HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — “This is how we do it!”
If you walk into the Dallas Mavericks’ locker room anytime soon and hear that old Montell Jordan song playing in the background, it’s with good reason.
Because once again the Mavericks, despite all the critics and naysayers (yours truly included) that assumed they were sacrificing this season by allowing a championship team to break apart, are right in the thick of the race as the Western Conference standings start to take shape.
Things looked shaky early on. Tyson Chandler, J.J. Barea, DeShawn Stevenson, Caron Butler — all guys that played a role in the Mavericks’ championship season a year ago — all hit the door when free agency cranked up. It takes bold leadership to buck conventional wisdom to go in a different direction so soon after snagging basketball’s Holy Grail.
But the Mavericks under owner Mark Cuban have always been run by anything but conventional wisdom. With Rick Carlisle steering them through their early season struggles, they lost both of their preseason games, their first three regular season games and five of their first eight which cranked up the chatter about a championship hangover.
Dirk Nowitzki wasn’t himself, wasn’t in championship shape and the Mavericks championship luster was lost in the shadow of bigger stories in Los Angeles (Clippers and Lakers) and Denver, to start the season.
I fired off an email to my main man and Mavs.com’s writer Earl K. Sneed asking him if he had any idea what the plan was this season. He responded instantly, making it clear to me that were was indeed a plan and that he was more than willing to place his faith in Cuban and Carlisle in the days and weeks ahead, especially after what we witnessed covering the Mavericks’ title run last season.
He was right. They’ve gotten back to normal here lately, though, winning four straight games and 18 of their last 24. And now that Nowitzki is back to normal, the champs can entertain thoughts of mounting a serious defense of their title in a season that was supposed to be about rebuilding.
They fought off the Clippers last night, with Nowitzki reprising the clutch routine he played brilliantly during that run to and through The Finals last season, prompting Jean-Jacques Taylor of ESPNDallas.com to remind us all that Nowitzki belongs in the short sentence with Lakers star Kobe Bryant as the best “closers” in the game:
For three quarters, he struggled with his shot. And at the free throw line. When the fourth quarter began, the Mavs trailed 76-74 and Dirk had scored just 11 points, while making 3 of 8 field goal attempts.
He scored 11 points in the fourth quarter and made his most important baskets when the Mavs needed them most.
Trailing 83-79 with 6:03 left, Dirk drilled a 3-pointer from the left wing with a hand in his face. A minute later, the Clippers fouled him on a three-point attempt, and he made two free throws as the Mavs took a 84-83 lead.
The Mavs never trailed again.
The Clippers pulled within 90-89 with a minute left, and Dirk answered with a 19-foot jumper from the right wing with 41 seconds left.
“I played with Larry Bird for three years and there were nights he’d go 2-for-13 and hit the last three shots to win the game,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “Dirk’s the same kind of guy.
“One thing he’s done better and better as his career has gone on is that he just keeps playing. He doesn’t get frustrated. He lets the game come to him, and he attacks. Dirk’s one of the best ever. He’s not going to miss shots forever.”
In the past three games, the Mavs have faced three of the Western Conference’s best power forwards.
Kevin Love. LaMarcus Aldridge. Blake Griffin.
Each of them will be playing in the All-Star game later this month. All those games proved is that Nowitzki remains the conference’s best power forward.
The Mavs won each of the games, with Dirk averaging 25.0 points per game.
Obviously, those young guys have closed the gap, but Dirk is more versatile offensively, and he’s done it in the postseason.
Love made a bold statement last Thursday when the All-Star reserves were announced on TNT, stating unequivocally that he feels like he’s the best power forward in the game right now. And with outlandish numbers to back up his claim, he makes a compelling argument. Aldridge could make an equally compelling case, as could Griffin, who is the clear winner as the most spectacular of the group.
But just like that Larry O’Brien trophy he’s clutching, Nowitzki is the true champ until a challenge knocks him out of the top spot. And as for the Mavericks, that crew many of us wrote off in the early stages of this season, well … the champs are still here!