Despite entering the playoffs as the eighth seed and losing to the top-seeded Spurs in seven games, the bar was raised for the Mavericks this season.
Kevin Jairaj / USA TODAY Sports
By Mike Fisher
DALLAS - "We walk away from this disappointed, certainly,' Rick Carlisle said after Sunday's 119-96 Game 7 failure in San Antonio, "but not dismayed."
That's a gracious way for the Dallas coach to describe where his bar of expectations might've realistically been for his 8-seed-vs.-1-seed duel.
But me? The bar moved, so graciousness is harder to come by.
The bar of expectations isn't actually one bar per team. Twenty people inside the Dallas Mavericks locker room - a locker room they cleared out on Monday's "Exit Interview Day" - may have bonded to share one bar. But 20,000 people who pack the AAC are allowed 20,000 different bars. And 20 million people who may have raised an eye towards the Mavs during this eventful 2013-14 campaign are allowed 20 million different bars.
"We walk away from this disappointed, certainly, but not dismayed," Carlisle said, and it the sort of big-picture eloquence we've come to expect from the masterful Mavs coach...
"Disappointed but not dismayed." And assuredly that is the sort of big-picture concept most of the rest of us will accept and adopt.
But not today. Not yet.
"For now, this one definitely stings," said the nakedly-frank face of the franchise Dirk Nowitzki. "The year we won, that's the standard now.... We want to get back up there."
For now. Meaning there will be another day to celebrate Dirk's incredible all-time-top-10 milestones reaches, another day to ponder if Monta Ellis is a sidekick found, another day to bask in the glory the contributions of future Hall-of-Fame candidates Vince Carter and Shawn Marion, another day to marvel at Carlisle's "Be Ready" efforts over the course of a long season with literally every single person on the roster contributing to Dallas being one of the 10 best teams in basketball.
Winning is the standard now. Meaning, in temporary conflict with the aforementioned truths, accepting that Dallas was all-along going to lose this series in four or five games to the stoically regal Spurs wasn't good enough two weeks ago.... and the Mavs played like it wasn't acceptable.
Therefore, getting routed by a heavy favorite in a matter that in so many ways seemed inevitable is less than acceptable, too.
Maybe it just took six-and-a-half games for the lopsided balloon to finally burst, but burst it did, the Spurs shooting 68.4 percent in the half and sharp-shooting their way to a 29-point lead.
Maybe it just took time for Carlisle's X's-and-O's - Spurs coach Gregg Popovich remarked that Rick's chess moves "confounded" him - to be overcome by Pop's Jimmys and Joes.
Tony Parker (a game-high 32 points on 11-of-19 shooting, much if those on dazzling layups) was unanswerable. Manu Ginobili (20 points, five assists and six steals) left Mavs fans bitching about his floppiness because we had so little else to say. Tim Duncan (15 points on 7-of-8 shooting) played as if he could've given Pop a full 48 robotically-effective minutes... but that was hardly necessary.
Carlisle pushed buttons at a furious pace. He got a technical for protesting Manu-as-thespian. He started the second half playing SmallBall featuring Nowitzki and three littles (and for a moment, it gave Dallas life as they shaved the deficit to 14). He made sure Dirk (22 points) and Monta (12 points) got fed plenty.
But the Mavs' generally-terrific 1-2 punch combined to misfire at a rate of 11-of-32.
No. 1 seeds under the present playoff system are now 57-5 in the first round. There is a reason for that: No. 1 seeds are better than No. 8 seeds. but the Mavs did enough to convince me - and themselves - that this wasn't your run-of-the-treadmill-of-mediocrity eight-seed.
This was a club that struggled to hold big leads all year (and again in Game 1 loss at San Antonio that they'd surely like a mulligan on). This was a club that truly needed "everybody to be go-to guys," as Rick likes to say - and was therefore hurt by the ejection-absence of DeJuan Blair in Game 4 and 5 losses. This was a club that entered the series with the dubious distinction of having lost nine straight games to the Spurs by an average of 14.8 points per.
The rivalry had died.
But then the bar of expectations was raised.
Raised because in this era Dallas entered Sunday with a 4-0 record in Game 7's. Raised because the management style of owner Mark Cuban works in a contagious manner that causes those around the "lucky billionaire" to believe in concepts like his "Why Not Us?" and, much more quietly, Monta's "We're Destined To Win This MF'er." Raised because this program and its Dirk-led championship pedigree simply cannot be 14.8 points worse than a foe.
And yet here they sit... in the end and officially... 23 points inferior to the Spurs.
"We got hit by a tidal wave," Carlisle said. "They had their best game. They are the best of the best."
Dallas isn't that, yet the bar of expectations now becomes an axis around which the Mavs world keeps spinning. Thoughts of 2014-15 acquisitions will be broached. (Here's your early primer for that, David Lord's breakdown of the $31 million Dallas might have to spend in free agency.)
People inside the Mavs will inevitably talk of the wonderful magic this "Why Not Us?" group can create if allowed another grab of the wand.
"I think if we keep this team together, we're going to make a lot of noise next year," Monta said, echoing comments from Cuban and Carlisle mentioning the value of "continuity."
But in truth, this same exact team cannot be kept together because this same exact team isn't good enough. Upon big-picture reflection and graciousness aside, all involved - the 20 million people, the 20,000 people and the 20 people, too - will realize that.
That would simply push the bar of expectations far lower than where it must be.