DALLAS (AP) - Dirk Nowitzki wrapped his hands around the silver ball trophy that goes to the Western Conference champions and smiled. After five years, he and the Dallas Mavericks are kings of their conference again, earning another trip to the NBA finals.
Yet Nowitzki didn't flash the wide, toothy grin of someone relieved to have accomplished his goal. Because, he hasn't.
Unless the Mavs win the next round, too, and become NBA champions for the first time, their whole glorious postseason - and that silver trophy - won't mean as much. It's a lament heard by many superstars, but Nowitzki's indifference amid much of the frenzied celebration around him showed just how serious he is about it.
``I was already thinking about the finals,' he said. ``This is nice for a day, but we set our goals in October to win it all. We haven't done it yet.'
Dallas capped its climb back to the NBA finals with a 100-96 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Wednesday night that ended the Western finals in five games.
The young, up-and-coming Thunder made things tough on the older, now-or-possibly-never Mavericks as they had throughout the series. And, as he has throughout the postseason, Nowitzki made the plays that mattered most. His latest highlights: swishing a 3-pointer with 1:14 left that put Dallas ahead and making a pair of free throws with 13.3 seconds left to seal it.
``It feels good to finally go back,' Nowitzki said. ``This time, hopefully we can finish the job.'
The Mavs' only other trip to the finals was in 2006. They were up 2-0, with a big, late lead in Game 3, but wound up losing to the Miami Heat in six games. They'd won only a single playoff series since until a tremendous run this postseason - going 12-3, with wins in 10 of the last 11 games, including a sweep of the two-time reigning champion Lakers.
This Dallas team filled with veterans all seeking their first rings has been playing with what coach Rick Carlisle calls ``a laser-like focus.' It showed when they clawed back from a 15-point deficit with 5:06 left in Game 4, and again in this game, when the Mavs were down by six with 4:37 left.
They outscored the Thunder 14-4 the rest of the way, with many of their most-accomplished players making the key plays: Nowitzki, Jason Kidd, Shawn Marion and Jason Terry.
``It goes to our veteran leadership, our experience, us being in every possible situation we could possibly be in,' said Terry, who along with Nowitzki are the only holdovers from the '06 team. ``We know what we're going through offensively and defensively. We know we have to get stops and we're able to do that. When you have that belief and that trust in what you're doing it's just a confidence and more times than not you're going to be successful.'
Nowitzki scored 26 points, nine in the fourth quarter. For the series, he averaged 32.2 points, 11.8 in the fourth quarters.
Marion scored 15 of his 26 points in the fourth. His steal, dunk and free throw right after Nowitzki's go-ahead 3 went a long way toward pulling this one out. It meant a lot to him because unlike Nowitzki, Kidd and Terry, he's never been to the finals.
``Lots of guys never go, so I'm going to make the best of it,' Marion said. ``We knew what we were capable of from the start of the season. This is a realization of that.'
When the Mavs last made the finals, they advanced with a win in Phoenix. This time, they got to share the moment with their fans. Franchise founder Don Carter was right in the middle of it all, trading his signature white cowboy hat - the one that used to be featured in the team's logo - for a black baseball cap that read ``The Finals 2011' with a Mavs logo and the championship trophy.
``All I can tell everybody is, we ain't done yet,' team owner Mark Cuban said during the on-court trophy presentation ceremony.
Funny thing is, Dallas could face Miami again. Fans seem to hope so, chanting ``Beat the Heat!' so loudly after Cuban spoke that they drowned out Carlisle's on-court interview.
LeBron James and Miami lead the Chicago Bulls 3-1 in the Eastern Conference finals. If the Heat win Thursday night, the finals will begin Tuesday in Miami. If the Bulls win Thursday night, the finals will begin next Thursday in the East winner's city.
The Mavericks' big edge this series was experience, and it showed in the final two games. Age never slowed them, in part because their legs were refreshed by eight days off before the opener. Winning this game is huge because it earns them at least six days off before the finals.
``Any time you can get rest this time of year is a bonus,' said Kidd, who at 38 could become the oldest point guard to ever win a title - by several years. ``For us to close it out here is huge.'
Oklahoma City led for most of this game, even staying ahead during a stretch of 11 straight missed shots. But the Thunder were just too young and too inexperienced to understand how to close out a game.
When Dallas started to surge at the start and middle of the fourth quarter, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook came up with some answers. Yet when the pressure really ratcheted up, and 21,092 fans were at their loudest, the veteran Mavericks made all the right moves.
``It's tough now,' Durant said. ``But we can learn from it. The only way to get better is to keep pushing.'
Westbrook scored 31 points, and Durant and James Harden each scored 23. The Thunder bowed out with only their second three-game losing streak of the season.
``I just think we played hard and just couldn't come up with the win,' Durant said.
Considering its youth and the experience gained in this series, Oklahoma City can expect to close in on many more titles. That was little consolation Wednesday night.
``You can't skip (developmental) steps,' coach Scott Brooks said. ``We all have to get better, including myself.'
Notes: Nowitzki made 59 of 61 free throws this series, an amazing 96.7 percent. For the postseason, he is 130 of 140, or 92.9 percent. ... Carlisle won a championship as a backup on the Celtics, but this is his first trip to the finals as a coach. ... Dallas is 7-1 at home this postseason. ... The Mavs, Spurs and Lakers have combined to win the last 13 West titles. ... Dallas-area sports fans are getting spoiled. The World Series was here in October/November, the Super Bowl in February and now the NBA finals are coming in June.
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