See, here's the problem:
The Dallas Mavericks aren't just playing the San Antonio Spurs; they're also fighting the devil. Their internal devil.
Who is he, you ask?
It's the little demented, destructive voice inside them. Inside us all. The one that urges you to hit the snooze button. The one that convinces you it's OK to have that third dinner roll and that fourth scoop of ice cream. The one that entices you to put off until tomorrow what you know should be done today.
It's been the Mavericks' biggest demon all season.
"If they can resist temptation from their internal devil, the Mavs are a very dangerous team," says former star Rolando Blackman, these days the team's Director of Basketball Development and TV analyst. "But they must stay strong and not give in like they have at times. We all do. It's human nature to want to lay on the couch instead of going out for a run. But the good teams—the championship teams—remain greedy when they have some success. They feed on it, instead of letting it feed on them."
Afforded a luxurious chance for a chokehold 2-0 lead Monday night in San Antonio in their NBA Western Conference first-round series against the Spurs, the Mavs—not unlike my 12-year-old—instead digested, deciphered and ultimately exploited the prosperity as a license to loaf.
Their half-assed effort resulted in a 21-point loss that diluted an impressive Game 1 victory and allowed the Spurs back into the series heading into Thursday's Game 3 and Saturday's Game 4—both at American Airlines Center.
The Mavs didn't stay hungry; they went ho-hum. But, really, we shouldn't be surprised. It's been that way all season with an inconsistent team that has tempered spurts of elite basketball with inexplicable hiccups.
What coach Rick Carlisle has added with flexibility and offensive creativity, he's lacking in the heavy-handed demand for focus, effort and urgency that was the calling card of Avery Johnson. Under Johnson the Mavs didn't always win, but you never questioned their heart. Under Carlisle, the Mavs sleepwalked through losses to horseshit teams such as Sacramento, Milwaukee (by 34 points, mind you), Oklahoma City and Memphis (twice!).
Evidenced by Game 1, the Mavericks have the talent. Evidenced by Game 2, they do not have the temperament.
Just minutes after his team got stripped naked on national TV, Jason Kidd assessed the situation. A future Hall of Famer who has played in The Finals and been to 13 consecutive playoffs, you expected the Mavs' leader to be more pissed than Perez Hilton at Miss California.
You were wrong.
"Don't take away from what we did," Kidd told Channel 11's Gina Miller. "We came down here and got what we wanted—got the split. Now we've got to protect our home court."
If that satisfied sentiment was so tip-of-tongue after the game, isn't it realistic to think it was readily top-of-mind before it? Even during it?
"They didn't try to get greedy," TNT analyst and noted Mavs basher Charles Barkley said on the network's post-game show. "They came out with no intensity."
That is inexcusable. Yet totally typical.
Anxious for the afternoon nap they believed they'd earned by winning Game 1, the Mavs skipped their Monday chores. From the outset they showed no interest in getting in front of Spurs point guard Tony Parker, who transformed the Mavs' defense into the Washington Generals' JV. Harassed and outplayed by J.J. Barea in the opener, Mr. Eva Longoria went where he wanted when he wanted, scoring 38 points on a variety of jumpers, floaters and layups.
In case the Mavs somehow forgot, this is the playoffs. Home to hard fouls and harder feelings. Dallas didn't defend Parker in Game 2 more than to escort the prissy Frenchman down a red carpet in his tuxedo.
"Every time he drives the lane, we have to put him on his back," Mavs center Erick Dampier told The Dallas Morning News after the game. "The first foul has to tell him he's in for a long night. My first foul Thursday night is going to put him on his back. I guarantee it."
Better late than never.
Limiting Parker's penetration is the key to Game 3 and, really, the entire series. Without the creativity of injured Manu Ginobili and the driving of Parker, San Antonio is nothing but an old, tired, beatable boxer pinned in the corner. But once in the lane, Parker's one of the most innovative and efficient finishers in the history of the league, and his team becomes a dangerous veteran armed with acute angles and refined weapons.
Said Barea, "They killed us at everything tonight."
But there are other Mavericks concerns.
Dirk Nowitzki, who averaged 26 points per game (fourth-best in the NBA) during the regular season, has been bothered by San Antonio's in-your-jock, physical defense and limited to just 33 points in two games. Jason Terry, likely the league's Sixth Man of the Year, has looked lost when the Spurs have double-teamed him on the perimeter. And after a dynamic debut in Game 1, Barea was harmless and hapless when San Antonio aggressively confronted him off the pick-and-roll Monday night.
"It's a disappointing game from our perspective," Carlisle said. "San Antonio really brought up their level of aggression. We've got to regroup, and we've got to do a lot of things better."
You can X and O this series to death, but with a rivalry fueled by ancestry (the Spurs were born as the ABA's Dallas Chaparrals) and address and animosity, it will likely be decided by emotion and effort. When the Mavs maximize and channel their energy into defense and rebounding, they can beat any team anywhere. But if they rest on their shallow laurels and, like Monday night, get out-rebounded, 44-28, they will lose the next three games and spend the summer explaining a third consecutive first-round exit.
Recent history, however, says the Mavs will ingest the doom and gloom and use it as fuel for an inspired effort Thursday night. They went a league-best 15-1 at home after February's All-Star break, losing only to the Denver Nuggets by two points without Kidd or Josh Howard. And, above all else, they are resilient.
Most confounding stat in a confusing season: Ten times Dallas lost by 15 or more points. In the next game it went 9-1.
Only way to make sense out of that is to accept that the Mavericks thrive on adversity and flounder amidst prosperity. If that's the case, they win Game 3, lose Game 4 and head back to San Antonio next week with the series 2-2. As I predicted before the series, the Mavs eventually lose Game 7.
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Maddening it is, daring to invest in these Mavericks. Unbeatable one night, uninspired the next. It's like buying the fastest, coolest car on your block, only to have it not start once a week.
After Monday's 105-84 embarrassment, owner Mark Cuban sent out a terse Tweet via Twitter: "I hate to lose. Back to Dallas to get back on track."
Let's hope this latest debacle again has his players equally mad and appropriately motivated.
The Mavericks are good enough to beat the Spurs. But are they tough enough to defeat their devil?