March Mav-ness

Don't look a gift Bull in the mouth, but a win over Chicago doesn't mean a darned thing

People come to see Jordan play not just to watch him play the game; indeed, the game is almost incidental now, a sideshow featuring nine other men whose names they won't remember. They come to see Jordan re-enact the moves that made him famous--the glorious fadeaway shot in which he seems to hang from the ceiling like Peter Pan, the layup that turns into a tongue-wagging slam dunk at the last moment. But there are nights when the game turns even the best of its heroes into flat-footed mortals, and against the Mavericks, Jordan's occasional heroics looked almost accidental.

Perhaps it was Jordan's lackadaisical play that allowed Michael Finley to look so good. Finley, against the odds and gods, was the star of the night, the guy who made the desperation baskets look so easy. During the first half, the game belonged to the Mavericks forward as he dunked over Jordan, somehow making him look old and worn-out. More often than not, Jordan would respond to Finley's challenge: Finley would dunk, cutting the Bulls lead to two, then Jordan would hit a fadeaway jumper to build it back to four. But at the end of the night, it was Finley who was walking through the corridors of Reunion long after everyone else had left, looking for anyone with whom he could share this moment.

All season long, Jordan has had to face down the Young Turks looking to take his place, as though such a thing is possible; He's gone one-on-one against Bryant at the All-Star game, duked it out with Hill and Alonzo Mourning and the other comers who've been promised by their agents and shoe companies they would get their shots at the crown once the king steps down. But Finley, perhaps more than any other player this season, proved he was up to the task: At the end of the night, Finley scored 32 points, six more than the greatest basketball player of all time. Even Jordan would have to say later: "Finley kept them in the game. You have to give him credit. He came out and played hard."

If Finley didn't play for such a horrible team, he'd be hailed as one of the league's premier players. He has the talent, the moves, the absolute determination to play beyond himself--much like Jordan. Little attention has been paid to the fact that he's among the league leaders in scoring this season: As of March 16, Finley was 11th in the league, averaging 21.3 points per game--more than Grant Hill, Allen Iverson, Reggie Miller, Keith Van Horn, and a dozen other would-be superstars. Only that he wears the stink of being a Maverick keeps the national media away from him; one day, when he goes to a contending team as all good Mavericks do, he will earn the recognition he will never receive here.

Of course, it was Cedric Ceballos who ultimately kept the Mavericks in the game: It was his miracle three-pointer with 3.9 seconds left on the clock that sent the game into overtime. Ceballos wasn't even supposed to be the one shooting the ball; it was supposed to go to Hubert Davis, but instead the former Phoenix Sun took the shot himself, and despite the blinding double coverage, connected from deep in the baseline corner. It was a rainbow shot that landed in a pot of gold, a once-in-a-lifetime basket, a cosmic goof. Ceballos, the sacrificial lamb in a trade that sent crybaby three-point shooter (and misser) Dennis Scott to the Suns on February 18, had it coming.

"The shot just dropped," he deadpanned later. "You never know."
Yes, Michael Finley and Cedric Ceballos, who combined for exactly half of Dallas' points against Chicago, won this game for the Dallas Mavericks. Then again, they're perhaps the only two legit NBA starters on this team, and there's a good chance Ceballos, whose contract is up at the end of this season, might not even be here next year.

Those who watched the Mavericks-Bulls game carefully, who weren't numbed by shock and the actual cheering of an actual crowd, might have seen how mediocre Dallas can still be, even when beating world-beaters. Shawn Bradley, for one, is still a joke, a 7-foot-6 stick figure who can't shoot, can't rebound, and flat-out can't play; once, when Bulls 6-foot-7 forward Scott Burrell dunked over Bradley, the entire Bulls bench broke into giggles. The oft-injured Erick Strickland, recipient of a six-year, $14.4-million contract last August, scored only four points in 32 minutes.

"Damn, man, it's just one game," Bulls guard Ron Harper would say to no one in particular as he exited the Bulls' locker room, wading his way through the dozens of reporters waiting outside to talk to Michael and Dennis. He looked at the throng of cameras and smiled. "I mean, what's all the fuss about?"

No kidding. In a few weeks, the Bulls will head once more to the playoffs, and the Mavericks will be pondering yet again how to breathe life into a dead basketball team.

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