The Dallas Mavericks started the season with a broken-down Doug Christie, flirted late with signing has-been Shawn Kemp and gave extended minutes all the way through to isn't-yet Rawle Marshall. Key guard Devin Harris only played seven games after the All-Star break. Keith Van Horn was injured more often than not. Josh Howard missed almost a month. Yet somehow the Mavs finished with 60 wins and the third-best record in the 30-team NBA.
That "somehow" is Dirk Nowitzki. Voting for the Most Valuable Player ended Thursday, and for the first time in its 26-year history Dallas has a legit candidate. Not coincidentally, the Mavs also have their best-ever shot at an NBA championship. "We need to come away with jewelry for this season to be a success," Nowitzki said as his team prepared to start the playoffs Sunday at 8:30 p.m. at the American irlines Center. "There's nobody we can't beat. And no reason we can't do it."
To get 16 playoff wins and the team's first title, Dirk must drive Dallas as he has all season. He may not be the best player in the league, but he's by far the most unique--and the most valuable. He can drain three-pointers, post up smaller defenders and is now assisting teammates out of double-teams. Without another Mav in the Top 20 of any statistical category, Dallas' drop-off from its No. 1 to No. 2 player is the most significant of any team.
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In the first round the Mavs should get past the Memphis Grizzlies, who have never won a playoff game. The Griz have the NBA's best defense, but thanks to Dirk and a new identity that allows them to win games scoring either 108 or 88, the Mavs should have an MVP leading them into June. --Richie Whitt