- Associated Press - Thursday, May 26, 2011

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.

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