- The Washington Times - Monday, May 6, 2002

The Mavericks play the game the way it was intended to be played.
They play with a sense of freedom and joy, with the conviction that the next play, the next shot, the next rebound, is destined to be theirs. They play this way in the first minute of a game and in the last. They do not come down with a bad case of stage fright in the final minutes of a tight game. They do not ask coach Don Nelson to deliver them to victory.
They are under no obligation to pass the ball six or seven times before looking to the basket. They take the first available open shot, and if it happens to be in transition behind the 3-point line, then so be it. They only object if a teammate neglects to take an open 3-pointer. To pass up an open shot undermines the spirit of who they are.
The Mavericks are the future, or a return to the future, when the overall skill level of the players in the NBA was considerably higher, when college recruiters sought players with skill first and athleticism second instead of the other way around, when the league was not in the business of bringing along the phenoms just out of high school.
Coincidentally or not, the two best players with the Mavericks, Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash, came up in a different system. Nowitzki is a German, Nash a Canadian, and what sets them apart from many of the players in the NBA is their skill level, feel for the game and fearlessness.
Their inclination to improvise has not been instructed out of them by Nelson. They try not to think too hard.
The rest of the globe may not have the gravity-defying athletes to compete with America, but the rest of globe is showing that you don't have to be a long-jump champion to be an effective basketball player. Speed is good. Quickness is good. Being able to jump is good. None of those qualities necessarily makes a basketball player.
No, the Mavericks are not ready to overtake the Lakers. They may not even be ready to dismiss the Kings. They are awfully soft underneath the basket, starting with the embarrassment formerly known as Shawn Bradley. Mark Cuban, the owner with the strong passion and wallet, is still a competent post player away from having a complete team. Given his nature, he is liable to land that player.
As it is, the Mavericks and Kings are merely negotiating to see who gets to be Shaquille O'Neal's boy toy in the Western Conference finals. The winner of the Mavs-Kings series is almost beside the point. By the way, do not misinterpret the goings-on in Game 1, won handily by the Kings. Theirs has the feel of a seven-game series.
More important, the Mavericks stand as a testament of what the game can be, of what it was as recently as the '80s, in the heyday of Magic Johnson's Lakers and Larry Bird's Celtics. The game, overall, has lost a piece of itself in the last generation, sometimes dissolving into something resembling Wrestlemania.
Some call this good defense. Others call a forearm in the back or a hip planted against another hip the last refuge of the no-talent types. It seems if you are a marginal player, you lift weights, bulk up and use your body as a battering ram on those players who actually know how to play. You try to muck up the game.
All too many coaches are predisposed to this style because of the illusion that goes with a low-scoring game. The style allows coaches to be forever in a game, and being in the game becomes the principal goal.
Pat Riley, of all coaches, has made a second career out of this mind-set. He used to hang out with the beautiful people. He used to be the architect of "Showtime." But with the Heat, as if he is out of ideas, Riley has become the champion of uglyball. Worse, all he has to show for it is a permanent hangdog look.
The Mavericks, one of the three or four best teams in the NBA, dare to tweak the establishment. They insist there is a better way.
The game does not have to be hockey on hardwood. Good defense is not a knee to the thigh, an elbow to the shoulder and a hand in the back, although the referees often let the infractions pass out of concern to a game's flow.
That is a laugh with all too many games. What flow?
The Mavericks are all about trying to find a good flow, that four- or five-minute stretch in a game when everything comes together, when the shots are falling and the opposition is sucking wind and the game looks easy. They don't always find it. That, too, is part of the game.
Yet you can appreciate the attempt, the effort and the thinking.


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