By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Most of the players have already left, fled for a much-needed shower and a little downtime, leaving the practice court all but empty. A few television reporters and radio personalities remain, chattering among themselves, waiting for a final interview about an upcoming game--searching for that last meaningless quote that you, the target audience, don't particularly care about in the first place.
Oblivious to all this, to the devoted pack salivating for a mere second of his time, Michael Finley doggedly continues working. Fires long-range jumper after long-range jumper. Bend, explode, release, follow through. One after the other. It's telling, this extra session. At least you think it is.
Naturally, you're wrong.
Wrong for thinking Finley, an All-Star for the second straight season, is trying to polish a jumper that has looked sketchy--particularly from three-point range--this year. Wrong for thinking he's concentrating too much on the pull-up, anyway, and for hoping he'll lean a bit more on his quickness, on his mesmerizing first step. Wrong for suggesting he abandon the long jump-stop, a Finley favorite, for more drives and, by extension, more trips to the free-throw line. Wrong. Absolutely wrong.
"Just part of my regular routine," he offers curtly. "Nothing wrong with my shot. I do this all the time."
See there, what were you thinking? Straight from the source, there's nothing the matter. His shot is fine? Fine. Besides, what's the harm in a little extra work? Especially among pro athletes, most of whom would sooner perform an emergency appendectomy on themselves than stay at practice a moment longer than needed.
So what's the problem? Well, when your "scorer" isn't scoring, that is to say, when your "slasher" isn't slashing, when he's content to launch a threeball or a long deuce rather than punk the opposition by cutting to the hoop, there's a concern there. And the concern, for this group, at this time, is real. Regardless of misdirection. Or denial.
This isn't to disparage Finley's accomplishments, because, by most accounts, he's having a sensational season. Can't average (as of Tuesday) 21.2 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 4.3 assists each game without doing something right. Can't be the only Maverick to head for this weekend's NBA gala in Washington without impressing somebody. Thing of it is, it isn't simply about being an All-Star anymore. Years ago, even last year, when Dallas was wretched, individual accomplishments--or any accomplishments for that matter--may as well have been cancer's cure, and bully for that. But the Mavs are a bit more refined, a tad more talented now, and so now it's about doing what's best for a team striving to make the playoffs for the first time since NWA was hot. For Finley, it's about filling a role--scoring and getting to the foul line--currently vacant most evenings. Or it should be.
"[Finley's] done a better job of it the past few weeks, but, even in the last few years, he hasn't been going to the basket as much as he should," says a Mavericks source. "He's been relying on his jumper too much, and when you're the 'go-to guy,' down the stretch, or at any time, really, you've got to go to the basket and either score or get yourself to the foul line. Why do you think Reggie Miller is such a clutch player? Why do you think Michael Jordan was so good? How do you think they scored all those points and put their teams in position to win? Because they got to the line."
For the Mavericks, a squad replete with outside assassins named Nowitzki, Nash, Davis, and Eisley (they're all shooting better than 37 percent from three), perimeter shots are already plentiful. Chaps who can put the ball on the floor, guys who can break ankles, are not. (Unless you count Shawn Bradley oafishly breaking his own ankles in any number of instances, but that's another column altogether.) Now, it's true the German Import does some of that, and it's equally true that Canada's Can-do Kid is adept at squeezing into the lane and then kicking out to the open man or occasionally taking the layup. But neither one of them, nor really anyone else on this team, has the sheer ability off the dribble that Finley has. And therein lies the trouble.
This season, No. 4 has launched 141 three-pointers, third most among Mavericks, while connecting on just 28.4 percent of those shots (second-lowest mark of his career). He is averaging 42 minutes per game--highest mark on the team and third in the NBA--and that probably takes some of the zip out of his legs, but 28.4 percentworth of zip? Beyond that, he's been to the line 188 times, shooting 77 percent, which isn't that bad until you consider that's just 47 more attempts from the line than from the arc. Or that it's 128 fewer attempts from the stripe than Nowitzki's taken. Or that he's had 23 games with two or fewer free-throw attempts. Or that he's had seven games where he hasn't made it to the line at all. Or...
Again, for these Mavericks, the "scorer" should lead the team from the line. He has to. That's where close games are reeled in or slip away. Since Finley is unquestionably the first option when it comes to taking shots late in close games, from where would you rather everyone's favorite Wisconsin product be shooting, falling away behind the arc or feet planted at the FT line?
"That's a priority for us," says acting coach Donnie Nelson of getting Finley to the line more frequently, "and a concern. We've talked to him about it. We need to get him, and Dirk, to the line more. That's important for us."
Makes sense considering good teams, teams that get deep into the playoffs, tend to have their good players, their best players, get to the line and convert. Changing things, though, forcing Finley toward the net, would suggest that something is amiss, and he's already reminded us things are peachy.
"[I] just need to get consistent flow and work on my game," Finley counters. "It's being more aggressive, that's all it is. That's all it is. I'm not worried."
Come to think of it, why should he be? The numbers are just numbers, and that Donnie fellow is only the acting coach, after all. So what if more than a few people have noticed his infrequent appearances at the line, or pondered the possible adverse consequences it might have for Dallas as the season drones on? Doesn't everyone realize they're wrong? Haven't they seen him on SportsCenterhitting last-second threes to tie or win games?
There is no problem. That's what he says.
Incidentally, what's the first, surest sign that you do have a problem?