Saturday, January 28, 2017
Blueprint: The 2011 Mavs, The 2017 Falcons, And The Lessons I Hope We Learned
It seems ludicrous now, but at the time, Nowitzki and the Mavs had a something of a playoff monkey on their backs. "He's too soft." "They can't ever win the games that matter," etc, etc. After years as one of the best players in the game working with a top-echelon head coach in Rick Carlisle and usually a decent supporting cast, popular opinion had preemptively put Dirk in the Barkley/Ewing drawer of the NBA history file cabinet: all-time great player, never crossed that last Rubicon to get a 'Chip.
Then the playoffs started, and everything fell into place. The Mavs easily dispatched an undermanned Blazers team in Round 1. (Though we did get The Brandon Roy Game, one of my favorite moments of all time as a basketball fan.) They obliterated the Lakers in a sweep, and headed to the Western Conference Finals to face the Thunder.
And hey, let's take a second to contemplate the favors Memphis did for the Mavs in those playoffs: First, they pulled off an incredible upset of the Spurs in Round 1 so Dallas wouldn't have to face them later. I will never forget Z-Bo standing on the court after it was over, soaking in the love of an arena and a city that had finally given him an NBA home. Then, Grit'N'Grind spent seven games bludgeoning the Thunder within an inch of their lives, giving Dallas an exhausted, beaten-down opponent to go against for a shot at the finals. I mean, damn did the Griz do Dirk and co. a few solids there.
The Mavs were on a genuine lightning-in-a-bottle run, the kind that comes around for a team rarely if ever. Before the Dallas-OKC series tipped, it felt like something was creeping into their collective ethos; an all-consuming realization and resolve: "We'd better finish this. We'd better get this shit done now." Because when were they getting a shot like this ever again? Would the the match-ups break this fortuitously next time? Would this core of players even be around next year? (Spoiler alert: no, and NEVER EVER ask a Mavs fan how they feel about the way their front office handled things after that season if you value your eardrums.) Maybe most importantly, would they ever again have the benefit of J.J. Barea playing outside his damn mind for an entire postseason? (Again: no.)
Anyway, Dallas took care of the Thunder in five games and headed to the NBA Finals to face the first edition of The Heatles. It was almost too perfect. Miami had beaten the Mavs in their only other Finals appearance, which you may better remember as The Great Officiating Debacle Of 2006. The talent disparity was comical. Dirk is a transcendent player and he had some outstanding running mates, but the Heat should have overwhelmed them with sheer versatility and speed. Instead, Dallas finished their magical run with a 4-2 series victory, culminating in an exodus of Heat fans leaving the arena before Game Six was done, a delirious and joyful Dirk hoisting the trophy, and a very drunk Mark Cuban appearing on TV shortly thereafter to declare of Mavs supporters flooding the Triple A: "Our fans punked the shit outta their fans!"
This Falcons season kind of has that feel to it. Here they are headed to their second championship shot ever, just like the 2011 Mavs. Like that team, they lost their first one. (Though, there was no shady officiating in that game, just the fact that we had Chris Chandler at quarterback and Denver had John F****** Elway.) Like Dallas and Dirk, Atlanta and Matt Ryan also have that "can't win when it counts" label hanging around their necks. They've had a similar spate of luck, too. After going 15-1 the preceding season, Carolina was a trash fire this year, opening the door to the NFC South. The Birds caught a Seattle team with no Earl Thomas and whose offensive line was basically pasteboard and duct tape in the divisional round of the playoffs. They drew a banged-up Packers team in the NFC Championship Game and torched them like the Mavs torched OKC. And now they have to go toe-to-toe with the Pats.
Atlanta's offense has been unstoppable this season; a history-making death machine destroying everything in their path. By the numbers, they're nearly identical to the "Greatest Show On Turf" Rams. But do you remember who the Brady/Belichick Patriots beat to win their first Super Bowl? Yeah, that Rams team. Bill Belichick is an asshole, but he's also the greatest tactician in NFL history, and if anyone can find a way to undermine the Falcons' offensive dynamism, it's him. On the other side of the ball, Atlanta's defense has come a long way this year, but asking them to stop Tom Brady (even without Gronk) is a damned tall order. But we have to. The offense has to hum and growl like a muscle car with an open throttle, as it has all year. The defense has to be the fast, chaotic entity it has become. No one can slip up, no one can falter. Because the Patriots have proven over and over that they will absolutely murder you for even your tiniest mistake. Because look:
Will we be this healthy again next playoffs? Will we be this lucky? Will whoever comes in as OC after Kyle Shanahan takes the 49s gig sequence plays and utilize personnel as brilliantly? "Probably not" to the first two questions and "not a chance in hell" to the third.
So this is the shot. This is moment. Dallas showed us all how this works in 2011. Jesus, I hope Dan Quinn's an NBA fan.