The Mavericks acquired Kidd from the Nets in February 2008 for a package that included Harris and then signed him to a three-year contract for more than $25 million in the summer of '09. They were gambling that Kidd could play at a championship level until he was 39, even though no point guard had ever done that, and only John Stockton had really come close.
The Mavericks were aware of the skills Kidd had lost, but they also knew about an essential one he had gained. Since the warehouse days Kidd could drive, pass, rebound and see the floor as if through a CIA satellite. But he couldn't shoot. Defenses sagged off him. Teammates took his money in three-point contests. He was nicknamed Ason because he had no J. The teasing got so bad with New Jersey near the end of the 2005--06 season that when then shooting coach Bob Thate was playing around with Kidd's seven-year-old son, T.J., at the team's practice facility, he asked Jason, "Why can't your form be as good as your son's?"
Kidd had a habit of turning sideways when he shot, falling away from the basket and releasing the ball low and off-balance. He also did not extend his arm on his follow-through, and when he finally asked Thate for help, their first priority was locking his elbow at the end of his stroke. "Lock it up" became their mantra, a line adopted from the comedy Wedding Crashers. Before games Thate and T.J. shouted at Kidd, "You better lock it up!" parroting the exchange between Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson in the movie.
Thate trained Kidd four days a week, and also worked extensively with then Nets center Nenad Krstic. When Krstic hurt his knee midway through the '06--07 season, Thate approached Kidd on the team plane and said, "Nenad is hurt. I'm going to be bored to death. Let's shoot every day."
Kidd, then 33, realized his career was at stake. He was slowing, and unless he became a perimeter threat, teams would not have to guard him. At the same time he harbored doubts that it was even possible for him to change. His extraordinary peripheral vision, ideal for a distributor, is not as helpful for a sniper. Every time Kidd elevates and is about to let fly, he spots an open teammate out of the corner of his eye and wonders if he should pass instead. "It's like the opposite of tunnel vision," Kidd says. "You're always distracted."
Thate told Kidd it would take thousands of jumpers over several years to erase a lifetime of neglect. The pair worked together nearly every day, in season and out, overhauling Kidd's mechanics. Kidd straightened his posture and held the ball in front of his forehead instead of over his scalp. He heightened his arc and, of course, locked up his elbow. Thate froze videos of Kidd's shot and then compared them with Heat guard Mike Miller's, and eventually they did not look so different. Before Kidd returned to Dallas, he was a 33.4% three-point shooter. Since then, he has shot 39.5%, and almost two thirds of his field goal attempts this season were threes. Kidd sometimes wonders where he would be if he had ignored Thate's catcalls. "If I couldn't do this," he says, "I'd probably be done."
The average age of the Heat's starters is 28.6. The average age of the Mavericks' is 32.2. Their four leading scorers in the playoffs are all in their 30s. Players of this vintage can be granted more freedom, but they tend to require more maintenance. On road back-to-backs, teams typically gather for breakfast meetings. Carlisle doesn't convene the Mavs until 3:30 p.m., so no one needs a wake-up call. At home, Kidd and other veterans take twice-a-week trips to a nitrogen cooling chamber where they stand for three minutes in -170°C, with only their heads exposed, to stimulate blood flow. (Because the exercise is so brief, no one has suffered from hypothermia.)
The Mavs limited Kidd to the fewest minutes per game of his career this season, held him out of many postpractice scrimmages and buffered him with two reserves who can assume his defensive assignments, J.J. Barea and Rodrigue Beaubois. Kidd lifted leg weights at least five days a week, a habit he picked up after undergoing microfracture left knee surgery in '04, and increased his reps as the playoffs approached, to steel for the grind. He has missed only five games in the past three seasons, none due to injury, and Dallas wanted to hold him out of a game against the Raptors in February because he had an inflamed foot, but Kidd insisted on playing.
The public has become understandably wary of athletes who defy age, but Kidd shows the predictable wear. He averaged a career low in points this season and the fewest assists (8.2) since he was a rookie. Even his three-point shooting slumped back to 34.0%. Barea, as swift as Kidd once was, overshadowed him at times.
The Mavericks gave Kidd two games off in early April, and he spent much of it working in the practice gym with assistant coach Tim Grgurich, reviewing notes from Thate. The Trail Blazers sagged off him in Game 1 of the first round, and he sank 6 of 10 threes. Entering the Finals, he was shooting 35.6% from deep during the playoffs.