At the end of the "Jordan-era" Bulls, the Spurs and Lakers emerged as the new powers, leading the Western Conference's domination of the league since that time.  They've combined for 9 of the 12 last NBA titles and 11 of the last 12 NBA finals have featured either the Spurs or the Lakers.  The only other team to represent the Western Conference has been the Dallas Mavericks, back in 2006. 

In that series, Dallas took a 2-0 lead (that included a rout in Game 2), and had a reasonable lead in Game 3 before it all fell apart.  The game itself still remains fodder for debate.  Miami's Dwayne Wade, who had 5 fouls entering the 4th quarter, scored 15 points in that period for a total of 42 points.  Gary Payton sank a clutch bucket and even Shaq was making free throws.  Another thing that I remember from that game, that still stands out to this day, is Dirk Nowitzki (who is near flawless from the line) missing a free throw that could have tied and possibly sent the game into overtime.  Next thing you know, Miami wins that game and sweeps the next three to win the title. 

Who'd have thought that 5 years later, Dallas and Miami would meet again in the NBA finals?  Well, Miami became a popular pick and a virtual lock for the finals when LeBron James and Chris Bosh joined forces with Dwayne Wade; who had carried Miami into the playoffs the previous two seasons.  What about Dallas?  Not many people even thought they'd past the Lakers, let alone dominate or sweep them. 

After a 10 year hiatus from the playoffs, the Mavericks have become a perennial playoff team, winning at least 50 games in each of the last 11 seasons.  After  2006, Dallas has stumbled in the playoffs; failing to advance beyond the opening round in 3 of their next 4 playoff outings (2009 was the only time they advanced to the 2nd round).  The worst of these stumbles had to be in 2007, when they boasted the league's best record, and MVP in Dirk Nowtizki; only to be humiliated by the Golden State Warriors.  

In 2008, they were overwhelmed by a Chris Paul-led Hornets team.  That mid-season, Dallas made some trades with New Jersey; the notable players being Devin Harris, who was sent to the Meadowlands, and Jason Kidd going back to where he started his NBA career.  While the Mavericks craved Kidd's poise, playmaking ability and leadership, it was somewhat an ill-advised move as he was no match for Chris Paul (who should have been the league MVP). 

In 2009, Dallas got the better of San Antonio in the 1st round, only to run into a rough and rugged Denver Nuggets team.  The Nuggets, who themselves had suffered their own playoff miscues (never going past the 1st round in the previous 5 seasons, including a loss in 2006 to the Clippers {??}), out-muscled and out-hustled the Mavericks in 5 games to advance to the Conference finals for the first time since 1978. 

Dirk Nowitzki has been the only player present throughout the Mavericks recent success, outlasting Steve Nash and Michael Finley (his running mates in the beginning), who have since moved on.  During that time, a host of other players have come and gone; Nick van Exel, Erick Dampier, Jerry Stackhouse.... the list is endless.  And even with the revolving door of players (and a few coaches), the Mavericks had never been able to shake off the "finesse-team" label that has dogged them for several years; and may have contributed to their playoff failures. 

Jason Terry joined in 2004 and remains the only other player from the 2006 team.  A one time starter, Terry has carved out a role as a key bench player, and was voted the league's "Sixth Man of Year" in 2009. Terry has proven to be the teams "x-factor" providing instant offense off the bench, highlighted by a 34-point effort in a series clinching Game 4 against the Lakers.  Like Nowitzki, Terry will also be looking to get past a forgettable playoff memory; Game 6 of the finals in which he shot 7-25 (including 2-11 from beyond the arc), and missed a last ditch 3-pointer to tie the game, giving Miami the championship. 

Dallas has displayed a much more gritty edge in this year's playoffs.  They're playing harder in the paint, banging on the boards and won't let teams push them around like they have in the past.  Their domination of the defending champion Lakers sent a message out loud and clear, that they are for real. 

For Nowtizki, Terry and a veteran cast that includes Jason Kidd and Shawn Marion, this could pretty much be their last shot at an NBA title.  Should Dallas fail to get over the hump, it will be years before this team can be considered a title contender again.