Mavericks meet Heat again, knowing the rigors of being a defending champ

11/14/2013 5:38 PM

11/12/2014 3:05 PM

The disjointed 2011-12 NBA lockout season was such a blur for Dirk Nowitzki that he doesn’t even remember much about it.

“The whole lockout year was kind of like a haze,” Nowitzki said. “We played like 60 games in two weeks, it felt like. We were all over the place and we had like back-to-back-to-backs. It was a tough season for us older guys.”

In an era where teams are getting younger and more athletic, it’s getting tougher for teams to repeat as NBA champs.

The Miami Heat was able to do it last season with the help of some questionable late substitutions by the San Antonio Spurs in Game 6 of the championship series.

Nowitzki and the Mavs won the 2011 NBA title and were bracing for a repeat until management decided not to give long-term contracts to key contributors Tyson Chandler, Caron Butler, J.J. Barea and DeShawn Stevenson.

That left the Mavs as a shell of their championship selves, and they were ousted in the first round of the playoffs in 2012 by the Oklahoma City Thunder.

“For us, obviously it was a tough repeat,” Nowitzki said. “It was a lockout year and then we didn’t really keep our core together.

“We made a business decision [to not sign certain players], so I felt like we didn’t really get a chance to really repeat. But that’s history now.”

The Mavs (5-3) and Heat (5-3) have combined to win the past three NBA titles. The teams play at 6:30 p.m. Friday at American Airlines Arena in Miami.

Sam Cassell, a guard with the Houston Rockets when they won back-to-back NBA titles in 1994 and ’95, noticed that everything the Rockets did during their run to their second championship was magnified twofold.

“It’s tough to repeat because everybody’s gunning for you and it’s a big game for everybody every night,” said Cassell, who is an assistant coach with the Washington Wizards. “You’re playing in packed-out arenas every night and people want to see the champs.

“You’ve got to bring you’re A-game every night. Some nights it won’t be there, but you still try to find a way for it to be there.”

Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said that a litany of things could go wrong that can prevent a team from repeating. That list includes injuries, trades, players becoming selfish and management not willing to sign critical free agents.

“It’s just that when you’re the defending champs people are gunning for you,” Carlisle said. “And then you have to fight the letdown of being the champions.

“It’s a lot of the human nature stuff that are inherent in sports, but that’s what makes the world go round.”

In addition to missing out on a successful repeat as a coach with the Mavs, Carlisle also missed a chance with the Boston Celtics. In 1986 Carlisle was with the Celtics when they beat the Rockets in six games to win the championship, but then lost in the ’87 Finals to the Los Angeles Lakers in six games.

“The situations were vastly different though, because in Boston we basically had the same team intact,” Carlisle said. “We had a couple of injuries and we had what I would call the Reigning Champions Effect, in that we were getting everybody’s best game every night.

“And then here we didn’t have quite the same team when we were trying to repeat. So I don’t think you can put it in the same context in what Miami is trying to do.”

Nowitzki and Shawn Marion are the only players from Dallas’ championship team. Marion noticed how the Mavs were targeted by other teams, but he offered a strong message.

“Regardless of if you’ve got a target or not, some teams just can’t match up with you and can’t beat you,” Marion said. “Especially if you go out there and you’re taking it serious and playing like you should be playing.’’

Sometimes, Cassell pointed out, the defending champs could be on top of their game but still find themselves in a dogfight with a much lesser opponent.

“Bad teams play great against the champs because everybody’s hyped and everybody’s looking forward to beating the champs, because it’s a big deal,” Cassell said. “You see guys that were mediocre players and, man, he’s playing good tonight and he’s got an extra hustle in him.

“The next night he’s 2 for 16, but against y’all he’s 9 for 14. When you’re the champs you’ve got a big game 82 games a year — 82 games a year.”

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