Friday, May 9, 2003
Mavs, Kings have chance to prove something
By Marc Stein
Editor's note: New season, new Stein Line. Now, Marc Stein's NBA report can be found every weekday during the playoffs.
DALLAS -- Peja Stojakovic and Vlade Divac sat in the trainer's room, talking about what happened in this building almost exactly a year ago, when Stojakovic stepped on Divac's foot and rolled his ankle and never really healed until halfway through this season.
Michael Finley and Nick Van Exel, over in the home locker room, shared a pretty similar conversation.
"Peja and I were just talking about that," Divac said.
A few minutes later, asked for his recollections, Finley said: "Nick and I were just talking about that."
The parallels to that Thursday night in early May were tough to ignore on this Thursday night in early May, even amid an offensive binge for the ages. The Dallas Mavericks scored a record-setting 83 points in the first half, addressing all of their defensive frailties by making seemingly every shot they took, and then the pain really started for the Kings.
Third quarter: Chris Webber is carried to the locker room by four teammates after his left knee gives.
Fourth quarter: Bobby Jackson takes a hit to the face that results in a fractured right cheekbone, albeit with no visible swelling as he left the arena.
Next up: Back-to-back games in Sacramento, against which Mavericks owner Mark Cuban protested so vehemently, in part because a back-to-back would increase the likelihood or magnify the impact of injuries.
Add up Thursday's scoreboard wreckage and the pain quotient and, rather suddenly, this Mavericks-Kings rematch has a whole new look. Van Exel restored a measure of the Mavericks' manhood, loudly challenging them to stop cowering at the sight of the mighty Kings and then delivering 36 points to spark a 132-110 runaway in Game 2. The now-uncertain status of Webber and Jackson, meanwhile, potentially takes the series in several unexpected directions.
First we await word whether the injuries are of a long-term variety.
If they are, then we proceed to a decisive either/or.
Either the Kings, after two full seasons of taking these kinds of hits, continue to be the NBA's kings of playing hurt, so obscenely deep -- by today's standards -- that they can keep winning without their All-Star and the game's most decorated sixth man.
Or the Mavericks do what they couldn't do last May. Which is: Capitalize on the Kings' significant loss to -- get this -- actually advance.
In their maiden playoff showdown, Dallas scored a valuable split at Arco Arena in the first two games and then watched as Stojakovic was carried off in the third quarter with a severely sprained ankle. Problem was, Dallas lost that Game 3 ... and Game 4 ... and Game 5, too. The Kings nearly toppled the Lakers in the conference finals even though Stojakovic also missed most of that series.
A year later, the Mavericks might be presented with a shot at redemption. Chances are Jackson will throw on a mask or goggles and play, but Webber's status is far more uncertain.
Before tipoff, sitting at his locker with his knees and ankles covered by ice, Webber admitted that "I cringe at the way I look out there" while watching tape. He said the pain (back included) was making it tough to sleep after games and forcing him to skip every practice. He spoke of off-season surgery to finally address his troublesome left ankle, which has cost him 30 games over the past two seasons, and which he originally injured in an exhibition game against -- you guessed it -- the Mavericks.
Of course, with Webber scoring 31 points before Thursday's buckle, and a healthy 25 points and nine assists in Game 1, there was never a sense that Webber was facing immediate peril. It's different now, if he has to miss the weekend games or more. Divac, Doug Christie, Mike Bibby -- they all were eerily quiet in Game 2, Bibby admittedly "passive" (his word) for the second straight game.
Much as the Kings have proven they can play shorthanded, they'd obviously rather not, and definitely not without the guy whose championship obsession is the team blueprint. Safe to say they're praying Webber was right when he said post-game, "I just twisted it."
"If (Webber's injury is) bad, it's going to be hard," Divac said. "It seems like we're getting challenges all the time. But we're a deep team. It's going to be tough, but I think we're the better team."
The Mavericks officially joined the series with a rotation overhaul, going as small as possible by dropping Raef LaFrentz and Shawn Bradley from prominence and turning to Eduardo Najera as a 6-foot-8 center and Adrian Griffin as Dirk Nowitzki's frontcourt partner. Griffin and Najera hooked up on a hoop on the game's first possession and Dallas barely missed for two quarters.
Instead of the usual sideline pick-and-rolls, the Mavericks made an effort to run them in the middle of the floor, a subtle switch that clicked early. Holes opened all over the floor and Van Exel, after shooting 1-for-17 on 3-pointers in last May's series, was 3-for-4 on threes in the second quarter alone.
"If you would have told me we would have 60 points at halftime, I'd take it," Stojakovic said. "But they had 80."
Actually it was Mavericks 83, Kings 61. "That's games between us and them," Divac said.
Finley insists that the Mavericks have learned from all these games between them. The main lesson being, after failing to exploit Peja's absence last May, that the best strategy -- if Webber does have to sit -- is to just ignore who is or isn't on the floor.
"We have to take advantage of their loss, but you can't take that team lightly," Finley said. "You never know how a wounded animal will react. But we have an opportunity either way."
MALE OF THE NIGHT
Nick Van Exel
Went into the Sacramento series ripping himself for his poor play in last May's Sacramento series. He scored 20 points in the opener and then a stunning 36 points in Thursday's Game 2, good for a new playoff career high and an even better game than Van Exel played in Game 7 of the Portland series.
E-MAIL OF THE NIGHT
The Lakers, over the two games so far, had only 21 assists on 70 baskets. In an offense that is predicated on ball and player movement, isn't this number absurdly low? How do they address this, if at all?
STEIN: Yep. Absurdly low, Tim. Twenty-one assists compared to 35 turnovers overall. Shaquille O'Neal is the Lakers' assist co-leader, with a whopping total of four in the two games. All of which suggests the Lakers have lost their focus on offense. But you have to credit the Spurs' defense some, too. Malik Rose isn't scoring the ball, but he's having a good defensive series. David Robinson is part of the Shaq platoon, and Bruce Bowen is thriving against Kobe Bryant with a better team concept in place than the Spurs had last May. Because the Spurs are largely pulling off single coverage against the two icons, the other Lakers just aren't getting many open looks. If Shaq and Kobe can't open the game for their thinning supporting cast, the championship run will indeed be over.
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SOUNDBITE OF THE NIGHT
"I ice all day. I'm not even cold right now."
— Sacramento's Chris Webber, wearing ice bags on his knees and ankles during a pre-game chat. Little did Webber know he would suffer a knee injury hours later.
STAT OF THE NIGHT
Detroit's Tayshaun Prince has averaged 13.6 points in the past five playoff games after scoring a total of two points in the Pistons' first four playoff games, two of them DNP-CDs.
STAT OF THE TIGHT
Two points and two rebounds in 15 minutes is all Sacramento's Vlade Divac could muster in Game 2. Mike Bibby, with just 16 points in two games on 5-for-15 shooting, is another contender here.
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.