The day after the Dallas Mavericks ended their uninspired season with an even more insipid playoff performance, the atmosphere at the American Airlines Center had become poisonous. There weren't many people around, but the ones who did limp into the office--save one helpful media relations assistant who managed to remain professional--were largely dispirited. And rude. The discontent manifested itself in maddening ways--e.g., the girl who answers the phones refused to hear me out and kept transferring me willy-nilly in midsentence. And she's paid to be amiable.
I gave the receptionist some slack--that is, I didn't lash out at her--because I suspected her inability to do her job was most likely borne of paranoia. Paranoia caused by fear of losing her job. It's unavoidable now. It's going to spread like SARS in Mavs Land, you'll see. No one will be immune. Not the players or the coach or even the desk girl.
The final game of the Kings series was a study in everything that's gone wrong with the Mavericks this season. Dallas had a big lead on the road--as large as 16 points in the first half--in a game they had to win. The Mavs, with all their high-priced, all-star talent, were a lot of things this year, but they weren't good on the road, and they surely weren't good in pressure situations. The skeptical among us were left wondering if they could hold onto the lead and feeling fairly certain they'd eventually abandon the pretense and the fight, not to mention the series and the season. Which they did.
Sacramento point guard Mike Bibby hit shot after shot. The Mavs did little to defend the perimeter or even the interior--yielding an embarrassing thunder dunk to Darius Songaila and a three-ball to Brad Miller. (That last sentence tells you all you need to know about why the Mavs are home right now.) And so the lead withered slowly. It was painful to watch, like a gunshot that forces the victim to die from gradual blood loss.
The worst part, as it almost always was with the Mavs this year, came in the end. Despite their best efforts to lose the game well before the final minutes, the Mavs somehow found themselves with the ball and a chance to win. It was the same scenario Dallas faced in Games 2 and 4. They fared no better in Game 5--the only thing that changed was that Dirk Nowitzki missed the shot instead of Steve Nash or Michael Finley. There's something poetic about that--each of the Big Three came up small when he was needed most. That's the snapshot: the collective playoff whimper from the core in important situations.
As hard as the series was to watch, it also served to teach us lessons. We learned something about the Mavs from this series, or at least this year's incarnation of the Mavs (how long ago does last year's run to the Conference Finals feel, by the way?). We learned that they have a lot of talent but no true leader (yes, there were on-court glimmers from Dirk and Nash, but mostly they failed when it counted). We learned that they can't win the tough, close game when the opportunity presents itself (again and again). And we learned that they can't get good shots when they need to--because none of those potential game winners were good looks, no matter what they'd like you to believe.
"I thought our game plan was solid," head coach Don Nelson said, perhaps trying to save his job with spin. "But our defense wasn't as strong as the other games. They're going to move on, and we're going to go home and try to find ways to improve our basketball club."
What that will entail, at this point, is anyone's guess. But know this: They're all scared. And rightly so. With the exception of Dirk Nowitzki (and, of course, Mark Cuban), no one can feel overly secure; no one can be too sure that he'll return next year to find a jersey with his name on it hanging neatly in his locker. (Or, in Nellie's case, he can't be sure that he'll have a team to coach.) And that's the final thing we learned about the Mavs, and the most meaningful, too: They're where they always are, talking about shaking shit up. And around and around we go, because that story line is familiar and tired.
At some point, they have to ask themselves what the flaw in that formula is, or at least examine what variables they haven't yet tinkered with. The constants throughout all this have been the Big Three and Nellie, the team's sacred cows. But with Nash not playing defense and Finley not getting to the line or, for that matter, anywhere close to the basket, you have to wonder how long Cuban will be willing to leave that group alone. And the relationship between Nellie and Cuban has long been rumored to be strained. So we're left to wonder: Is this the year they break up the crew?
I'm not sure it's a good idea, because I like the thought of keeping them together. At least in theory. It's hard to find teams with three serious stars and a Hall of Fame coach. ESPN's Ric Bucher agrees with me, saying on the radio the other day that he wouldn't "blow them up yet." But it's easy to understand the impulse to want to start over. Because if that group is responsible for killing off the team's postseason chances, how long before their own stay of execution is lifted? If it does go down that way, Nellie and/or Nash (who's going to demand some serious money in contract negotiations) will probably take the hit. But don't count on it.
More likely, they'll blame everything on the Antawn/Antoine experiment. It's safer. Switching up the peripheral players is always easier, but it's not necessarily smarter. In the long run, I think they're going to have to strip it down for parts, but I don't see them doing it. At least not now. It's tough to admit you need to start over--tougher still to actually begin the process.
"I'm already thinking about free agency in some ways," Nash said. "I'm hoping I can play with my teammates for the rest of my career. It's hard enough. I don't know what is going to happen. I'm unsure of what is going to transpire. I've been here for six years, and I want to continue playing with them. But I know some things will take care of itself.
"If we need to change personnel, we need to change our identity. We need to be better defensively and have more role players. Maybe it will take more time. Maybe next year we'll find more rhythm. Maybe it's not the right formula."
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