Dirk Nowitzki Admits He’d Be Ringless if He Faced LeBron James After the 2011 Finals

The Miami Heat vaulted to the top of the NBA landscape after forming the infamous Big Three in 2010. But less than a year after LeBron James proclaimed the Heat would win “not one, not two, not three, not four” titles, Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks spoiled the party.

Nowitzki led the charge in Dallas’ six-game upset over Miami in the 2011 NBA Finals. The victory gave the 7-footer his long-coveted ring and prevented James from receiving his.

However, years after retiring and over 10 years since winning his lone championship, Dirk isn’t afraid to admit the Mavs had plenty of luck on their side.

Dirk Nowitzki’s brilliance helped the Mavericks knock off LeBron James and the Heat in 2011

No one was shocked to see the Heat in the NBA Finals. James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh led the two-seed Miami to a 58-24 record. From there, it rolled through the Eastern Conference playoffs with decisive five-game victories against the Philadelphia 76ers, Boston Celtics, and one-seed Chicago Bulls.

The Heat’s opponent, however, was a little more surprising. The Mavericks finished the 2010-11 campaign at 57-25, placing them in the West’s three-seed. Yet despite first-round exits in three of the previous four seasons, Dallas marched toward the Finals with a six-game victory over the Portland Trail Blazers, a four-game sweep of the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers, and a five-game drubbing of the upstart Oklahoma City Thunder.

Although the Heat were consensus favorites, the veteran-heavy Mavericks meant business. Nowitzki’s 24-point, 11-rebound effort helped Dallas even up the series on the road in Game 2. After falling behind 2-1, the Mavs took Games 4 and 5 at home to place them on the precipice of the Larry O’Brien Trophy.

Finally, in Game 6, Dirk’s 21 points and 11 rebounds paved the way for Dallas’ 105-95 victory in South Beach. The German was awarded Finals MVP after averaging 26.0 points and 9.7 rebounds for the series. Jason Terry was another top performer after averaging 18.0 points off the bench, including a game-high 27 points in Game 6.

Yet in classic NBA fashion, the focus was on how Miami lost the series rather than how Dallas won it. There was no greater target for criticism than LeBron, who averaged 17.8 points on 47.8% shooting and scored just eight points in Miami’s three-point loss in Game 4.

Nowitzki believes the Mavericks just caught LeBron at the perfect time

Earlier this week, Nowitzki appeared on The Dan LeBatard Show with Stugotz to talk life, career, and the 2011 NBA Finals. The Miami-based hosts asked the Hall of Famer about one of the ultimate symbols of the series: James becoming unable to post up 5-foot-10 guard J.J. Barea despite possessing a hulking 6-foot-9 frame of his own.

Nowitzki offered a diplomatic response instead, telling Le Batard how Dallas was able to pull off the memorable upset.

“We were pretty under matched in that series and they were way more skilled than us,” Nowitzki said. “So we kind of got away with junking up the game at times, playing a smaller lineup, playing some zone. We tried everything in our power to slow them down. I would say we were a smart team, a veteran team, that knew how to play. … If we would have just made this a ‘run up and down’ contest, obviously we would have had no chance. They were so athletic and so skilled.”

The strategy deployed by Dallas’ veteran roster and head coach Rick Carlisle worked to a tee. But even still, Dirk believes if his Mavericks ran into LeBron and the Heat any other year, it wouldn’t have been a fair fight.

“We were super fortunate to run into them in year one when they just came together. I think they were trying to find a way [with] the roles, who’s taking the big shot, who’s being aggressive at what time, and I don’t think they had figured out their roles yet. So at times, I think even LeBron would say they were hesitant. … So they hadn’t quite figured all of that out. I think if we would have run into them in year two or year three and [they] had everything more figured out and LeBron was super aggressive again, they would’ve probably beat us handily.”

Dirk Nowitzki

Given Dallas’ sharp decline following its title, the 2011 series was its last real shot at a ring. And if the Mavericks would have faced an experienced team like the Celtics instead, it’s likely Nowitzki would be one of the greatest players never to win it all.

LeBron’s next Finals opponent caught him at the wrong time

As “lucky” as Dirk and the Mavericks were to play the Heat in their first season together, that’s how unlucky the Thunder were the following year.

In their fourth season since relocating from Seattle, the Thunder featured future superstars Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden. After finishing 47-19 in the shortened 2011-12 regular season, OKC swept the Mavericks in the first round and advanced all the way to the NBA Finals.

However, the young Thunder were no match for a more experienced Heat team. James shook off his playoff demons in Miami’s five-game victory, averaging 28.6 points and earning his first Finals MVP.

Perhaps if the 23-year-old Durant and 22-year-old Westbrook and Harden played Miami down the line, they would have been able to deliver a title for the Thunder. Conversely, the Heat lucked out by playing a young, inexperienced group after faltering against the veteran Mavs a year earlier.

The moral of the story is that there’s a bit of luck that goes into every championship victory. Though few openly acknowledge it like Nowitzki.

All statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference.

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