Tim Duncan pulled LeBron James close and said a few things. “This is going to be your league in a little while,” Duncan said.
Then came the kicker. “But, uh, I appreciate you giving us this year.”
On June 14, 2007, about an hour after getting swept in the Finals, LeBron couldn’t help himself.
So another Texas team is in another of LeBron’s arenas tonight, with LeBron facing his first Finals elimination game since 2007. And if the Mavericks complete what the Spurs did before, Dirk Nowitzki should pull LeBron close and say the same.
This time, the joke would have more bite.
There are no guarantees Nowitzki will get the chance. These Finals have been so tight, there’s reason to believe the Heat could win two games at home.
Nowitzki knows what would follow, too. Lose now, after being ahead 3-2 in the series, and the Mavericks would become the Mavericks again.
“If you lose, you’re going to get hammered,” he said Saturday at a press conference in Miami. “It’s just the part of the business. I think we understand that. We’ve been around long enough. I got hammered the last 13 years, basically. So hopefully this year I can make the hammering go away for one year.”
He and the Mavericks have been flattened by a ball peen, if not a sledge. In 2006, with Mark Cuban in the lead, the Mavericks were whining when they weren’t paranoid. Three different Mavericks served various suspensions in that postseason, including Jason Terry and his infamous punch to Michael Finley’s shorts, and yet the Mavericks reacted as if they were being picked on.
The next season, culminating with Duncan pulling LeBron close, might have been Nowitzki’s nadir. The Mavericks, with Nowitzki as the MVP, were eliminated in the first round as the No. 1 seed.
Now it’s all turned around, and not just on the court. Nowitzki has won over everyone, partly because of his play, and partly because of the team he is beating.
The last few days played into that. Then, video taken following a shootaround the morning of Game 5 showed LeBron walking next to Dwyane Wade.
Wade coughed and said to LeBron, “Did you hear me cough? Think I’m sick.”
They laughed and pulled up their jerseys over their mouths — as Nowitzki had during Game 4 when he was fighting a sinus infection.
It might have been nothing more than a joke if it wasn’t for the history. Wade called out Nowitzki after the 2006 Finals for not being a leader, and there was a reported coolness between them at the 2007 All-Star Game. String it together, including how Wade dismissed Nowitzki’s illness after Game 4, and this was less humor than it was a jab.
Wade’s weak explanation Saturday added to that. “We never said Dirk’s name,” Wade said. “I think he’s not the only one in the world who can get sick or have a cough.”
Wade blamed the media after he had implied, in effect, Nowitzki had been feigning his sickness. Wade has always been immune to the stain of “The Decision,” as well as most of what followed; now he seems to be joining LeBron’s alienate-the-world marketing strategy.
Nowitzki’s reaction also suggests this was more than just a joke. “I just thought it was a little childish, a little ignorant,” Nowitzki said Saturday. “I’ve been in this league for 13 years. I’ve never faked an injury or illness.”
Nowitzki, though, didn’t need to say a thing. He’s not only winning with toughness and efficiency, he’s also doing so against a group even less likable than his Mavericks were in 2006.
I appreciate you giving us this year?
Yes, Nowitzki could say that.