The sad thing about what's happened to the Dallas Mavericks is that they really appeared to have had something going. Before they lost Roy Tarpley for the rest of the season and Fat Lever for six weeks, they looked like a team that was just starting to believe in itself, going into New York and Philadelphia on successive nights and beating the Knicks, and the 76ers before Johnny Dawkins's injury.

With Lever, Rodney McCray and Alex English around, Dallas had scorers to diffuse its dependence on Tarpley, who, though he was about 15 pounds overweight, was playing brilliantly, averaging 20.4 points and 11 rebounds. He had been clean in his twice-weekly random drug testing, and sounded like he was on the edge of maturity.

"They expect me to be there for all the games, not just halfway and then take a couple of months off or something," Tarpley said before he got hurt. "I need them just like they need me, really. I'm more focused than I ever have been before. More mature and wiser."

The Mavericks already had scuttled Coach Richie Adubato's plan to split minutes equally between Lever, Derek Harper and Rolando Blackman. Lever wasn't sure it would work anyway, but was willing to give it a shot.

"It's a bad situation when you go and promise people so many minutes, and you can't live up to it," Lever said. "I don't have any problems with it. I don't have any problems coming off the bench, playing a role, whether it's 19 minutes, 28 minutes, 38 minutes. I'll play the minutes they want."

Now, of course, it's moot. So may be the Mavericks' title hopes. Bird: Lakers Critique

Larry Bird has seen the Lakers struggle, and it pains him greatly. "If they go 0-82, I wouldn't mind," he said.

Feel the pathos? Seriously, Bird was on the other side of things last season, coming off his double heel surgery and agreeing to disagree with former coach Jimmy Rodgers. Now the Celtics have an injection of youth and it's Los Angeles that's feeling for common ground with a new head man, Mike Dunleavy.

"They're going to go through the same thing we did," Bird said. "We've had two different coaches in the last couple of years and it's been tough. But you've got to listen. It's going to take time. Our attitude's a lot better this year than last year. We were always on the edge."

Boston is starting Kevin Gamble at small forward, moving soon-to-be-34-year-old Bird to power forward. It's a masterstroke, getting the vastly underrated Gamble in the game and keeping Bird away from the quicksilver small forwards. His scoring is a little lower, but he's rebounding and he still can pass, as his 13-assist effort against the Bullets attests.

"I think we're better, but I don't think we're a championship-caliber team," he said. "We feel we're going to be in the battle. What we've got to do is just play the game the way it's supposed to be played. My role's changed a little bit, but this team still needs me to perform as well as I can, just like {Kevin} McHale and {Robert} Parish. It's a good blend." Three Bucks Better

Milwaukee's unexpected quick start means their guard trio of Alvin Robertson, Jay Humphries and Ricky Pierce is getting some attention. It's about time. You never hear about them, yet they all can handle the ball. You never see them, yet they all can shoot. You never read about them, yet they all can play defense.

"I think Milwaukee's the best guard trio in the league," Bullets Coach Wes Unseld said.

Robertson, who is renegotiating his contract -- filled to the brim with deferred money -- is leading the league in steals at 4.78 per game, and averages 16.9 points and 6.2 assists. Pierce, as usual, leads the team in scoring at 22.1 points per game and is shooting nearly 50 percent (12 for 27) from three-point range. Humphries is all-around steady, averaging 15.4 points and 5.1 assists per game.

"It's funny, because year in and year out, they rate us low," Humphries said. "And year in and year out, we always seem to be there. It seems like things would change. I think our three-guard rotation is one of the best in the league. We have very versatile players. Everyone can get in there and mix it up on defense."

Said Pierce: "A lot of it has to do with being in Milwaukee. We don't get much coverage. If we were in New York, somewhere, we'd probably be known as the best guards who ever played." . . .

That Lee you see in New Jersey's box score is indeed ex-Towson State star Kurk Lee.