By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
The game is still fresh. Plastic beer cups and wax popcorn bags litter the floor while 18,000-or-so fans strut their way to the nearest Reunion exit, beaming. Some steal one last glance at the frozen scoreboard, nodding approvingly before shuffling off like herded cattle.
It was a good night, one they'll remember, so reveling in the moment is hardly criminal. Shortsighted, certainly, but hardly criminal. And, naturally, they're not alone. Glee is the prevailing, premature theme here. While the patrons fight traffic outside, honking and grimacing in alternating waves, the media descend upon Mavs coach Don Nelson in a cramped room that doubles as the arena's dining hall. For a man who just produced the organization's first 50-win season since 1986-'87--Dallas eclipsed the milestone with a nervous four-point win against Western Conference stalwart Sacramento--Nellie looks a bit put out. His gray hair is messed, his blue shirt ruffled and unbuttoned, his face crabby.
None of this stops my contemporaries, who fire away with roughly the same inane questions, all of which amount to: "Gee, coach, you guys are great. You should be proud. How great and proud are you of this team? Proud? Great?" There's no overt fellatio, no porn music either, but there may as well be. This goes on for some time before The Don puts a gruff end to the impromptu love-in.
"Look," he says decisively, "I'm proud of them. I'm proud of every guy in that locker room. I can't say it any more than that. I don't want to overdo it." And that's that as Nellie walks out of the room. Tact? No one's sure he knows the meaning. Foresight? Yes.
It's not that Nelson was trivializing the accomplishment or belittling the Mavs' success. Not that he was angry when he saw The Dallas Morning News' orgiastic headline the next day, in we're-going-to-war point size: "50!" He knows, after all, that it's clear to everyone this team exceeded all rational expectations entering the season. Hell, they'd done that by Christmas. But as the team improved, working shrewdly through a tough-as-leather schedule, the aim changed. Went from putting on a good show and packing the house nightly, from "cheery-happy-way-to-go!" to proving that they, too, are pretty damn good. That they, too, can slug it out with the West and give as good as they get. Thus far, mission accomplished.
Still, what Nellie always knew--knows--is that it doesn't end there, that the aim remains in a constant state of flux, and couldn't we all just pay attention for a moment? A 50-win season is dandy, but, in a conference where seven of the eight postseason teams reached or exceeded that mark, it means a little less than it used to. Means they're good, but not necessarily great. Means they're in, but doesn't guarantee they'll advance. And therein lies the newest, most significant challenge to date.
"We're playing well right now, and 50 wins is a big achievement," says Steve Nash, echoing a sentiment similar to Nellie's, only without the huffing, "but it's irrelevant if we don't produce in the playoffs."
For those who were busy ass-kissing, that is something altogether different and more taxing. Particularly for this team. The last time the Mavericks were in the postseason the Stars still played in Minnesota, Troy Aikman was a rookie, and big hair was cool. So the newness alone presents an obstacle for this team, but not even the most daunting one.
If you examine this squad, the core talent is there and impressive. Nash has conducted his charges masterfully, lending 15.6 points and 7.3 assists (as of Tuesday). Dirk Nowitzki (21.8 ppg, 9.2 rpg, 2.1 apg) is quickly becoming one of the most polished small forwards in the league, and Michael Finley (21.5 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 4.4 apg), an all-star with singular ability, is a leader, getting to the hole or stepping to the foul line the way he should.
The trouble is that, for the most part, all three of them execute a game that more or less relies on finesse. None of them are bangers, and in the playoffs you need meatheads with bulging biceps, few brain cells and an affinity for throwing/catching elbows in the lane. The postseason is that kind of ugly, dirty battle. Jumpers are contested more fiercely, layups are allowed but only after taking a shit-yourself shot to the gut.
This is where the addition of Juwan Howard helps Dallas immensely. But not completely.
"Other than Shaq [and the Lakers], I think we match up well with anybody," Nowitzki says, disagreeing with his inquisitor, a single earring dangling from his left lobe like some retro, 1994 fashion statement. "Juwan's been great, he helps us a lot [in the post]. He's been a big part for us."
No arguments. Since joining the Mavericks, the Washington import has performed admirably down low, giving Nellie's troops the inside option they'd obviously lacked. He's scoring at an 18-point clip while hauling down 7.3 boards per contest. But he's only one man and, at this point, he stands tall, but alone. Each team in the West with attainable deep-playoff aspirations has a Howard--or a bulkier version. San Antonio has Tim Duncan. Sacramento, Chris Webber. Los Angeles, Shaquille O'Neal. Utah, Karl Malone. Portland, Rasheed Wallace. And so on. The difference being that many of those squads also have other big bodies who may not be as skilled but can at least take and dole out punishment and offer spells of relief.