Ah, the rites of spring. Trees blooming. Allergy sufferers sneezing. Michael Young bitching. Spring breakers partying. And the Dallas Mavericks teasing.
Or, for the first time in forever, will their annual March push actually carry them to an NBA championship? Admit it, your heart believes. But your head—given the benefit of history—knows better.
In the wake of their colossal collapse in the 2006 Finals, each year it gets more difficult to emotionally invest in the Mavericks. That year, remember, they led the Miami Heat, 2-0, in the best-of-seven championship series, only to infamously lose four consecutive games. Since then Dallas has been the best regular-season team in the NBA, only to wilt each spring in the playoffs.
In 2007 they won 67 games but somehow lost to the Golden State Warriors and became the first and only No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 8. In 2008 they were barely competitive in a five-game, first-round loss to the New Orleans Hornets that cost head coach Avery Johnson his job. In '09 they beat the San Antonio Spurs but were dispatched by the Denver Nuggets in the second round. And last year, after another 55-win regular season, the Mavs earned a Southwest Division championship and the No. 2 seed in the West but fell in six games to the Spurs.
That's five years, an uncanny 223 regular-season wins but only a 10-17 playoff record and just the one victorious series. Considering our severe case of blue balls, we've not only stopped initiating foreplay, we're barely receptive to the Mavs' aggressive seduction.
"I can sit here and tell you that I think we're a better team than last year or the year before, but until we prove it in the playoffs nobody wants to hear it," Mavericks general manager Donnie Nelson said last week. "I don't blame them. We've put together a lot of good teams and a lot of good regular seasons, but it's time for us to put up or shut up and take this thing deep into the playoffs. We think we're ready. I hope we prove the skeptics wrong. But until we do it, we haven't done it."
This season the Mavericks began in obscurity. Despite being buried by the Dallas Cowboys and muted by the Texas Rangers' World Series run, Dallas did what it does best in the regular season—win. With a sweep of the Miami Heat, wins in 17 of 18 games and a 24-5 record, the Mavs headed into Christmas as arguably the best team in professional basketball.
But just when our undivided attention began to tingle toward the early stages of arousal, franchise icon Dirk Nowitzki went down with an awkwardly sprained knee. And on January 1, forward Caron Butler, the most reliable scorer behind Nowitzki, suffered a season-ending knee injury in Milwaukee. Momentum halted, chemistry crashed and top two players sidelined, the Mavericks almost cratered.
"It was a very rough patch, to say the least," Nelson said. "We missed Caron obviously and then even when Dirk came back, at first he wasn't very good. We weren't very good."
With Nowitzki hobbling and no replacement for Butler's mid-range scoring and physical defense, the Mavs stumbled to a 3-11 stretch. As the Spurs raced out on a near-record pace, it appeared at times—such as during the lifeless 19-point loss to the Grizzlies in Memphis—the Mavs couldn't, or wouldn't, produce the will to even get back in the race, much less win it.
But something happened on the way to the lottery. Nowitzki's knee healed. Dallas signed veteran sharpshooter Peja Stojakovic. And second-year jitterbug guard Roddy Beaubois finally made his season debut after sitting out three months after foot surgery. The result: In mid-January the Mavericks regained their identity and started winning, winning and winning so much that Charlie Sheen should adopt them as his own.
"We never stopped believing we had a great team," Jason Terry said last week. "Those injuries set us back, no doubt. But once we regrouped we started clicking on all cylinders. Now we're playing some of the best basketball I've been a part of here in Dallas."
Amazingly, the Mavs this season have produced two 17-1 stretches, the latter pushing them within striking distance of the Spurs for the best record in the West. While Dallas is peaking—and adding long, athletic free agent Corey Brewer—San Antonio began to sputter as All-Star point guard Tony Parker went down with a strained calf for at least two weeks. Suddenly, the Mavericks have our blood pressure zooming.
In the season's final 19 games Dallas hosts the Lakers (Saturday) and the Spurs (March 18). There's a realistic chance of catching San Antonio, or at least of holding off the Lakers for the West's second-best record. Home court is as important as ever this year, given the diluted opponents at the back end of the West since the trades sending Carmelo Anthony from Denver to New York and Deron Williams from Utah to New Jersey. Usually a deep field with as many as six or seven legit contenders, this year's West winner figures to come from four teams—the Spurs, Lakers, Mavs or Oklahoma City Thunder. (While it seems the Mavs and Spurs play every year in the playoffs, Dallas hasn't faced L.A. since way back in 1988 when Mark Aguirre and Roy Tarpley pushed the eventual champs to a Game 7 in the West Finals.)
All of which should be fine with the Mavericks. Because, let the lustfest commence: This is Dallas' deepest, best team since the '06 squad.
"Let's not get ahead of ourselves," Nelson said. "I like this team a lot. I think we're versatile. We're deep. We can play any style. But in 2006 we made it to the NBA Finals. To say this team is as good or better than that one just isn't something we should be doing. We've put ourselves in position with a nice little run here, but there's a lot of work to be done."
As he has for the last 10 years—all of them 50-plus-win playoff seasons—Nowitzki remains the focal point. Still possessing the smooth shooting stroke out to the 3-point line, this year he has matured also into a scorer, finding ways to put the ball in the basket via low-block shots, up-and-under moves and increased drives to the hoop with ambidextrous finishes.
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Even without Butler—who says, by the way, he plans to return for the postseason—the reason these Mavericks are different, better than those Mavericks is because they're tougher. In the middle. That starts with center Tyson Chandler, is complemented with Brendan Haywood and even at times features No. 3 big man Ian Mahinmi.
We've always known the Mavs could shoot, and score. This year's no different, with Jason Kidd's passing and Terry's shooting and Beaubois' energy giving head coach Rick Carlisle multiple ways to attack defenses. And with a tougher underbelly, the Mavs no longer allow waltzes through their lane or uncontested layups. It's a better Mavs team, with its best chance to advance deep in the playoffs since you know when.
The Mavericks are again winning and, what do you know, love is in full bloom.
Sure enough, it's spring.