MIAMI - The Miami Heat hit rock bottom on a February night in Texas, courtesy of a 36-point pounding inflicted by the Dallas Mavericks.
Pat Riley called it painful. Shaquille O'Neal was embarrassed. Others used much saltier terms.
"I wasn't thinking about the world championship that night, let me tell you," Riley said.
But in a hastily arranged team meeting, moments after the 112-76 rout was over, Heat reserve guard Gary Payton - the veteran of more NBA seasons than anyone on the roster - asked the question that possibly saved Miami's season.
"OK, Coach, how are we going to get better?"
Simple as it sounds, that was the turnaround.
"From that day on, we got better. That's what that game did for us," Riley said. "It humiliated us, embarrassed us enough on national television to start really coming together.... A lot of things changed that day. It might have been sort of the crossroads for us."
Miami's very next game was a victory over Detroit, the first of what became 10 straight wins for the Heat, who are 34-15 overall since that loss to the Mavericks.
And after ousting the Pistons for the Eastern Conference championship, improbable as it surely seemed in Dallas that night, it's perhaps fitting Miami is headed back there for Game 1 of the NBA finals.
The series opens Thursday between two clubs who've never before played for a title.
"It wasn't yelling, wasn't getting in any faces," Heat guard Dwyane Wade said of that February meeting. "It was grown men talking among men. I think the main message was 'If we're going to do something special, guys, then we've all got to get on the same page and we've got to figure out how we're going to do that. So let's do it now.' And we did."
The next game, he scored Miami's final 17 points as the Heat rallied from a 13-point fourth quarter deficit to beat the Pistons 100-98.
With that, they were on their way, ultimately earning a chance to play for the NBA crown.
"I made the choice, right then and there, that I was going to do whatever it took," said Heat forward Udonis Haslem, who, along with Payton, was among the most vocal players in that meeting. "That night, a lot of things changed. Everyone decided right then to trust each other. That night, everyone decided to do whatever it takes and just be all in."
Practices have been sharper since, Haslem said, and there's clearly been a greater commitment to defense. Only one team has scored more than the 112 points Dallas got on Miami in the season's 50th game; Chicago scored 117 on the final Sunday of the regular season, a meaningless game for the Heat and one where Riley rested most of his key players to avoid injury.
"This team woke up," Wade said. "Every team needs something throughout the year to wake up."
Miami was 0-2 against Dallas this season, first losing 103-90 at home Nov. 25 - without O'Neal, who was out with a sprained ankle - and then the 36-point loss 2½ months later on the Mavericks' home floor.
Several of Miami's season-lows came against the Mavericks, including worst 3-point effort (0-for-11, at home); worst field-goal percentage allowed (.563, at Dallas); worst 3-point percentage allowed (.688, at Dallas); fewest offensive rebounds (4) and total rebounds (28), both at Dallas; fewest second chance points (2, at Dallas); and fewest bench points (6, at home).
All those numbers are meaningless now, says Heat forward Antoine Walker, who spent the 2003-04 season in Dallas.
"We don't care about that. This is a whole new season, man," Walker said. "Playoffs is totally different. What happened during the season, you can throw them numbers out of the way. We're a different team. I'm sure they know that."
The Mavericks earned their trip to the finals by ousting Phoenix in six games, getting the clincher Saturday night on the Suns' home floor with a 102-93 comeback victory behind Dirk Nowitzki's 24 points.
And as Walker predicted, the Mavericks say this Heat team is different from what they saw in February.
"We're paying attention," Nowitzki said. "I think Shaq and Dwyane are obviously playing at their level, but it's their role players that play really well, the Walkers, the Paytons, and then everybody else. They're making shots, they're driving and they're playing on a high level defensively. We're going to have our hands full."