"The Lakers don't intimidate us at all," Cuban maintains. "In the West it's going to come down to whoever stays the healthiest and gets hot at the right time."

After a 2-7 start, the Mavericks are 34-17. Though led by the conservative Carlisle—a combo of Jim Carrey's looks and Jim Lehrer's persona—they are an up-tempo, creative offensive team that shoots 82 percent at the free-throw line (second in the league) and can alternately accessorize Nowitzki's consistent brilliance with Howard's quick starts and Sixth Man of the Year leading candidate Terry's 20 points off the bench. Out since February 7 with a fractured bone in his left hand, Terry returned on March 1 in a winning effort against Toronto, and hard-nosed veteran Jerry Stackhouse, though placed back on the inactive list with lingering heel problems after an atrocious three-game rehab stint last week, figures to be an integral part of Dallas' late-season playoffs push.

In crunch time, however, the Mavs will more often than not be appraised—as they have since 2000—on Nowitzki's fadeaway jumper. The defense—a cornerstone tenet under Johnson—has noticeably slipped under Carlisle, evidenced by a 74-point first half by the Celtics and a 57-point half by the lowly Kings last month at AAC.

The Mavericks and center Erick Dampier couldn’t quite grab the ball— or the NBA trophy—in Miami in 2006.
REUTERS/Newscom
The Mavericks and center Erick Dampier couldn’t quite grab the ball— or the NBA trophy—in Miami in 2006.
Just when it seemed Jerry Stackhouse and the Mavs had risen above Dwyane Wade and the Heat, it all came crashing down.
REUTERS/Newscom
Just when it seemed Jerry Stackhouse and the Mavs had risen above Dwyane Wade and the Heat, it all came crashing down.

"We're a running team, we can score," Carlisle says. "It's when we guard people and rebound that we become a really dangerous team. When we don't, we're a below-average team with very little chance of beating the elite teams."

Management's idea in training camp was to keep the nucleus intact and hang blame for most of last season's disappointment (16-13 after acquiring Kidd and a decisive 4-1 loss to the Hornets in the first round of the playoffs) on the departed Johnson. Injuries, however, have kinked the choreography.

Stackhouse has made just a brief cameo. Howard has missed significant time with ankle and wrist injuries. And just before the All-Star break, Terry was sidelined for three weeks in the midst of the best basketball of his career. Most nights the Mavericks have taken the court missing 30 points per game from last season's team.

"With all our injuries and to be where we are, we're in a great position," Kidd says. "Nobody's talking about us, and that's fine with us. Write us off."

The one troubling tendency is the no-show. Or, even more alarming, the give-up.

One-third of the Mavs' first 21 losses were by 19 points or more, including hideous road blowouts at New Jersey (24), Memphis (20) and Milwaukee (34).

"We tend to pout if we miss a couple of shots," Cuban says. "We've got to not lose focus, to find a way to stay in the game when our offense isn't clicking."

In the West the Lakers and Spurs appear to have separated from the pack, but teams 3-9 are differentiated by fractions.

"Can we win it all this year? Absolutely, yes," Nelson says. "We'll have to get a little lucky and peak at the right time. But if we're healthy, we can beat anybody."

1:48: Two made free throws,

Shaquille O'Neal (Erick Damp

ier foul)— Mavericks 93, Heat 90.

1:26: Missed 17-foot jumper,

Stackhouse— Mavericks 93, Heat 90.

1:16: 20-foot jumper, Wade—

Mavericks 93, Heat 92.

1:05: Terry turnover, steal

by Haslem— Mavericks 93, Heat 92.

1:03: Two made free throws,

Haslem (Terry foul)— Heat 94, Mavericks 93.

While the Mavs' on-court performance has remained steady during Nelson's 11 years as one of the franchise's most influential decision-makers, his relationship with Cuban is remarkable.

Simply put, Nelson's boss despises Nelson's dad. And vice-versa.

"It was a prerequisite before I took this position in 2002 that I'd never be put in the spot of choosing one or the other," Nelson says from his AAC office. "There have been challenges there, sure. I love them both dearly. But they've both lived up to their word and never placed me in an awkward position."

Last summer Nelson's father and former Mavs' coach, Don—the patriarch of Dallas' rise from the NBA cellar—won a $7.1 million judgment against Cuban from a federal arbitrator. The decision stemmed from the language about deferred payments in his original coaching contract. The two got crossways during Don's '03 contract negotiations, and their relationship deteriorated into suit/countersuit. When Don attempted to obtain his deferred money, Cuban responded that his former coach and consultant violated a non-compete clause by agreeing to coach the Golden State Warriors in '06. (The case is currently in mediation.)

How does Donnie balance listening to dad while reporting to boss? For that matter, how does Cuban have confidential, one-on-one meetings with a top advisor whose father just so happens to be suing him for millions?

"From my perspective, Donnie's a great employee," Cuban says. "You'll have to ask him about his relationship with his father."

Says Donnie, "I owe my NBA existence to Nellie. Mark embraced Dad and me at our darkest hour when he bought the team and kept us on. You don't love your parents any less just because they decide to get a divorce. This was a business version of that."

The irony of Nelson's working environment with Cuban? While dad and boss haggle over a legal document, he works with only a handshake.

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