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Gooden relishes role as spot starter

DALLAS -- Drew Gooden wishes the circumstances that led to his entrance into the Dallas Mavericks' starting lineup were different.

However, he's determined to take advantage of the opportunity. And he's off to a heck of a start in that regard.

Gooden didn't know that he was getting his first start for the Mavericks until minutes before Sunday's game in Detroit. That's because Erick Dampier became ill during pregame warm-ups and had to be rushed to a Michigan hospital with an unspecified condition that has sidelined him indefinitely.

That was three games and three double-doubles ago for Gooden.

"I've been waiting for this challenge," said Gooden, who primarily played power forward for his previous six NBA teams. "It's nothing new to me to go down there and bang. I feel like I'm more at an advantage at the 5 offensively when they're guarding me, more than anything.

"I'm comfortable in this league wherever they put me. Whatever jersey, whatever situation, I'm going to survive."

But Gooden didn't get off to a good start with the Mavericks, who brought him to Dallas on a one-year deal to platoon with Dampier.

The plan was for Dampier to start against traditional big men and Gooden to start when the Mavs played the new-age, face-up centers that bring Dampier out of his defensive comfort zone. Then Gooden suffered a rib injury during the first week of the season, causing him to miss four games. Gooden struggled to get in an offensive rhythm as a reserve, averaging only 4.3 points on 31 percent shooting in five games off the bench.

Dampier, who is averaging 7.6 points on 65 percent shooting, 9.7 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per game, played so well that coach Rick Carlisle couldn't take him out of the starting lineup.

The same can be said now of Gooden, who is a much more versatile and explosive offensive threat. The 6-foot-10, 250-pound former third overall pick has averaged 16.7 points on 61.7 percent shooting and 12 rebounds in his three starts, which were all wins. He also showed that he could defend an elite low-post scorer by hounding San Antonio Spurs star Tim Duncan into a tough shooting night.

"We all know he can score," Dirk Nowitzki said. "Basically his whole career, he's been able to put the ball in the basket, but he plays very hard. He goes to the offensive glass, competes on defense, leans on guys. He's actually a better shot-blocker than I thought he would be with his size. He's playing really well."

The Mavs are optimistic that Dampier will return to be a significant contributor again. Dampier attended Wednesday's game and appeared in good health. The Mavs are awaiting the results of more medical tests before setting a timetable for Dampier's return.

For now, Gooden is doing a great job holding down the fort.

"Right now, he's a major positive factor for us," Carlisle said. "We're going to obviously need him to continue doing that."

Whether Gooden continues to start is a decision Carlisle will make when the time comes. It's likely, assuming Dampier's return, that the centers will platoon as Carlisle originally envisioned.

Carlisle hopes to deal with the problem of having two centers who deserve to start.

Tim MacMahon covers the Mavericks for ESPNDallas.com. E-mail him at tim.macmahon@espn3.com.