Dallas The Mavericks left home last week with two wins and a Texas-sized swagger. They staggered back Monday morning after three losses to the Miami Heat, teetering on the brink of elimination from the NBA finals.
But a big bunch of irrepressible fans reminded the Mavs that although their backs are against the wall, that wall is deep in the heart of Dallas - and in these finals, the homecourt advantage has been the only factor more important than Dwyane Wade.
The Mavericks' disastrous week in South Florida culminated Sunday night in the Heat's memorable 101-100 overtime victory, featuring 43 points and two winning free throws from Wade. Dallas' flight home was dour and quiet - but the cheering, flag-waving faithful awaiting their plane snapped the Mavs out of a funk, just in time for Game 6 tonight.
"That was the first smile I had all night, all morning," said Jason Terry, who scored 35 points in Game 5. "I saw the fans out there at the airport, and I knew it was home sweet home."
Terry speaks the truth about these finals: For the first time in 30 years, the home teams are unbeaten in the first five games. If Dallas still hopes to win its first championship, the Mavs must make it the first finals with seven home-team winners since 1955 - or they'll watch Wade and Shaquille O'Neal celebrate the Heat's first title in Dallas.
"I can taste it, smell it, see it," said Miami center Alonzo Mourning, who persevered through 13 seasons and kidney disease in search of his first championship ring. "It's going to take everybody being an active participant to do it, but I really feel that's going to happen (today)."
If it doesn't, a decisive Game 7 will be played Thursday.
In a series between first-time finalists, it isn't psychologically surprising to see both teams leaning heavily on home cooking and crowd support. Both coaches have been dismayed by their teams' tentative play on the road, but the pressure of the finals can even send millionaire 7-footers looking for comfort.
Though Wade needed plenty of shots and nearly as many free throws, he has made his first indelible mark as a pro with 121 total points in the last three games. But he knows the Heat will need even more firepower to win in Dallas for the first time since 2002 - and to beat an opponent that's lost just nine home games all season.
"We knew we didn't play any good games in Dallas," Wade said. "When you go on the road and you don't play good games, then you turn the ball over, it's hard to win. ... It's going to be very tough, but that's why we play this game - for these moments."
While Wade got caught up in the moment, most Dallas fans in the popular West End's bars and restaurants couldn't believe what they saw on their giant television screens during Game 5. Surely these weren't the same Heat who wilted during the series' first two games, when O'Neal was a plodding anchor on the offense and Wade was more average than awesome.
After the buzzer, some fans even chuckled when Dirk Nowitzki was shown taking out his frustration on an innocent exercise bike in the locker-room corridor. The Mavs haven't been eliminated yet, their fans knew - and with all of Dallas at their throats, the Heat's fourth victory should be their most daunting task yet.
"I know our fans are going to be really crazy," said coach Avery Johnson, who has endured just two three-game losing streaks since taking over the Mavs last season. "There's no tomorrow, and I like that no-tomorrow feeling for our team."