Clearly, the two teams that advanced the farthest in Dallas Mavericks’ history were the 2011 squad that captured the NBA title and the 2006 crew that also reached the NBA Finals.
But the first Mavs’ team that put this franchise on the map was the squad that reached the 1988 Western Conference Finals. That team started Derek Harper and Rolando Blackman in the backcourt, Mark Aguirre and Sam Perkins at the forward spots, James Donaldson at center, and boasted key reserves such as Roy Tarpley, Brad Davis and Detlef Schrempf, and they were a lethal group of players.
“The depth of the team was what we held our hat on,” Harper said. “We were very deep at every position.
“Our starters could compete against anybody and hold their own. We had two All-Stars in Rolando Blackman and Mark Aguirre, and I mean legit All-Stars when I said that. Just not a lot of holes that year.”
That year the Mavs (53-29) tied Portland with the fifth-best record in the NBA behind the Los Angeles Lakers (62-20), Boston Celtics (57-25), Denver Nuggets (54-28) and Detroit Pistons (54-28), while finishing second to the Nuggets in the Midwest Division.
According to Rick Sund, the run to the West finals was set in motion by what happened to the Mavs in the 1987 playoffs. That’s the year the Mavs entered postseason play as the No. 2-seed with a prolific 55-27 record, but wound up getting upset by the No. 7-seed Seattle SuperSonics in four games in a first-round best-of-five series.
“We had good chemistry, and the year before we had a really good year,” said Sund, who was the Mavs’ director of player personnel. “Not one No. 7 or No. 8-seed at that time had ever beaten a No. 1 or No. 2 seed. By losing in that first round it either is going to blow up in your face or it’s going to be, ‘Hey, you’re going to have a helluva year next year.’
“I think there’s scar tissue along the way, but we had a pretty good nine-man rotation and we also had players who could play multiple positions. So I think it was a little bit of the scar tissue of being shocked the year before when we really felt we had a good team.”
As the No. 3-seed out West in the 1988 playoffs, the Mavs finished seventh in the league in scoring with 109.3 points and sixth in points allowed (104.9). They also had Aguirre, who finished the 1987-88 season eighth in the NBA in scoring at 25.1 points per game, and they had Blackman, who played in the ’85, ’86, ’87 and ’90 All-Star games.
Also during the ’88 season, Blackman averaged 18.7 points, Harper averaged 17 points, 7.7 assists and two steals, Perkins scored at a 14.2 per game clip and pulled down eight rebounds per contest, and Tarpley was the NBA Sixth Man Award winner after averaging 13.5 points and finishing seventh in the league in rebounds at 11.8 per game.
The Mavs opened the playoffs by upending Houston, 3-1, in a best-of-five first-round series, then they ousted Denver in six games in a best-of-seven second round series. Then came the ultimate acid test.
In the Western Conference Finals, the Mavs matched up against the heavily favored and defending NBA champion Lakers, who were stacked with future Hall of Fame players Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy, not to mention Byron Scott, A.C. Green, Michael Cooper and Mychal Thompson.
Still, Aguirre had 23 points and 13 rebounds, Blackman tallied 22 points, and Harper added 17 points, six rebounds and 10 assists as the Mavs won the hotly-contested Game 6 at Reunion Arena, 105-103, to force a decisive seventh game.
“When we took them to seven games I guess we were even surprised, to tell you the truth,” said Perkins, who scored 14 points in Game 6. “The Lakers were even more surprised because we were just in the way for them getting to the Finals.
“With that said, they may have overlooked us, and with the arena and the crowd and it being our first time there ever (in the West Finals), the electricity in Reunion Arena gave us some life. That place was rocking! Whether it’s an afternoon or an evening game, it was just electric in there.”
The Mavs, in their first year coached by John MacLeod, carried that electricity to The Forum in LA for Game 7, but eventually lost, 117-102. However, the Mavs only trailed, 54-53, at the half and 87-79 after three quarters.
In the meantime, the Lakers went on to beat the Detroit Pistons in seven games in the NBA Finals. By the way, that season the Mavs split the regular season series with the Pistons, 1-1.
“I remember going to the locker room at halftime and I said to myself, ‘We’re going to win this game and we’re going to the Finals,’ “ Harper said of Game 7. “Because of the fact that we were that close to them, all we had to do is come out there and seize the moment and knock them off. That’s exactly what I was thinking.
“But Magic’s will to win that particular series was what came to the forefront for the Lakers that year. He just willed his team to victory is basically what happened.”
Johnson finished Game 7 with 24 points, nine rebounds and 11 assists.
“I thought we were going to win,” Aguirre said. “I thought we were primed to get them. We just hadn’t been in that position before. It was just a matter of having a little break. That’s all we needed – a little break.”
This was the first Game 7 in the Mavs’ eight-year history, while the Lakers were playing their historic 16th Game 7. In fact, the Utah Jazz took the Lakers to seven games in the 1988 pressure-cooker Western Conference semifinals.
“It’s tough to beat a legendary team like that,” Blackman said. “When you have three Hall of Famers on a basketball team, you know how difficult it is?
“It just makes it more difficult because they’ve got fantastic players that are ultimate executors at the highest level in the history of the game. That’s what you had to go up against.”
It was the third time over a five-year span that the Lakers had eliminated the Mavs in the playoffs.
“I remember Game 7 being close through three quarters, and then I remember Magic taking over in the fourth quarter,” Davis said. “We had a lot of talent, but it seemed like every time we made it to a certain point in the playoffs we ran into the Lakers.”
The outcome of the ’88 series against the Lakers particularly infuriated Mavs co-founder, Norm Sonju, who also worked as the team’s general manager.
“I still get mad when I think about it because we really had a chance to win that series,” Sonju said. “Now remember we had Mark, and we had some other great players.
“Tarpley, he was as good as any big man. He could run the court well, he was just a dominant rebounder and was just an amazing gifted athlete.”
Blackman recalled that the Mavs, who finished fourth in the NBA in attendance that year with 16,966 fans per contest, won all three of their home playoff games in the ‘88 series against the Lakers.
“They didn’t beat us at our house,” Blackman said. “I sure wish that Game 7 was at Reunion Arena instead of being at The Forum. We were matched up well, we understood them, they understood us and it got to the seventh game and it was just very, very difficult and very, very tough as far as that’s concerned.
“But our team was a tremendous team, a fantastic team. It was a special time and I’m happy and proud not only for our team, but also for our city. We had a nice squad, and like I said, we ran up against a really, really, really, really legendary team. I feel disappointed, but I feel extremely proud also to be able to have been a part of this Maverick basketball team that put this franchise on the map as being a great, great team.”