- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 21, 2003

Mark Cuban and the Mavericks are sticking their tongues out at the NBA traditionalists in these playoffs.

The gesture especially fits Cuban, the team’s fine-happy owner who has the boyish confidence, energy and vision to disrupt the league’s status quo.

The owner and players are not unalike in their resistance to convention.

The Mavericks, in particular, remain impervious to the suspicions, as follow:

You can’t win a championship by having an allergic reaction to defense. You can’t be soft and pretty and have a coach who is partial to gimmicks. You can’t have Shawn Bradley on the roster.

This is just not how you win a championship in the NBA. Defense wins championships. A bruiser in the three-second lane wins championships. A well-delivered elbow wins championships.

The Mavericks have too much old ABA in them. Their fingernails are too clean. They want to outscore you. They want to outshoot you in an up-and-down game.

This is fine in January. This is enough to beat the Clippers and so many of the other pretenders lurking in the NBA. You don’t have to be a complete team to win games in the regular season. The Mavericks won 60 games in the regular season. You might have missed that statistic, because no one outside Dallas was overly impressed with their 60 wins. It was nice. It was all right.

But everyone would see the reality in the postseason, in all the bump-and-grind sets, at which time the Mavericks would be exposed as one-trick artists. If they couldn’t outscore you, they would pack up their basketballs in frustration and go home.

So here we are, deep into the playoffs, and the Mavericks are still hanging around, up 1-0 in their best-of-7 series with the Spurs in the Western Conference finals. They still have itchy shooting fingers. Set the offense up? You have to be kidding. Who said that — Jeff Van Ankle Weight? The Mavericks are almost obsessed with the open 3-pointer in transition.

They don’t care if the numbers are not on their side. An open look is an open look, and the ball is going up. Whine all you like, you traditionalists. This is their game. This is how they play. They can’t reinvent who they are.

They don’t play in fear, with their eyes on the coaching staff. Steve Nash dribbles one way, then another, his hair flopping every which way, until he finds an open lane to the basket or an open teammate standing beyond the 3-point lane.

Coach Don Nelson is as quirky as his players. He is liable to try anything. Let’s see: Bruce Bowen is a woeful free-throw shooter. So put him on the line. Make him cook. Take some of the energy out of the Spurs.

Nelson has come a long way since he was deemed a dinosaur by Chris Webber during their one season together with the Warriors. It is not that Nelson has changed since then. It is just that the perceptions of him have changed. He has outlived the spurious charge.

Nelson always has been a player’s coach. He always has understood the importance of letting his lead players develop a rhythm. He should not have been faulted for Webber, whose faults are everyone else’s faults.

How sweet is this? Nelson remains in the championship hunt, while Webber is wherever he is, trying to get his latest story straight. Right. The injury.

The Mavericks could have been shown the exit door by either the Trail Blazers or the Kings, needing a victory in Game7 against both teams.

That revealed something about the Mavericks, both a steadiness around the abyss of elimination and a vulnerability that permitted each series to go that far.

Somehow, though, doubts and all, the Mavericks are pressing hard against the championship window, all too aware that this opportunity is perhaps as good as it ever will be.

Shaq and Kobe are gone, and the two participants left in the Eastern Conference are vying for what amounts to the NBA’s junior varsity championship.

You could argue the Mavericks are a mere three games away from submitting their ring sizes to the appropriate parties. Not that there is any rush to embrace that prospect.

The Mavericks are too over the top, too out there, too indifferent on defense.

Imagine what will happen to the game if the Mavericks win the championship. Some coaches might come to accept that it is perfectly acceptable to score 100 points in a game.


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