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Monday, May 5, 2003
Mavericks' great escape keeps them four-midable

By Marc Stein
ESPN.com

Editor's note: New season, new Stein Line. Now, Marc Stein's NBA report can be found every weekday during the playoffs.

DALLAS -- There they are again, all lined up just like last spring, bunched neatly because Nick Van Exel swished a long 3-pointer on a broken play, and because Dirk Nowitzki kept swishing after that.

Lakers. Spurs. Kings. And lastly the Mavericks, barely there but deservedly so.

The NBA can finally say it will be hosting another Final Four, on the West side of the playoff bracket, and no one can say the Mavericks sneaked in. It would have been easier to surrender to all the snickers about joining Greg Norman and Jana Novotna and the '78 Red Sox -- or was it the '86 Red Sox? -- in the Choke City club of historic collapses. The Mavericks managed instead to play out of their opening-round scare, just like L.A., just like San Antonio ... even if this was the scariest of the scares.

STEIN SIDELINES
MALE OF THE WEEKEND
Chauncey BillupsChauncey Billups
On Friday night, Billups became the second player in these playoffs (along with Bonzi Wells) to score 40 points in a playoff game without a single 40-point game in the regular season. Billups then scored 37 points in Detroit's Game 7 clincher over Orlando on Sunday. Safe to say Darrell Armstrong's defense wasn't troubling Chauncey any more; Billups managed just 81 points in the first five games of the series, compared to 77 in the last two.

E-MAIL OF THE WEEKEND
Who would win this game? The Texas All-Stars or the California All-Stars?
Joseph Bonjour
Texas or California, presumably
(Didn't list his hometown, but we liked the question)

STEIN: Timely query, Joseph, with two teams from Texas and two teams from California filling out the NBA's Final Four bracket -- this being the Final Four since we know whoever survives it is going to dominate the NBA Finals. Anyway, as for your All-Star concept, depends if you're including non-playoff teams. Assuming that we're only using playoff teams and excluding Houston, Golden State and the L.A. Clippers -- to keep the numbers even -- you'd have to go with California. Check out Cali's starting lineup: Kobe Bryant and Mike Bibby at guard, Chris Webber and Peja Stojakovic at forward, and Shaquille O'Neal at center. Which doesn't even account for all the Kings (Vlade Divac, Doug Christie, Bobby Jackson, Keon Clark, Jim Jackson, etc.) available off the bench. Team Texas couldn't match that depth, although a frontline of Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki ain't bad.

Send Stein a question

SPEAK OF THE WEEKEND
John Stockton"Something like that, yeah."
Utah's typically understated John Stockton, responding to a reporter who asked him to clarify his stunningly swift disclosure that he had just told Jazz management that he was planning to retire.

STAT OF THE WEEKEND
17

Dallas got 17 rebounds from its guards Sunday: Michael Finley (eight), Steve Nash (six) and Nick Van Exel (three). In the Mavericks' other three wins in the Portland series, those three combined to average nine rebounds. The rebounds they grabbed Sunday enabled Dallas to match Portland on the boards (42-42) and point to a key in the forthcoming Sacramento series. With Kings just as fond of perimeter shots as the Mavericks, there should be considerable opportunities for long rebounds in the teams' second-round matchup. Bonus boards from Finley, Nash and Van Exel will be crucial.

STAT OF THE WEAK-END
29.4

Orlando's Tracy McGrady has the highest playoff scoring average among players who have never won a playoff series. At 0-4 lifetime in the postseason, matching Grant Hill's playoff record, McGrady's scoring average is 29.4 points. Minnesota's Kevin Garnett, at 0-7, is fourth with a scoring average of 21.1 points.

"You know that's a part of the deal when you haven't won a championship," said Avery Johnson, referring to the loud skepticism that Dallas has heard all season, long before its fall from 3-0 up to 3-3 and culminating with Sunday's Game 7 triumph over the Portland Trail Blazers.

"Even when we won in San Antonio (in the lockout season), people said, 'Well, it was a short season.' But it wasn't a short playoffs. People are going to talk about you when you haven't won a championship."

Johnson, the future head coach, was asked by Mavericks coach Don Nelson to give the pre-game pep talk, because even Nelson acknowledges that he can't match Avery for oratory. Speeches alone aren't going to work against the rested and mighty Kings -- expect Lakers vs. Spurs to be the tighter series -- but credit the Mavericks for responding to AJ's proddings, Nelson's tactical switches and this new environment, which wasn't the friendliest.

It was a game they were supposed to win, yet it was a game they were never supposed to play, because Dallas' series with the banged-up Blazers should never have gotten this far. At the finish, it was somewhat reminiscent of Sacramento's predicament in the conference finals a year ago, when the Kings found themselves in a Game 7 at home with L.A. The Kings had home-court advantage and were also supposed to win, but they weren't ready to topple the champs in those circumstances.

It certainly helped to play the Blazers in such circumstances, instead of the Lakers, and the Mavericks didn't let the opportunity slip. Portland had a serious experience edge -- six Blazers had played in a Game 7, compared to only Raja Bell for the Mavericks -- but it was Dallas that finished with an absolute flourish, in the face of untold consequences and their season-long penchant for late-game failings. The numbers say Portland's most reliable players are both nearly 40, but the numbers also say that the Mavericks missed only four shots in the entire fourth quarter, with way more pressure on the home team than anything Scottie Pippen or Arvydas Sabonis were feeling.

Had the Mavericks lost, it's highly likely that Nelson would have been eliminated as coach soon after. It's equally probable that a loss would have rolled into a full-scale breakup of the team's core, with Van Exel and perhaps even a member of Dallas' Big Three at risk for trades.

Some of those changes still might happen in the summer, especially if the Mavs vs. Kings rematch is as lopsided as last May's 4-1 rout. Yet that doesn't change how Dallas handled Sunday's final five minutes, against a long-limbed team that can play withering playoff defense when it wants to.

"Maybe if we'd have lost, all those things would have come up," said Michael Finley, the longest-serving Mav. "But I just tried to stay as positive as I could."

Said Van Exel: "This ball club is so strange. We never talk about negative things. These guys never argue, never fight, never punch one another. That's just the way these guys are. I've never been on a team like that. I don't know if it's good, I don't know if it's bad. But even though we lost three games in a row, in the fourth quarter, it wasn't like, 'Here we go again.' "

No it wasn't. With a game atypical of a regular season in which the Mavericks won 60 games but made you remember their fall-from-ahead losses more, they responded to a 90-88 deficit with a 19-5 finishing kick. In that span, Dallas missed only one shot and one free throw, while outboarding the bigger Blazers by a healthy 6-0. Nowitzki, especially, showed a veteran's patience, after a nightmare Game 6 (four points) and a quiet first half (eight). With Rasheed Wallace committed to shadowing Nowitzki like no one could ever remember, Dallas' go-to German kept probing for openings until he found a few at the end, scoring 12 of his 31 points in the fourth quarter.

Van Exel scored 12 of his own in the fourth, to finish with 26, including the huge three on a busted play when Nowitzki inexplicably refused to set the screen he needed. It was the sort of playoff eruption that established Van Exel's reputation for fearless play at crunch time, which sprouted in his days with the pre-Shaq Lakers, and it clearly pleased him to break out against a Blazers team that -- as Van Exel revealed late last season -- has viewed the Mavericks as "a bunch of soft white boys who can't get it done."

Of course, it remains to be seen how much they can really achieve against the Kings, who are fresher and, of greater concern, deeper than they were last season. The Mavs, meanwhile, have gotten thinner: Bell was allotted only 13 seconds of playing time, with Nelson really only trusting seven players these days. Much will be expected of Van Exel and Nash, who enjoyed his own step-up performance Sunday with 21 points, seven assists and six rebounds.

Van Exel and Nash were outplayed by Mike Bibby and Bobby Jackson in the '02 playoffs, which is largely why Sacramento controlled that series even after losing Peja Stojakovic halfway through Game 3. The Kings are indeed "more like us" than Portland, as Dallas' Raef LaFrentz opined, but the Mavericks don't have two-way role players like Jackson, Doug Christie and Scot Pollard, all of whom can hurt the opposition at both ends.

All of which might explain why Van Exel tempered his giddiness with his usual frankness after celebrating Sunday's escape.

It's a big step, but what have we really accomplished? We still haven't accomplished anything. We take it as a positive that we're still playing ... but one series doesn't really mean anything. It gets tougher.
Nick Van Exel

"It's a big step, but what have we really accomplished?" Van Exel said. "We still haven't accomplished anything. We take it as a positive that we're still playing ... but one series doesn't really mean anything. It gets tougher."

The loquacious Mark Cuban opted for pragmatism, too, undoubtedly knowing that questions about the future and snickers about the Mavericks' defense and rebounding won't just go away now. He knows where the Mavs rank for most observers, as the Final Four participants pair off this week in Texas.

That would be fourth.

"It's not a relief," Cuban said with a chuckle, "because you guys will be doing the same thing for the next round, depending on what happens."

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here. Also, send Stein a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.