By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
In recognition of his continued charity work, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban was summoned to center court before last Saturday's All-Star Celebrity Slam Jam and presented a bling-blingy diamond necklace by comedian Bill Bellamy.
In T-minus two months, Cuban will be handed a far more valuable hunk of precious minerals by NBA commissioner David Stern. Because after an almost flawless season-long retort to last summer's kick in the crotch, it's unfathomable that the Mavs won't win the coveted gold championship trophy.
Climaxing a season in which they were pegged as a whiny one-hit wonder vanishing faster than Mike Modano's aura, the Mavericks are fixin' to achieve absolute atonement for last June's collapse in the NBA Finals. Already owners of the Southwest Division championship, league-best record and home-court advantage through The Finals, Dallas begins the NBA Playoffs Sunday and will soon boast the Coach of the Year (Avery Johnson), Most Valuable Player (Dirk Nowitzki) and, of course, its first Larry O'Brien trophy.
"They've got the best team, the best player and the best chance to win," says NBC's Scrubsco-star Donald Faison while limbering for the Slam Jam. "What Mark has done for this team and this community is unbelievable. Just tell the fans not to get too spoiled, because it's not supposed to be this easy."
After its record-breaking regular season that flirted with 70 wins and settled on a gaudy number more befitting a tranquil golf course than rigorous NBA schedule, who can deny Dallas is the best team? Not the second-place Phoenix Suns, who, despite two late-season wins over the Mavs, finished on the wrong end of the NBA's widest 1-2 gap in almost 15 years. Not Mavs nemesis Dwyane Wade, who last week finally admitted Nowitzki should win MVP. Not even the celebs-turned-wannabes who entertained SMU's sold-out Moody Coliseum with a dizzying, if not dazzling, display of almost-dunks and impromptu dance-offs.
Despite listening to the stars roll out the red carpet for his team, Mavs general manager Donnie Nelson admits merely to being cautiously optimistic.
"This regular season couldn't have gone any better," Nelson says. "It was a very frustrating summer, and our performance over the last seven months has been a rewarding reaction to it. But we're all itchin' to get started with the season that counts. You can't predict what will happen in the playoffs. But we're in as good a position as you can be."
Cuban's performance wasn't exactly perfect. Wearing jersey number "$" and goofalicious knee-high socks, he got a shot blocked by spindly R&B singer Chris Brown, launched a jumper that drew nothing but wood (prompting an "Air...Ball!" serenade from the SMU band) and didn't make his first and only basket until the fourth quarter.
Mired in a drought and still nauseated by the Mavs coughing up a 2-0 lead to the Miami Heat, desperate fans inexplicably put stock in the signing of the pedestrian free-agent point guard. In July James signed instead with the Minnesota Timberwolves, sending Dallas' sky falling faster. Then came an opening-night loss to the San Antonio Spurs, a players-only meeting after a 31-point loss in Houston, mechanical gremlins monkeying with the raising of the Western Conference championship banner, an 0-4 start and...
Funny thing happened on the way to hell. Dallas detoured at history.
While James averaged a measly 10 points for the lottery-bound Wolves, Dallas shrewdly "settled" for productive veterans Devean George and Greg Buckner. In a double dip of brilliance Cuban opened his wallet—shelling out $180 million in long-term contracts to Nowitzki, Johnson, Jason Terry and Josh Howard—and shut his mouth. And, instead of letting the Finals flop and the slow start deteriorate them into zombies shuffling along in hair nets and buying cans of deviled ham at 3:47 a.m., the Mavericks fully embraced their failure, squeezing out every last drop of pain to burn as fuel for the journey to success.
The result? A regular season that ended Wednesday night in Seattle and included a 17-game winning streak, a franchise record for wins, the first division title in 20 years and home losses you can count on one hand, including a meaningless defeat last Friday when the stars sat and subs named J.J. and Pops took crunch-time shots. In the end the Mavs joined an elite group of eight NBA teams that have captured the league's best record with at least 65 wins. The previous seven won the championship.
"It means something," Johnson says of his team's record regular season. "But it don't mean nothing once the playoffs start."
Sixty-seven wins down. Sixteen to go.
When Nowitzki walked into Moody Saturday he received a frenzied standing ovation, momentarily interrupting the introduction of some of the biggest stars in music and movies. When center Eric Dampier walked into the VIP pre-party at Suite Friday night, he barely received a second look as those same stars commandeered patrons' attention with their gettin' jiggy and all on the dance floor.
Sure enough, the Mavericks will need—and will get—both players accepting those roles throughout the playoffs.
Dallas wins this summer because it's a deeper, stronger, better team than the one that imploded in '06. It can play any style, any tempo. It imposes its will, starting with defense. It less frequently falls into the trap of settling for jumpers. George and Buckner are nasty defenders able to at least slow down guys like Wade or Kobe Bryant. And, though it seems almost impossible for a team that got within 4.5 quarters of the title a year ago, its seven returning players are each performing at a higher level.
The regular-season success provides the luxury of having to beat either the Suns or Spurs—but not both—to win the West and home-court advantage in a possible, desirable rematch with Miami.
Then there's the resolve.
"Everybody remembers our meltdown in The Finals," Nowitzki says. "The only way we can make that change is to get there again."
And the respect.
"I think they'll win it all," McHale says. "NBA championship, Super Bowl, World Cup and the Nobel Peace Prize. It's their year."
The worst start in the Mavericks' 27-year history is about to dissolve into their best finish.
Fear not, plan the parade.