The Defense Rests

Can the Mavs guard anyone? To find out, John Gonzalez gets offensive with a drunk Don, a focused Finley and a nutty Cuban.

Some guy in the back screams what I'm thinking: "Trade him! For the love of God, trade him!"

Grabbing a beer from the delinquent waiter, I push over toward Nellie. A Fort Worth Star-Telegram reporter is asking him something or other. Sounds serious--real sports journalism stuff.

"Screw that," I say, pushing the journo aside while swaying ominously. The drinks are beginning to take hold. "What I want to know is, doesn't Bradley drive you mad? When he misses dunks, doesn't that make you insane?"

As the sign reminds players, offense only gets teams so far.
Mark Graham
As the sign reminds players, offense only gets teams so far.

The Star-T guy is either mildly tickled or slightly pissed, I'm not sure which. I'm not sure what Nellie makes of the interruption, either. He has an odd look on his face, a crinkly mass of skin that has settled somewhere between horror and curiosity.

"Well, I guess it depends," he says, leaning back in his chair, away from me. "If he's all by himself and he trips and falls....yeah."

Finally. I've been waiting years to hear that from a coach.

I know now that I'll die happy.

You want the truth? Defense, toughness, style of offense, color of the uniforms, food in the postgame spread--it's all ancillary. The Mavericks' fate will be guided most often by their three stars. Which is how it should be, though that guarantees nothing, least of all a trip to the Western Conference Finals. And isn't that where they have to go to even utter the word "success?" Because anything less than a strong showing in the penultimate postseason series would be a grand failure, wouldn't it?

"The pressure is there, sure," Nowitzki says. "We have enough big weapons; we have enough skills to launch the pressure. We have to handle it. That's just part of this game."

Nash, Nowitzki and Finley are as talented a trio as you'll find in the league; on that almost everyone agrees. Nash has developed into an all-star; he's adept on the break and has a singular ability to find a crease in the defense and then kick to the open man or score the ball himself. Nowitzki, meanwhile, is on everybody's short list of the best players in the league, and Finley remains one of the Mavs' best offensive options.

At face, there's little wrong with that crew. Problem is, the Mavs play in the Western Conference, where large, one-named forces like Shaq and Kobe, C-Webb and Rasheed and Duncan patrol. Each of those players has played in at least one Western Conference Final during his career. Conversely, the three Mavs mainstays have played in...let's see now...oh, here it is: none.

In terms of depth, Dallas is probably better off than the Lakers, Kings, Blazers or Spurs. Where the problem materializes is late in games, or into the playoffs, where leadership takes on paramount importance. Even the Lakers, who have suffered through well-documented spats between their two stars, developed a tacit understanding that it's Shaq's team. And therein lies the trouble: Whose team is this?

There's been a lot of noise about Finley stepping into that role, as well he should. There's no one better suited for the gig. He's a veteran, someone well-respected by his teammates. But for some reason, it's hard to envision the reticent swingman in that capacity. Finley comes off as quiet and modest, which are fine traits in a man, but not so much in a leader whose job it is to demand excellence and inspire confidence.

"Look, it's been put to me like this," Finley counters. "In order for us to be a better team and do what we need to do--to go where we want to go--I've gotta be more vocal. That's it. If that's what it takes to win, that's what I'll do."

If he does, and if they play defense and if they nut up and start fighting, they might be able to sneak through the murderous West. If. Right now it's all talk, and they already do too much of that. They did a good deal of jawing last year, too, and you already know how that tale ended.

"We've said it over and over and over: Talk is cheap," Nash says. "We can talk all we want about beating the Lakers or the Kings, but the fact is we haven't done it when it matters. We need to do it when it matters."

The Mavs are up 15, 79-64, with somewhere around eight minutes to go in the third quarter. That's all the info I have. Not too many others in this joint could do much better. The pretense of professionalism has long since vanished. The watching party has devolved into a drinking party. Dallas Cowboys safety Roy Williams is whooping it up around here somewhere, and the cheerleaders are making their rounds while getting bombarded with lascivious glares. Good times.

The Nelsons haven't slowed, not even a little bit. I'm fighting like mad to keep pace, but they're men and I'm not. Empty beer bottles litter the table in front of them and the floor behind me. They must have concrete-reinforced bladders.

Raef LaFrentz just tipped a shot in--a fine, athletic play. Since when does he scrap on the blocks?

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