Dirk Nowitzki is amazing, but he didn’t win it by himself in 2011

The 2011 Mavericks have come to represent something much larger than merely a champion from a random season. In today’s era of superteams, fresh off a run of three straight 67-plus-win seasons in Golden State and four straight Warriors-Cavs Finals matchups, fans are beginning to pine for the good ol’ days when one star carried his teammates to the title. This has never been the case, of course — without contributions from players up and down a roster, no team is ever good enough to win a championship — but as is with everything else in life, the passage of time has clouded our memory to the point where, today, if you ask a Mavericks fan to describe that glorious spring of 2011, they’ll tell you it was Dirk against Kobe and Gasol, Dirk against Durant, Harden, and Westbrook, and Dirk against Wade, Bosh, and LeBron James.

You won’t find many more ardent Nowitzki supporters than me. The list of players I would take ahead of him in an all-time draft is shockingly short, almost certainly shorter than yours. Nowitzki has put together one of the most effective, unique careers we have ever seen. If he didn’t happen to play in the same era, conference, and state as Tim Duncan — spending much of his prime in the shadow of one of sport’s most successful and extended dynasties — the NBA universe would surely hold him in much higher esteem, he’d probably have more rings, and we’d never have to defend his legacy on the internet. But none of us chooses when we come along.

All of that said, our retrospective appreciation for Dirk’s accomplishment in leading the Mavericks to the championship against rosters with more name-recognition starpower has intensified to the point that it almost feels like we intentionally dismiss the contributions of other players on that team. Nowitzki was phenomenal that postseason, averaging 27.7 points and 8.1 rebounds on 48.5/46.0/94.1 splits; he was obviously sensational. But his teammates contributed so much, and in so many ways, that statistically speaking Nowitzki’s run doesn’t even qualify among the top 50 individual postseasons in NBA history, according to ESPN’s Kevin Pelton. We can all disagree with him on that one, but once you get past the initial shock, you begin to realize how it’s possible. You begin to understand that the 2011 Mavericks were a complete basketball machine, a roster perfectly constructed around a generational talent filled with players who so perfectly complemented the centerpiece and each other that it truly became a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Dallas began that season 24-5 and was 55-18 when Dirk played. The Mavericks were 2-7 without him, but even the Warriors struggled this postseason without Andre Iguodala, who is arguably their fifth-best player. Teams are fragile; every player matters, whether he is your best or your sixth man. Nowitzki was the most important, most irreplaceable, and most unstoppable piece, yes. That isn’t a debate. But he certainly did not scale the mountain by himself.

I rewatched the Mavs’ playoff run for this project, focusing on everyone except for Nowitzki — which, given how that run ended, was very hard to do — in order to gain a greater understanding of what each of those players provided to the team. I’m sharing a few small plays each player made in a few big moments so that hopefully we can put to bed the myth that Dirk Nowitzki had to win a championship ring alone. This is the story of the other guys, beginning with the best lineup the club has ever had.

The Lineup of Death. The Hamptons Five. Call them what you want, but the Golden State Warriors’ lineup of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, Kevin Durant, and Draymond Green has smoked the league since KD joined the Dubs in 2016. In 65 minutes together last postseason, as the Warriors went 16-1 en route to a second title in three years, that group outscored opponents by 32.9 points per 100 possessions, far and away the best of any lineup in the playoffs. It’s considered unguardable due to the number of scoring threats, the terrifying amount of shooting, and the defensive versatility. That same group dominated opponents to the tune of a +24.8 differential this postseason as the Warriors won yet another ring.

The Mavericks’ best lineup, by comparison, during that 2011 championship run performed relatively better. The five-man group of Jason Kidd, Jason Terry, Shawn Marion, Nowitzki, and Tyson Chandler played at a level we rarely ever see. In 163 minutes together during that postseason run, they scored an astonishing 126.0 points per 100 possessions and allowed just 87.9, good for a +38.1 net rating. That lineup’s 57.1 effective field goal percentage throughout the playoffs would have led the league by a mile that season. Last season’s Warriors, possibly the best offense of all-time, recorded a 56.3 eFG percentage. That’s the level that Dallas group reached for 21 games, and the Mavericks did it at a time when efficiency was not nearly as high league-wide as it is today.

In the Finals, with razor-thin margins, Rick Carlisle turned to that lineup more often than he did at any other point during the season. In 66 minutes across just six games against the Heat, that group poured in 126.8 points per 100 possessions and had a +38.6 net rating, outscoring Miami by 44 points. That famous 22-5 run to steal Game 2 of the Finals? Yep, that was the group that pulled it off. (Terry scored the first six points himself in 58 seconds.)

The Kidd-Terry-Nowitzki trio just devastated the competition in the 2011 postseason, outscoring opponents by 182 points in the 297 minutes they shared the floor. In the Finals alone, that trio outscored the Heat by 61 minutes in the 94 minutes they were united.

It should have gone without saying back then that Nowitzki wasn’t the only Hall of Famer on that team, but it recently became official. Jason Kidd’s fingerprints were all over the club’s success. (So was everyone else’s. The debate among Mavs fans often centers on the question “Who was the second-best player on the team?” There is no right answer; it’s impossible to choose. You take any one player off that team and the Mavs don’t win. That’s the beauty of their run.)

Despite the nature of playoff games, when the pace is much slower and generally there is more isolation play, especially in the fourth quarter, Dallas was able to keep the ball moving. One example: Kidd actually assisted Jason Terry slightly more often in the playoffs (28.1 percent of his made buckets) than during the regular season (26.4 percent). The Mavericks led the league in assist percentage in the 2010-11 regular season and finished third in the postseason among the eight teams that won at least one series. Kidd quarterbacked an offense that handed out 20 assists in 10 of its 21 games, including two games of 30+ dimes. He assisted his teammates on one-third of their made baskets while he was on the floor in the postseason. In general, we look back on those Mavericks as an iso-heavy team that revolved around Nowitzki. There was plenty of iso-ing and posting up, as is always the case in the playoffs, but Dallas actually shot spot-up jumpers on a higher percentage of possessions than any other team that postseason. Even when the Mavs iso’d, it was with passing in mind.

The point guard position has changed in recent years. With more teams relying on spread pick-and-roll to generate offense, point guards must now be a scoring threat first, or else the offense is compromised. Kidd was a never a shoot-first player, instead relying on other initiators to create dribble penetration while spotting up on the arc and making the occasional extra pass. That isn’t to say he wasn’t a scoring threat, however; he made more 3s (43) than anyone else in the 2011 playoffs, including his teammate Terry.

Kidd’s reluctance to create for himself, often choosing instead to get the ball out of his hands as soon as possible, was a key to what made Dallas such a good passing team. The earlier in the shot clock Nowitzki or Terry could touch the ball — or, better yet, both of them — the sooner the Mavericks could dismantle their opponent. And by making the opposition cover so much ground, Dallas was simply able to wear the other team out. The Mavs scored 111.4 points per 100 possessions in the fourth quarter during the 2010-11 regular season, second-best in the league, and they flaunted a league-best 53.6 effective field goal percentage in the fourth.

A typical Dallas possession during that playoff run consisted of at least three or four passes, often more. If nothing was open early, Nowitzki would finish the possession late. That level of ball movement doesn’t happen under a point guard who needs it in his hands to make plays. Dallas could beat people inside-to-outside, high-to-low, and side-to-side, and oftentimes in combinations. The Mavericks scored 0.970 points per possession in the halfcourt during the 2011 playoffs, which led the league and it wasn’t even close. Second place was Boston, at 0.919. In playoff fourth quarters, their offense scored a blistering 115.0 points per 100 possessions, while the defense allowed just 104.7.

Shawn Marion gets a ton of credit for defending go-to players throughout that run (and we’ll get to him later, of course) but Kidd spent an extraordinary amount of time defending those same players. He checked Kobe Bryant for much of their four-game series, taking over for Marion when he defended Lamar Odom or even Pau Gasol. In fact, Kidd defended Bryant for a big chunk of the fourth quarter in Game 3, blocking a shot and holding Bryant to 2-of-6 shooting with a turnover in the frame. Kidd also defended Kevin Durant in the Western Conference Finals while Marion spent time on James Harden and Russell Westbrook, and he had the tall task of guarding Dwyane Wade in the Finals. The Mavericks allowed just 99.8 points per 100 possessions with Kidd on the floor in the 2011 playoffs — the best mark among anyone on the team who played at least 50 minutes — all while he ran point on an offense which scored 109.1 points per 100 and assisted on 61.8 percent of its makes whenever he was on the floor.

Kidd’s biggest contribution of them all was his intelligence. “I don’t think there’s ever been a smarter player in this league than Jason Kidd,” Carlisle once said. His understanding of offense wasn’t the only thing that stood out, though. Kidd just found ways to make plays with or around the ball. The Mavericks came away with more than their fair share of 50/50 balls during the 2011 playoffs, and Kidd could take the credit for many of their successes.

Despite his advanced age and natural drop-off in athleticism, Kidd knew exactly when to turn on the jets so he could make plays. He famously sat on the bench for every second possible in order to maximize his rest time, and he’d receive massages before virtually every game to help loosen up. And while he was older, his game hadn’t really dropped off; he was an All-Star in 2010.

Kidd had a next-level awareness of the moment, which helped him make some of the biggest, yet occasionally invisible, plays of the postseason. For an example, look no further than Game 3 against the Lakers, when during a seven-second stretch of game time Kidd showed the extent of his hoops genius. With 16.6 seconds left and the Lakers down six points with the ball, Kidd knew that L.A. would need a 3-pointer to give itself a chance to force overtime. After Dallas sniffed out the Lakers’ play and forced a turnover the previous trip down the floor (for that, go to Shawn Marion’s tab), it looked like the Lakers were setting up the same exact play, only this time instead of cutting to the top, Kobe took a screen from Derek Fisher to go to the corner, and it would then be Fisher who used the double-screen to come to the top of the arc. The Mavs, led by Kidd and Chandler, called it out.

Kidd fought through the screen, not caught off-guard by the similar play design, and was still able to strip Bryant clean. Not only did he appear to anticipate the play, but he was also able to communicate that to his teammates and wipe out Bryant’s shot entirely by himself.

His best work would come seven seconds later. With L.A. now down five points and just nine seconds left on the clock, it made sense for the Lakers to miss intentionally — though it didn’t seem like that was their plan. Still, as Pau Gasol was lining up his free throw, Kidd communicated with Jason Terry, appearing to tell him exactly what was about to happen.

It might just be pure luck that Kidd always found himself in the right place at the right time, but this is a guy who once, while down two points with under two minutes left on the road, intentionally ran full-speed into an opposing head coach in order to draw a technical foul. In Game 4 against Oklahoma City, Kidd stripped Kevin Durant with 1:02 left in overtime of a tied game, then 22 seconds later hit a go-ahead 3-pointer. We hear a lot about The Moment during the playoffs. Kidd always had command of it.

You can replace individual qualities like shooting, passing, and defense, But it’s hard to find someone who can do all three, and it’s even more impossible to find someone who’s also got a supreme understanding of the game. Kidd was extremely valuable — so valuable, in fact, that as Pelton points out, Kidd’s Value Over Replacement Player during that run rated even higher than Dirk’s.

The 2011 Mavericks made wearing all black to closeout games famous. They made fashion statements cool again, although we probably can’t prove it. What we can prove, though, is that once Dallas smelled blood, the series was over. The Mavs were 4-0 in closeout games in the 2011 playoffs, and 8-2 after winning their second game of the series.

Nowitzki hit some enormous shots in each of those elimination games, particularly against Portland in the first round and down the stretch in Game 6 at Miami. Jason Terry, though, might have been the closeout game king. Terry averaged 23.3 points per game in the four closeout contests that postseason, and his +63 plus-minus in those games led all Mavericks. He shot 61.8 percent from the field and 64.0 percent from beyond the arc in those games. Before Nowitzki’s 18 second-half points carried the Mavs across the finish line in Game 6 at Miami, Terry’s 19 first-half points (on only 10 shots) helped put them in position to claim the trophy. “Killer instinct” is an intangible quality, but Terry was cold-blooded in those four games.

Of the 35 players who attempted at least 100 shots that postseason, Terry’s 55.6 effective field goal percentage ranked fourth. He hit nearly as many 3s during the Mavs’ four-game sweep of the Lakers (13) as the entire Lakers team did against the Mavericks (15). Although he was the sixth man, Terry was the club’s most consistent first-quarter threat. He shot 52.2 percent from the field in opening frames throughout those playoffs, combining with Kidd and DeShawn Stevenson to shoot 38 of 71 from 3-point land in the first. And he connected on 20 of his 36 3-point attempts in the second quarter, too.

You cannot tell the story of the late-2000s Mavs without prominently mentioning Terry. He and Nowitzki’s two-man game tortured teams down the stretch for years, with JET consistently ranking in the top-10 in fourth-quarter scoring for a better park of the decade. And he wasn’t too far behind Nowitzki in terms of impact in 2011, either. Nowitzki’s +172 playoff plus-minus led the Mavericks, but Terry was right behind him at +146.

Why did Terry work so well within the offense? We know that he was a terrific 3-point shooter, but he was able to create offense in ways that Kidd could not. While Kidd set the table, Terry was able to force the action. Moments before the biggest play of Game 5 of the Finals — which, surprise surprise, was a shot hit by Terry — the JET demonstrated how his quickness changed the dynamic of the offense.

Kidd was not known for his speed, and although Nowitzki was a much more agile player than we give him credit for, neither he nor Marion could consistently break down the defense in isolation from the top of the arc. Terry’s ability to get into the lane opened things up for his teammates much in the way Dirk’s ability to draw double-teams in the low-post did. With a minute and a half left in Game 5 and the Mavericks up 102-100, Terry, a player who throughout his career to that point was known for scoring and little else, made one of the biggest passes of the playoffs.

Jason Terry finds Jason Kidd for 3

Jason Terry drives and dishes to Jason Kidd late in the fourth quarter of Game 5 of the 2011 NBA Finals.

You can see the play from multiple angles, and this is intentional. First, you see Terry beat LeBron off the dribble and get into the lane before passing to… what looks to be nobody. Then, all of a sudden, Kidd pops up in the screen. Whew. The point: Terry made this pass blind. He couldn’t see anything, but he trusted that Kidd would be there. The next angle is from above and behind the basket, where you can see just how Miami’s defense reacted to Terry’s dribble penetration. With four Heat defenders in the lane to stop Terry, and Udonis Haslem glued to Nowitzki in the corner, Kidd may as well have been in his own city with how open he was. Finally, from the top you see the Xs and Os of it all: how aggressive and swarming that Heat defense was; how Nowitzki’s gravity prevented Haslem, the closest man, from helping out at all; how Dallas played with two in the corner and one at the rim before most of the league figured out that 3s were good. And if Kidd wouldn’t have shot it, Terry would have been wide-open, too. The Mavericks could move it. Often in crunch time, especially in the playoffs, we see a team give it to the best player and get out of the way. We saw Dirk hit multiple game-winners in that Heat series, of course, but the Mavs’ late-game offense wasn’t only limited to playing through him. Dallas ran an actual play — (What a novelty!) — with under a minute left and was able to generate a wide-open 3-pointer.

Terry was much more than a secondary scoring threat to back up Nowitzki. He changed the feel of games when he checked in as a player capable of stretching the floor with shooting, moving well without the ball to get open, attacking the rim off the dribble, and pairing up with Nowitzki to create a completely unguardable two-man game. He was the focal point of the offense when Nowitzki rested, and their success without him was a huge reason they won the championship. After being outscored by 31 points with Dirk on the bench in the first three games of the Finals, the Mavs went +5 without Nowitzki in the last three, all of them wins. Dallas outscored Miami 568-554 in those six games. Every point mattered.

While Jason Kidd helped share the defensive load with Shawn Marion, the Mavs turned to their primary defensive stopper in the game’s biggest moments. LeBron James’ fourth-quarter troubles in the 2011 Finals are well-documented at this point. But when looking at the bigger picture, you begin to really appreciate Marion’s defensive impact.

For example, Kevin Durant shot just 44.8 percent from the field and 33.3 percent from beyond the arc in the fourth quarter in the Western Conference Finals. Russell Westbrook shot just 36.4 percent. Marion’s defense on Durant late in games forced the then-youngster into some very difficult shots. Kobe Bryant didn’t fare much better, shooting just 31.6 percent from the field and 11.1 percent from beyond the arc in fourth quarters against the Mavs. (As a team, LA shot just 33.7 percent from the field in the fourth.) And Marion did it all without fouling; across nine games in those two series, he committed only 25 infractions. Opponents in those two series had a miserable 44.4 effective field goal percentage with Marion on the floor, a mark that rose to 51.0 percent when he sat. Considering his minutes almost always aligned with an opposing superstar, the impact is undeniable. (For reference, the lowest eFG percentage in the league this season was 49.5.) For the playoffs, Marion’s 3.8 defensive box plus-minus was a team-best.

As previously stated, though, Marion spent a lot of time guarding Lamar Odom against the Lakers. At the time, Odom was a serious matchup problem for Dallas, as he was quicker than 4-men Nowitzki and Peja Stojakovic and much longer than DeShawn Stevenson, Terry, and Kidd. The Mavs couldn’t afford to have Marion shadow Kobe for the entire series — not only would that allow Odom to feast on mismatches elsewhere, but it’s not really fair to expect one player to check Bryant for 40 minutes a game. Kidd and Stevenson helped in the effort against Bryant, then, while Marion slid over to defend Odom once the 6-foot-10 sixth man entered the game.

That’s where having all of this defensive versatility really mattered. Dallas really did go up against some stacked collections of wings throughout that championship run, so Marion’s ability to slide up and down the lineup and defend each and every one of them depending on who else was in the game — without requiring a double-team — was a priceless trait.

Here’s where we go back to that earlier play against the Lakers in Game 3. (If you’re wondering what I’m talking about, go read Jason Kidd’s section after this.) After Kobe nearly won Game 1 with a buzzer-beating 3-pointer on a play that saw him use a double-screen to cut from the baseline to the top of the arc, you could be rest assured that Dallas wouldn’t fall for that same play again. So, with L.A. down four points with 18.7 seconds left in Game 3, the Mavs knew what was coming, and this time they’d be ready. One difference: Odom was in the game instead of the suspended Ron Artest, so Nowitzki slid over to guard Gasol this time, leaving Marion one-on-one against Odom, the play’s safety valve. This is what happened.

To that point in the fourth quarter, Odom actually led the Lakers in scoring, though with a modest four points. Marion had been sitting out since late in the third quarter, leaving Dirk and Peja Stojakovic to slow down the Sixth Man of the Year. There was still enough time left in this game, and the score was still close enough, that a 2-point bucket would have been dangerous. And with Odom going strong, it made sense to make him the fall-back plan if Dallas sniffed out the Kobe cut, which the Mavs clearly did. That left Marion completely on an island against Odom, who was sitting on 18 points, one more than Kobe.

Marion appears to almost catch Derek Fisher by surprise when he fronts Odom, forcing the entry pass to be much higher than it otherwise would have been. The toss ultimately went so high, in fact, that it sailed out of Odom’s reach and all the way out of bounds. To add another layer to this: Fronting Odom was also the correct play because, had he come down with the pass, Marion would already have been stationed to Odom’s preferred left-hand side. This would have forced the Laker to his right, and directly into Nowitzki and the prowling Tyson Chandler. That is terrific defense that most of us probably never even noticed.

His rebounding mattered, too. Marion contributed 46 offensive boards, more than two a game, throughout that postseason run, scoring 27 points on put-backs and tip-ins and creating several more second chances. Additionally, he collected the third-most defensive rebounds of any Maverick, despite often checking guys who were 20+ feet away from the basket when the shot went up. Dallas needed all the help it could get against the Lakers’ and Blazers’ big frontcourts, and Marion held his own in that area while also contributing on the perimeter.

While we’re here, there’s a case to be made for Marion to join Kidd and eventually Nowitzki in the Hall of Fame. Over his five-year peak he was a 20/10 guy playing small and power forward at a time when he helped revolutionize his position, he was a starter on 10 playoff teams, made four All-Star teams and two All-NBA teams, and is the shortest player ever with 15,000 career points, 10,000 rebounds, and 1,000 blocks. He’s also just one of four players ever to meet those numbers and add 1,500 steals, alongside Hakeem Olajuwon, Karl Malone, and Kevin Garnett. Plus he’s got an awesome jump shot and an even cooler nickname. That’s what’s up.

The prevailing narrative throughout the Mavs’ title run was that this would be the players’ last chance at glory, that this bunch of wily veterans would be hard-pressed to ever find themselves in this situation again. That could not be said of Tyson Chandler, who was only 28 at the time. While injuries limited him during the two seasons prior, Chandler was only beginning to enter his prime in 2011. Following that run, he would go on to make three All-Defensive teams and win the 2012 Defensive Player of the Year, despite somehow only making Second-Team All-Defense that season. He’d also make All-NBA Third Team in 2012 and the All-Star Game in 2013 and would average a double-double as recently as 2014-15.

Chandler didn’t fit the old narrative, and in many ways his relatively youthful energy was a welcome addition to the Mavs that season. He covered so much ground on defense that by the end of the season it was almost like Dallas was literally steering its opponents directly into Chandler in the middle of the paint. He was the anchor of the team defense who patrolled the paint and barked out coverages. Despite being one of the youngest players on the roster and only joining the club that same season, Chandler was the vocal leader. Who was the one communicating most on the defensive end when it mattered? Yep, Chandler.

I do not envy Shawn Marion’s list of defensive assignments, but Chandler’s was almost as daunting. He was tasked with defending LaMarcus Aldridge in the first round and Andrew Bynum in the second, before spending time both against Chris Bosh and as the middle of the 2-3 zone responsible for eliminating easy looks at the rim for LeBron in the Finals. The results were incredible: Opponents shot just 20 of 52 (38.5 percent) against Chandler out of post-ups and 5 of 19 (26.3 percent) in isolation, per Synergy Sports. Both Aldridge and Bynum shot at least four percentage points below their season average, and for good measure Pau Gasol shot just 42.2 percent from the field in that series, although he was primarily matched up against Dirk Nowitzki.

One of the weirder things about all of this is if you only looked at the counting stats, you might not realize how important Chandler was. He only blocked 19 shots in 21 playoff games. He averaged a modest 8.0 points and 9.2 rebounds per contest. Opponents offensive rebounded pretty well against the Mavs, all things considered.

But dig a little deeper and you notice. Chandler’s offensive responsibilities consisted mainly of relatively little things like setting screens and rolling hard to the rim, but that let him expend all of his energy on defense. Not only did he have terrific closing speed for such a big player, but he was able to fend off fellow giants when fighting for loose balls and rebounds. All that size can be intimidating.

Dirk may have been under the most pressure to perform offensively, but as the emotional and vocal leader of the team, and not to mention the centerpiece of the defense, Chandler faced perhaps the highest defensive demand of any Maverick in 2011. Not only did he have to call out coverages, protect the rim, and battle for boards; he had to cover a ton of ground, too. The Mavs weren’t the quickest team, but Chandler was exceptionally agile for a center. Against a Heat team with multiple quick, strong ball-handlers like LeBron and Dwyane Wade, Chandler had his work cut out for him to make their lives difficult. One of his biggest plays of the playoffs came in the midst of a 15-3 Mavs run in Game 5, which was capped off by a couple 3-pointers we’ve already talked about. Those aren’t possible, though, without this play by Chandler, which protected a 102-100 lead with 2:27 left. One minute later, Kidd hit his 3.

There is nothing pretty about stepping in front of LeBron James with a full head of steam. It takes a certain level of courage (or insanity), and it’s safe to say Chandler had plenty of the former without much of the latter. And when a leader sacrifices himself, those around him rally. Watch Nowitzki’s and Terry’s reactions. Nowitzki was the star, Kidd the brain, Terry the guts, Marion the swagger, but Chandler was the fire that fueled the whole thing.

If video and anecdotes don’t do it for you, here’s one last number. Think what you want of value stats like win shares, but Chandler was second on the team behind only Nowitzki in win shares per 48 minutes. The only players across the league worth more win shares than him during the 2011 playoffs were LeBron, Wade, Dirk, and Kevin Durant.

Jason Terry was the quintessential overconfident sixth man every team needs, but the Mavs’ supporting cast was oozing with self-belief and plenty of experience to back it up. There is a certain level of confidence a player who went undrafted must have in order to survive in this league, and that feeling must be even more pronounced when you’re always the smallest guy on the floor. J.J. Barea has become a fan-favorite over the years and has earned plenty of respect as his career has unfolded, but in 2011 he was just a 26-year-old rising reserve many outside of Dallas still hadn’t likely heard of before. This postseason put him on the map. As Jason Terry was able to do when he came into games, Barea was also able to break down defenses off the dribble and get all the way to the rim with or without the help of a ball-screen. His elusiveness, particularly in the Lakers series, was a massive key to the Mavs’ sweep of the two-time defending champs.

It might appear that Barea had little to do with the outcome of that play, but it was the first of many dominoes. His early penetration, enabled by a pick-and-roll just five seconds into the possession, sent the Lakers into scramble mode, ultimately forcing point guard Steve Blake to abandon Jason Terry in the corner in order to get a body on Tyson Chandler in hopes of preventing a lob for a dunk. Barea knifed into the lane from right to left, dragging the entire Lakers defense with him. Terry was then left all alone for one of his nine 3-pointers that day, three of which were assisted by Barea.

Barea’s success in the pick-and-roll with both Nowitzki and Brendan Haywood was so unstoppable that it effectively won Game 2 for Dallas and led the Staples Center crowd to boo its own team, the guys who less than a year earlier won their second Larry O Trophy in a row. (In that same series, Ron Artest would be ejected for elbowing Barea in the head in Game 2 and suspended for Game 3 as a result, and Andrew Bynum was dismissed for elbowing Barea in the ribs in Game 4.) The run below immediately followed a blown alley-oop pass from Barea to Shawn Marion. Instead of compounding his mistake when the crowd got into it, Barea completely took over, leaving everyone — including future Warriors coach Steve Kerr — in awe.

J.J. Barea takes over in Game 2 against L.A.

Mavs point guard J.J. Barea leads the team on a run in Game 2 against the Lakers!

When the Mavs found themselves down 2-1 in the Finals and having been outscored by a combined 13 points in the first and third quarters, Rick Carlisle decided to make a change. He inserted Barea into the starting lineup to replace DeShawn Stevenson, and the move paid immediate dividends. Dallas was a cumulative +11 in the first and third quarters in the next three games, all wins, and the new starting lineup with Barea rattled off 120.6 points per 100 possessions in 38 minutes. It was a welcome influx of playmaking and creation into a starting lineup that had been slowed down by the Heat’s suffocating defense. (Stevenson responded to the move, as well, hitting 7 of 14 from deep in the final three games of the series. That gives you an idea of the level of buy-in that team had.)

Barea assisted on a whopping 33.6 percent of his teammates’ made baskets throughout the playoffs whenever he was on the floor, including an astonishing 47.8 percent of their makes against the Lakers. He maintained better than a 3-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio in the postseason, able to work with Nowitzki or another big in the pick-and-roll and create offense for himself or for others. His contrasting style with Kidd made the two a pretty smooth fit; Kidd enjoyed handing off, directing traffic, and then spotting up, while Barea preferred (and still prefers) running the show and pulling all the strings. Both were effective means of creating offense on that team.

DeShawn Stevenson’s presence in the starting lineup before the change-up gave Dallas another 3-point shooter alongside Kidd and Nowitzki, which was extremely important considering Marion’s role at the time as more of a post-up player. As he and Tyson Chandler floated around the paint, Stevenson could stretch the floor and play hard-nosed defense. Peja Stojakovic spread the floor even further, most famously hitting all six of his 3-point attempts in the Mavs’ Game 4 annihilation of the Lakers to end the second round. Before that, however, he hit 41.9 percent from beyond the arc in a six-game series against Portland, including draining five out of 10 en route to 21 points in Game 2, the most he’d scored in a playoff affair since 2008. Stojakovic’s presence as a stretch-4 off the bench allowed Dallas to rest Dirk without sacrificing any shooting, which was absolutely huge for the offense.

Brendan Haywood was instrumental in keeping size on the floor, often simply outplaying his opponent as the backup center. Consider this: Haywood had a negative plus-minus in just one of the Mavs’ first 11 playoff games, including finishing +10 or better twice against the Lakers despite averaging just 15.5 minutes per game in the series. Haywood suffered an injury in the Finals that sidelined him for the remainder of the playoffs, and he was replaced by Ian Mahinmi, who managed to hit one of the most memorable buzzer-beaters of that entire postseason (and set it up with an offensive rebound). Corey Brewer had his moment as well, injecting energy and intensity into a stale game to help Dallas claw out of a double-digit deficit in Game 1 against the Lakers.

Then there’s Brian Cardinal, the Custodian, who played less than 10 minutes total in the playoffs until the Finals, when he was suddenly thrust into the backup power forward minutes. And in Game 6, with the Mavs’ big men struggling through foul trouble, Cardinal slid in as the backup center, as well, where one sequence demonstrated the destructive power of 5-out basketball.

Remember: This came at a time in the league when teams still took an average of just 18.0 treys per game. (This season, the average rose to 29.0.) The NBA was not ready to defend in maximum space the way the Heat and the rest of the league was forced to when the Mavericks went on that run. Dallas was the only team in the West in those playoffs that attempted at least one out of every four shots from beyond the arc. The Mavs shot the NBA into the modern era, and Brian Cardinal played a role in that.