There's a lot to see from the upper reaches of the American Airline Center, where the press box abuts the roof just beyond the last row of cheap seats. Mostly you're overcome by drunks who've been duped into buying oversized foam novelty hands and families that come complete with kids who scream when the visiting team scores.
There are advantages. Past the commotion, way down on the floor, you can see the Mavericks scurry about. Though they look a tenth their normal size--there's an eerie superiority to watching a game this way, sort of the feeling you get when you watch cars shuttle around through an airplane window--the game is somehow magnified. A full view is offered, an aerial look at the game and its intricacies that isn't available when watching on TV, where half the court is chopped from your vision. Myths are debunked this way. Or at least a grand one was for me.
The Mavs win with offense. They run the break and score in transition or they pop long jumpers. But they score. A lot. That's how they win. That's the only reason they win. Sometimes they win in spite of their style, because when you're showy, you can't be sound, too, right?
Therein lies the myth. Because while it's true the league's most prolific offense has accounted for a good deal of Mavericks victories this season, the reasons for their success run deeper. The means must be considered rather than focusing only on the end. From my perch in the rafters, with every witnessed backdoor cut or ball rotation, I slowly came to that realization.
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"We're a high-scoring team; that's what we do best," Steve Nash says, looking at the floor. He's standing outside the locker room, hands thrust into the pockets of his cherry-red hoodie. "But part of that, a big part of it, is taking care of the ball, not turning it over, hitting free throws, making the right pass. That sort of thing. It's kind of hard to, you know, score when you don't have the ball, and it's easier to score when you're making free throws."
His words confirmed my thoughts: that the Mavs are more than just flashy passes and astonishing dunks, despite public perception. But this is where the epiphany gets strange or maybe even a little unbelievable. Because what we're talking about--the deft passing, the lack of turnovers, the free throws--is the kind of thing you associate with old college coaches and the unfortunate short-shorts era. What we're talking about is practically vilified around the rest of the NBA. What we're talking about are fundamentals.
It's a common gripe among the old heads that there's no such thing anymore. The purists, the guys who pine for Bob Cousey, maintain the game has devolved into little more than a thinly veiled exhibition for athletes who care less about winning than they do about enticing Stewart Scott into another gratuitous "boo-yeah." It's a hard point to argue on most fronts; in Dallas, it's a bit easier. Strangely, the Mavs are winning the right way. The proof abounds.
The principle evidence comes from their work at the line. If there is one aspect of the NBA game that agitates and confounds me most, it's a pro baller's inability to hit an unguarded 15-footer. No excuse for that. It's an important, often overlooked aspect of the game that frequently decides outcomes. The Mavs, for the second consecutive year, lead the league at 83.4 percent. That is not an inflated stat, nor is it reliant upon one or two able free-throw shooters--among the eight core regulars (those who average more than 20 minutes per game) only Raef LaFrentz and Walt Williams are shooting below 75 percent.
By comparison, the Lakers are handicapped by 71.9 percent shooting from the line (23rd in the league), which isn't the lone reason why they've struggled mightily this season, but it surely hasn't helped their cause any, either.
"I think we set an all-time mark last year for free-throw percentage as a team, and we're well above that mark this year," head coach Don Nelson says, nodding. "We have good free-throw shooters, we have a good teacher [free-throw coach Gary Boren] and, uh, we shoot it better than anyone in the league. It's led to at least five wins this year, that I can think of, already, where we needed to shoot in the 90 percentile to win or only have one miss or something in a tight ball game to win that game. We look at the free-throw shooting as very important in terms of our success."
There's more. These magicians, these guys who you've watched throw no-looks and alley-oops--both highly entertaining and highly risky--have committed the fewest turnovers in the league. And while they're 12th in assists, the Mavs are only about 3 per game off the NBA lead in that category. A lot of that ball-handling astuteness has to deal with Nash, who has developed into one of the top two or three point guards in the league. But it also has to do with the rest of the club's aptitude, the Mavs' uncanny knack for finding the open man even in the tightest of spots. Together, they lead the league in two of the most important categories: assist-to-turnover ratio (2.03) and turnover differential (+5.1), which shows how many more turnovers you've created than you've committed.
"We have a good team; there's no question," assistant coach Del Harris agrees reluctantly. Ever the coach, he'd rather focus more on what needs proper fixing than what is clearly working. "As far as ball handling is concerned, we set the all-time record last year for fewest turnovers, and this year it's lower. We're on pace to break last year's record. We scored 27 points off of Denver's turnovers, and they scored four off ours. Well, when you win by 15, it doesn't take a mathematician or anyone real bright to figure out that taking care of the ball is a factor. Makes up for our rebounding deficiency to a large degree. We'd still like to rebound better. Now our assist-to-turnover ratio isn't just real good--it's terrific--but that's not necessarily because we make the extra pass; it's more because we have so few turnovers."
Harris is right. There are aspects they need to address, interior defense and rebounding topping the list. And that's without going into specifics, as in what to do with LaFrentz, who, when he hasn't been injured, has been woefully unproductive. (Don't even bother bringing up the double-double he had against Denver...it was his first of the year, and the Nuggets are an empty shell anyway.)
But no team is without faults, and the Mavs have fewer than most. Concerning the tenets of the game--securing the ball, hitting free throws and the like--they have proven more adept than their contemporaries. Those are the biggest reasons why they score all those points and in turn win all those games. Those are the biggest reasons why you might be looking at a championship team.
We're getting a bit ahead of ourselves. The truth on that score will be unearthed when the weather gets warmer. For now, take comfort in this: Offensive-minded teams, teams that incorporate dazzle into their regular flow, teams such as Portland and the Clippers, have been traditionally sloppy. They tend to fade quickly when and if they make the playoffs. It's the squads that are not only talented but also careful to mind the details that advance. Somehow, the Mavs appear to be that rare combination of entertainment and caution.
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