Despite opening with two galling losses to in-state rivals, the Mavericks are still looking to make a return trip to the Finals
IT'S A NEW situation for all of us—the pressure is up, you're the favorite now, and everybody's looking at you," Dirk Nowitzki said last Friday of the Mavericks' new role as defending Western Conference champions. "I don't think anybody has grasped it yet."
Grasped or not, that reality smacked Nowitzki and his teammates in the face one night later in Houston as the Rockets jumped out to a 12--0 lead and blasted them 107--76, dropping the Mavs to 0--2, their worst start in 13 years. "They came out with a lot of enthusiasm," said Dallas coach Avery Johnson, "and we didn't." That was surprising, considering that the Mavs had dropped their season opener 97--91 to the Spurs. "We didn't look like we were hungry for a win tonight."
Exacerbating this problem are changes the team made this summer in hopes of building on last season's trip—the franchise's first—to the NBA Finals. The Mavs kept their core intact but added seven role players, including starting guard Greg Buckner, a defensive specialist, and key subs Anthony Johnson, Austin Croshere and Devean George (who was sidelined for the opening week by a stomach illness). While Avery Johnson concedes that it will take time to work the newcomers into the rotation, the slow start has given him a good excuse to rail against complacency. "A lot of terrific teams in this league haven't won a championship," he says. "[Winning it all] is extremely rare, and you have a very small window."
Opponents are eager to slam that window shut. As was evident in its first two games, Dallas will face strong efforts all season from contenders measuring themselves against the best of the West. "We've got to learn to perform with pressure," says Nowitzki. "But if you're a competitor, that's what you love."
Nowitzki says he's inspired most by his team's failure in the Finals, where the Mavs blew a 2--0 advantage to the Heat as he averaged 22.8 points, his lowest of any playoff series last season, on 39.0% shooting. "I didn't play my best basketball in the Finals," he acknowledges. "All I can do now is work twice as hard and maybe get in better shape, if that's possible, and do anything it takes for us to get back there." Nowitzki spent an extra half hour after the Mavs' practice on Friday with his longtime training guru, Holger Geschwindner, a fellow German who put his charge through exercises that enable him to make fadeaway three-pointers look routine. Nowitzki did 360-degree spins before catching the ball and swishing jump shots, all in one fluid motion; then he made shot after shot after taking agonizingly long slide steps or clicking his heels as he jumped, drills designed to help him maintain his balance.
While any improvements in Nowitzki's game will be subtle—he did, after all, average a career-high 26.6 points last season and was the first-team All-NBA power forward ahead of Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett—Dallas can realize major gains elsewhere. Third-year guard Devin Harris's improved jump shot will open up the court for his penetration and playmaking, and fourth-year forward Josh Howard, whose scoring has gone up each season, continues to mature.
By midseason we'll know if last spring's success has been a burden for the Mavs or the inspiration they needed to take the final step.
An opposing team's scout on the Wizards' Gilbert Arenas, who had 44 points last Saturday against the Celtics:
"The question is whether Arenas (right) will end up being more like Dominique Wilkins or Isiah Thomas. The Wizards hope that he'll become their version of Thomas—a scoring point guard who leads them to a championship. But that's a rare thing in this league, and I don't know that he'll ever be good enough to raise his team to the highest level of the playoffs. Still, let's be fair: Isiah had Joe Dumars and Vinnie Johnson and all those other guys around him, and Arenas isn't surrounded by nearly as much talent. In that sense his future is going to be determined by the players around him."
THE LONG VIEW Nowitzki and Johnson aren't panicking over the Mavs' 0--2 start.
[See caption above]
SIMON BRUTY (ARENAS)