- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 17, 2006

MIAMI — For the Dallas Mavericks, the NBA Finals have gone from meltdown to beat down.

Even after they blew a 13-point lead — and a possible 3-0 series edge — in the final six-plus minutes of Game 3, the Mavericks were still seen as the better team, still the favorite of these two franchises to claim its first championship.

But now that Dallas has been flat-out mauled by Miami — 98-74 in Game 4 — Dallas coach Avery Johnson is imploring his team to toughen up.

Johnson, though, is not questioning the Mavericks’ ability to play tough. After the Heat tied the series 2-2 on Thursday — with Game 5 tomorrow in Miami — Johnson reminded everyone the Mavericks had closed out their three previous playoff opponents on the road, including a Game 7 defeat of San Antonio in the second round.

Along with finding an answer to Dwyane Wade, who scored 78 points in Miami’s back-to-back wins, and shaking off a dreadful shooting performance (25 of 79 in Game 4), Johnson’s wants the Mavericks to stay focused and not worry about outside forces — especially after receiving yesterday’s news.

Jerry Stackhouse, who is averaging 13 points a game this series, was suspended for Game 5 for his foul on Miami’s Shaquille O’Neal in Game 4. With 6:29 left in the third quarter, Stackhouse prevented a certain O’Neal dunk when he struck him high and knocked him to the ground on a fast break.

Stackhouse, who will be docked a game’s pay, is Dallas’ top reserve. He scored 19 points in Game 2, including 10 straight in the final 79 seconds of the first half that keyed the Mavericks’ victory.

Still, Johnson implored his team to play without complaining, though he was upset with a technical foul assessed to Mavericks forward Josh Howard in the first quarter on Thursday.

“Where I’m from they call it playground basketball,” Johnson said Thursday night. “And a lot of times that’s what it is, because you can’t expect anybody to bail you out. I’ve tried to get a team that really doesn’t complain, just play. When we are complaining and not playing, we are not going to get it done, especially in the NBA.”

While the series went so smoothly for Dallas at home, the opposite is true for the Mavericks now, epitomized by the recent play of forward Dirk Nowitzki.

Nowitzki made just nine of 20 shots in Game 3 and — a 90 percent free throw shooter this season — missed the second of two free throws in the waning seconds, costing the Mavericks a chance to send the game into overtime. His woes clearly carried over into Game 4, as the 7-footer had his worst shooting game of the series, finishing with 16 points on 2-for-14 shooting. He also committed four turnovers.

In addition, Jason Terry shot 8-for-18 and Howard made just one of eight shots.

The Mavericks’ inability to score was most obvious in the fourth quarter, when they scored just seven points.

“We are not going to win many of our games when two of our better players go, you know, 3-for-22,” Johnson said.

While their own offense is a concern as the Mavericks approach Game 5 in Miami — where the Heat are 10-1 in the playoffs — a bigger concern is the Heat’s growing confidence, particularly Wade’s.

“Wade has hurt us in the worst way,” Johnson said. “We haven’t been able to guard him. So we have two days now to go back and take a look at it, and we’ll make some adjustments.

“But I’ve been telling you guys all along, this is a seven-game series.”


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