Mavs still riding out in front, but all isn't OK in this corral

ON THE NBA

Pro Basketball

March 02, 2003|By Milton Kent

Maybe it's the contrary streak in Don Nelson speaking, but for a guy who's coaching the team with the NBA's best record, he sure seems awfully cranky.

Nelson's Dallas Mavericks have led the field all season, bursting out of the gate with a 14-game winning streak to start the season. They have three of the league's best if unheralded players in guard Steve Nash and forwards Dirk Nowitzki and Michael Finley, and they play the game with a crowd-pleasing, wide-open style that produces more points than any other team.

But the Mavericks have spent a good part of the season trying to convince the rest of the league that they really are that good, and it sounds as though Nelson has stopped trying.

"Who underestimates us?" Nelson said last week before the Mavericks beat the Washington Wizards in overtime. "I really don't argue with them, not necessarily. I think we're just a good team doing the best that we can, and we've been pretty successful so far."

When the rest of the world thought the Mavericks could get better by adding a big body in the middle, Nelson, who is also Dallas' general manager, stood pat at the recent trading deadline, but wouldn't say if he was content with the roster he has.

However, he has put his finger on why Dallas, which won 57 games last season but was bounced by Sacramento in the second round of the Western Conference playoffs, has managed to stay good.

"Our `Big Three' has been healthy, other than a couple of games," Nelson said. "We've had our share of injuries, but somebody has stepped up. We've been real consistent. Our defense is better."

Nelson might want to rethink his rosy assessment of Dallas' defense. The Mavericks have gone almost exclusively to a zone to mask their interior deficiencies, which becomes important against teams with solid frontcourt games.

Take the Kings, for instance. The host Mavericks dropped their sixth straight to Sacramento (which includes three straight in the playoffs) Thursday in overtime, as the Kings repeatedly drove down the middle on them. That doesn't bode well for Dallas in the playoffs, provided, of course, it can get past a possible early-round matchup with the Los Angeles Lakers.

"We've got to get over the hump against this team," said Dallas center Raef LaFrentz. "When it comes down to it, they're just a little bit better."

The Mavericks had better hope they aren't saying that come May.

Quiz

The Lakers' Kobe Bryant needs 14 points to become the youngest player in NBA history to get to 10,000. Who is now the youngest? Here's a hint: The player in question left North Carolina for the NBA after his junior year.

Past, present collide

Neither Washington coach Doug Collins nor his Indiana colleague, Isiah Thomas, is old enough to be considered a graybeard. But they've both been around the NBA long enough to know that the game has changed considerably since they joined the league.

To their credit, neither Thomas nor Collins, who were both pretty good players in their day, pulled out the "players were better in my day" card when both ruminated about the game before their teams met this past week.

But they each spoke to a different climate that exists around the game as opposed to during the 1970s and 1980s, when they played.

"Somebody asked me the other day if I had a wish, and I said it would be for Charles Oakley and Patrick Ewing and Michael Jordan to be 25 for one week and not play one game and practice for seven days so our guys can see what greatness is all about, how hard you work and how you prepare," Collins said.

"I think that there are so many of these guys who see these guys at this age now and they don't understand how they devoured the game when they were 25 and how they practiced and how they worked."

Thomas doesn't fault the work ethic of current players per se, but the sense of entitlement they've been given.

"Everything that you used to get for winning, you get now for joining," Thomas said. "Just because you join, everything you used to get for winning, you get that now for joining. Consequently, when you win, what do you really get?"

Officials whistled

Ever so quietly, word filtered out last week that two NBA officials were disciplined for improper conduct toward players and coaches.

According to ESPN.com writer Marc Stein, the league suspended Derrick Stafford for two games and fined Steve Javie $1,000.

Because the league does not comment on or make punishment toward referees public, it is not known for which events the referees were sanctioned.

However, Stafford was heard telling Miami coach Pat Riley, "It's not about you. Go on TV crying," at the end of a Heat-Portland game last month during which the Trail Blazers outshot Miami by a wide margin at the free-throw line. That came a week after Stafford told Sacramento guard Doug Christie to tell his teammate, Vlade Divac, "This is not the last game of yours I'll be working this season," during a Kings-Lakers game.

Javie, privately regarded by players and coaches as one of the most contentious officials, was accused by Riley in December of telling Riley the season before that he and other referees were getting "absolute delight" in watching the Heat struggle.

Riley was fined $50,000 for those comments, but they forced the league to at least take a look at the growing incivility between officials, and coaches and players. During All-Star Weekend, commissioner David Stern issued a blanket warning to all sides to stop whining, and that's a good step. The next one should be for Stern to make officials' punishment just as public as for the players and coaches.

Quiz answer

Bet you thought the answer was Michael Jordan, right? Well, the current youngest player to reach 10,000 points is Bob McAdoo, who got to that landmark at the age of 25 years, 148 days.

Quote

"There was more snow than people." - Houston center Yao Ming, on the conditions Thursday night in Washington.

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