center Tiago Splitter. The Mavericks should not have allowed themselves to fall into that 20-point hole, but they still almost won the game. And if all of the “could have” and “what if” talk were the other way around, the Mavericks would have swept the Spurs out of the first round; but that obviously didn’t happen.
Blair was suspended for Game 5, and the Mavericks missed his energy, his bruising and his rebounding. It was a close, hard-fought battle that saw the Spurs come out on top, but Dallas was certainly never out of striking distance. You have to wonder if the presence of Blair’s vendetta against the Spurs could have made up the four-point margin.
Dallas won Game 6 by two points, and the decisive play of the game may have been a steal by Blair when Tony Parker drove into the lane with 28 seconds on the clock. This is further evidence that Blair could have made a difference had he been allowed to play in Game 5.
Game 7 saw the Mavericks on the wrong end of a 23-point blowout that wasn’t even really that close. The Spurs moved on.
But here’s what’s important for the Mavericks: the Spurs are now set to return to the NBA Finals, and not only did the underdog Mavericks take them to seven games, they could make a very strong case that, had just a handful of balls bounced differently, the Mavericks could have won six of the seven games in that series. Unfortunately, they only won three of the games, but the point is, the Mavericks don’t just have something to be proud of in that series, they have something to build on. Keep the core intact and add a couple of solid pieces, and this team could be back in the discussion of competition for the Western Conference crown.
Brian Ogle is a Dallas Mavericks writer for Rant Sports. Follow him on Twitter @TheOgle.