Drowned Out By Grandiose Doings in Arlington, the Dallas Mavericks Begin What Should Be a Loud, Proud Season

Mark Cuban is sweating.

Not the nervous kind of lather you work up fretting over a lawsuit slapped on you by Ross Perot Jr., a witch hunt targeting you by the Securities and Exchange Commission or the fact that, for the first time in memory, your basketball team didn't sell out its home opener in advance.

Nope. These are profuse puddles of perspiration from a guy more concerned with his pre-game Stairmaster workout at American Airlines Center than the likelihood that you probably didn't notice the Dallas Mavericks began their 30th season of NBA basketball last week.

"Not worried at all," Cuban responds to the seeming lack of buzz about his team's 2009-'10 debut against the Washington Wizards. "The buzz would've only lasted until tonight. After that, the standings will take over, and I know we're going to have a good team. I kind of like flying under the radar for now. As long as we're playing our best basketball in the playoffs. That's how you create buzz."

The Dallas Cowboys started 5-2 in the world's biggest, baddest sports stadium, just down the street from where the Texas Rangers are about to be freed from the stingy stranglehold of owner Tom Hicks. Yet right here, right under your nose, the Mavericks are fielding their best team since, well, the colossal collapse in the 2006 NBA Finals, better known as the day basketball broke your heart.

It's not quite as declarative as when Cowboys owner Jerry Jones stamps "Super Bowl or Bust" on his team's season, but make no mistake about it: Cuban thinks this is his best team in a long time.

"The feeling in our locker room is off the charts, literally the best it's been in a good five years," Cuban said during training camp. "Every guy here that was a part of that Finals run thinks we have a much better team. It's not even close. If you compare rosters, we're a far better team than that Finals team. We're deeper. More athletic. Defensively and offensively we have more flexibility. This year it's like 'Oh my goodness.' Guys are fired up. It's a whole different feeling."

Safe to say the metroplex sports masses were initially immune to the intoxication.

Though the Mavericks on opening night ultimately extended their sellout streak to 318 games—the longest active run in professional sports—it's become more difficult for Cuban to convince sports fans and their scarred hearts to invest emotionally and financially in a team that devastated them by blowing the 2-0 Finals lead in 2006 and by losing in the first round of the playoffs after a record 67-win season in 2007.

Cuban's plan: Sales pitches via Twitter, radio, TV and even tickets as low as $2. That's right, an NBA game for eight quarters.

"I'll stand outside with a megaphone and scream if I have to," Cuban jokes as he dabs his faucet of a face with a towel.

But as first impressions go, this one sucked.

Sellout be damned, last week there was an intangible lack of intensity in AAC as the Mavs slumbered to a nine-point loss to the ho-hum Wizards. Public address announcer Billy Hayes and his constant injection of Five-Hour Energy were gone, unlike the memories of last spring's five-game loss to the athletically superior Denver Nuggets in the playoffs. Dirk Nowitzki was prolific, but newcomer Shawn Marion was mediocre, Jason Terry was off and Josh Howard was in street clothes.

Always takes a while for Dallas to get into its Mavericks, but this was like waiting for a drop of refrigerated honey.

The basketball season arrived a tad later than the schedule, in the form of last Friday's shocking result at Staples Center in Los Angeles. Mavericks 94, defending champion Lakers 80. A night later in the same building, Dallas improved to 2-1 with an efficiently ugly defeat of the lowly Clippers, but beating the Lakers should've been a sufficient wake-up call.

Against a tormenting team that was 51-10 all-time against them in L.A. and had laid upon the franchise a two-point quarter, a 30-point comeback and a 62-point performance by Kobe Bryant (in just three quarters), the Mavs took their 0-1 record and shoved a new brand of basketball down the Lakers' throats. These were not your father's soft Mavericks. This was Jason Kidd pushing the pace. This was Dirk being Dirk at both ends, blocking shots and grabbing rebounds in addition to scoring. This, most of all, was Marion announcing to Dallas, the Lakers and the NBA that he will indeed have a positive effect on a team that has for a decade won 50-plus games and made the playoffs.

"This is when we need to be aggressive," barked head coach Rick Carlisle during a timeout after the Lakers hinted at a rally from 22 points down, "Don't let up!"

And with that, Kidd orchestrated three consecutive pick-and-rolls to Marion, who finished the plays—and the stunned Lakers—with a short jumper, a floater in the lane and a punctuating dunk. The big, bad Lakers, whom some experts predicted would flirt with the Chicago Bulls' record 72-10 mark, were promptly humiliated on their own stage.

Admitted Lakers head coach Phil Jackson, "That was one of the longest nights we've had in this building."

No doubt the Mavs are more athletic, more versatile and deeper than last year's team that started 2-7, won 52 games and beat San Antonio in the first round of the playoffs. In the off-season they basically traded Brandon Bass, Devean George, Gerald Green, Antoine Wright and Ryan Hollins in exchange for Marion, Drew Gooden, Quinton Ross, Kris Humphries and Tim Thomas, which is undeniably an upgrade.

"Last year when our second unit went in it was like, 'Oh, shit'," said Cuban, who hugged Marion after the victory over the Lakers like it was a playoff clincher instead of game No. 2 of 82. "Every time a shot went up we had to say a prayer. It was awful. If for no other reason, we'll be better because we're deeper."

The key is the return of a healthy, happy Howard. Without him the Mavs will still win 50 games and find a way into the playoffs; with him, they can win the West.

Recovering from off-season ankle surgery and still mending a reputation dented by his National Anthem gaffe and passing out birthday party fliers during a playoff series two years ago, Howard transforms the Mavs from interesting to elite. Nowitzki is a superlative constant. Marion is a fast-break finisher and long-armed defender. Kidd is the veteran maestro. Terry is the punch off the bench. But it's Howard—at both ends of the court—who instills belief in this organization that the window for a return to the Finals isn't already slammed shut.

"We're a flow team on offense," Carlisle said before the home opener. "But in the end, it's going to be whether we can pin our ears back and defend. We can score lots of ways. But with Jason and Shawn and Josh, we think we can guard too. That's what so exciting about this team."

Mark Cuban is sweating.

But, in case you haven't been paying attention, he isn't worrying.

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Richie Whitt
Contact: Richie Whitt

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