The Mavs Are Neither Here Nor There

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By Mike Wise
Thursday, June 15, 2006

MIAMI

Believing in Dallas to win the NBA championship was never easy, and now the Mavericks have given us another reason to doubt them.

Most of this concern has to do with Tuesday night, watching a superior team fold in the final minutes of a game it had won. It has to do with Dirk Nowitzki, cool as they come in the clutch, inexplicably missing a free throw with Game 3 of the NBA Finals in the balance.

After that meltdown against Miami -- from 13 points up to two points down in the final seven minutes -- the Mavericks have two questions to answer before Game 4 on Thursday night:

Are they a great young team going through the usual growing pains of winning its first title? Or are they still a year away, not yet ready to close out a group of playoff-hardened veterans like the Heat?

I'm leaning closer to the latter.

Some of that feeling is irrational, based on the second-round-and-out years under former coach Don Nelson, those pillowy-cushion Mavericks of the past. Dallas didn't hit the boards back then; the Mavs tickled them.

And if anything has become apparent after three games, it's that Dirk's teammates are younger, quicker and more skilled than Dwyane Wade's and Shaquille O'Neal's. But the idea that Dallas is a mentally tough champion-to-be is somewhat misguided.

Most observers here talk about how the Mavericks have buried their postseason past during the last two months. In the second round, they beat San Antonio in Game 7 at the Spurs' SBC Center, The Barn, maybe the toughest place to win on the road in the NBA. They came back from a Game 1 collapse against Phoenix at home to take control of that series and close out the Suns in six to get here.

Fine, but none of that equates to bounce-back in the Finals.

Dallas has yet to win a pulsating thriller on the game's largest stage. And in the one chance they had in three games, the Mavericks folded badly -- worse than any Finals team in recent memory.


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