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Old 06-19-06, 08:16 PM
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Mavericks have to get back to playing, not pouting

Mavericks have to get back to playing, not pouting
Mavericks have to get back to playing, not pouting
June 19, 2006

By Chris Bernucca
SportsTicker Pro Basketball Editor

DALLAS (Ticker) - After one of many disappointing playoff losses to the archrival New York Knicks in the 1990s, Miami Heat center Alonzo Mourning explained how he would handle the heartbreak.

"Adversity introduces a man to himself," Mourning said.

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If that adage is true, then the Dallas Mavericks must have met a whole new set of teammates during their wasted week in Miami as their team character has undergone a schizophrenic transformation from responsible to reprehensible.

And if the Mavericks continue to find excuses instead of answers, the best season in franchise history will end with one of the worst collapses in NBA annals.

The Mavericks - who clearly developed a newfound mental toughness to their team this season - began unraveling late Tuesday night with their collapse at the end of Game Three, assuring a long series instead of a short one.

The downward spiral continued through the week with hotel changes, a suspension and pleas for fairness that sounded somewhat immature. And it culminated with a meltdown in Game Five on Sunday night that was dripping with so much bitterness that it rivaled Miami's moist air.

In other words, it's not the Heat. It's the stupidity.

The complaints emanating from the Mavericks sounded like a day-care center. Owner Mark Cuban was glaring at NBA commissioner David Stern after questionable calls. Coach Avery Johnson was engaging in verbal battles with referees and writers.

Forward Josh Howard - who made one of the biggest strategic mistakes in some time - had to be separated from a reporter after threatening him. And forward Dirk Nowitzki threw the ball into the stands after the Mavericks had given away another golden opportunity to take control of the series and found themselves on elimination's doorstep.

"More than anything, it's frustration," Nowitzki said. "I'm an emotional player out there, and I don't think it was anything bad."

Right. Except for the fact that Nowitzki and the rest of the Mavericks have shown the Heat that they allow their emotions to get the best of them at the worst possible times.

Where once there was poise, there is now panic. Focus has been replaced by fear. And it is hard to believe Johnson when he says, "We're a team that's tough-minded."

Howard endured one of the most forgettable games in Finals history, one that almost required a dose of Prozac to correct. He began aggressively and maintained it through a hamstring twinge, entering the fourth quarter with 23 points.

And then the budding star disappeared. Over the last 17 minutes, he scored as many baskets as suspended teammate Jerry Stackhouse, who was back at the team's hotel in distant Fort Lauderdale. Howard also missed as many free throws as he made, bricking his last two after having drained his first nine.

Those came with 54 seconds left in overtime and the Mavericks leading by one. They still held a one-point lead after Nowitzki, who has been struggling with his shot, made a rainbow over Shaquille O'Neal with 9.1 seconds left, exhibiting some of the mental makeup Johnson has been talking about.

However, it vanished as quickly as it appeared. The Mavericks allowed Heat guard Dwyane Wade to dribble 60 feet between four defenders and get to the rim, where he drew a soft foul with 1.9 seconds to go.

In all, Wade was 21-of-25 from the line, the exact same numbers as the Mavericks. The only difference was Wade attacked the rim while the Mavericks attacked referees and reporters.

Asked afterward about Wade's total free throws, Johnson reversed the conversation and asked a reporter who has covered the team all season what he thought, doing so five times.

The uneasy exchange ended with the reporter asking a new question and Johnson snapping, "Don't stutter!" The coach later attempted to apologize to the reporter.

"He got to the line 25 times," said Dallas guard Devin Harris, who was unable to slow down Wade at any point. "We got three guys smothering him and yet he can still get fouled. It just amazes me."

Even more amazing was the ensuing miscommunication among the Mavericks. After Wade made the first free throw to tie the game, Johnson signaled to his players that he wanted to use his last timeout after the second free throw to advance the ball to halfcourt.

However, Howard requested a timeout right away, a huge mistake that ruined any chance of a last-second shot better than a desperation heave.

"It was clear that we said we were going to call it on the second free throw," Harris said. "I don't know what the dilemma was and why they gave it to us after the first one."

Perhaps because a statement from the referees after the game said Howard actually signaled for a timeout not once, but twice. When that was relayed to Howard, he became angry with the reporter's line of questioning and barked, "Get the (expletive) out of my face!" before being led away by a media relations representative.

Nowitzki had the gumption to suggest that the officials should have cautioned the Mavericks instead of expecting them to know the rules.

"I think that the referee, he needed to wait a little bit, and obviously they should know that we don't want to waste our timeout," he said.

This may be a minor point lost in the din of whining and complaints, but players usually are required to have a general grasp of the rules of the game they play.

And if there was a lack of cooperation on the part of the referees, could you blame them? Had they had turned on their hotel room TV at any time Saturday night, they would have seen Johnson filibustering on the discrepancy of both the number and severity of the foul calls throughout the series.

Since winning the first two games at home, the Mavericks have been knocked off stride by a number of factors - real or imagined - that do not faze teams with mental toughness. The allures of South Beach, an unfavorable league ruling and a perceived tilted whistle should not present much of a challenge to a team that claims to be serious about winning a title.

Instead of advancing low-level conspiracy theories and displaying an unhealthy paranoia, Johnson and his players should be using the many things they did well in Game Five as a foundation for the rest of the series, which will be on their home floor.

Coming off a 24-point loss, playing without one of their best scorers and watching their top player struggle again, the Mavericks still built a double-digit lead and nearly nursed it all the way home in a hostile environment. They regained the rebounding edge and made big positive plays to take the lead in the waning seconds of the fourth quarter and overtime.

"I don't know if anybody could respond in this game even the way we responded," Johnson said, which had an air of truth to it.

For the second time in the postseason, the Mavericks will be playing an elimination game Tuesday night. They can continue their current frame of mind, which almost certainly will make them the third team in NBA history to blow a 2-0 lead in the Finals.

Or they can find a way to restore the relatively new mental toughness they have displayed on occasion, as they did on the home court of the defending champion San Antonio Spurs in Game Seven of the Western Conference semifinals.
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