Lakers and Mavs play nice ... for now
It started off as a casual conversation. A few curious Los Angeles-based reporters spotting notoriously blustery Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban floating around the court before Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals at Staples Center on Monday night.
Lakers coach Phil Jackson had just offered up a few gentle barbs in Cuban's direction during his pregame address.
And so, predictably, a group of reporters ran over the Cuban for a response or a reaction. Something? Anything?
Instead Cuban just smiled, visibly turning red while metaphorically biting his tongue.
"I'm just going to wait," he said, trying but failing to hold back a coy smile. "I'm just going to hold my tongue and wait right now."
He could tell we were disappointed. He might even have felt bad about it.
Over the years, Cuban has enjoyed his testy exchanges with Jackson through the media.
"Oh yeah," he said. "It's only fun to pick on somebody if they can fight back."
But for now, like this potentially explosive series, and like Jackson, he's holding back.
Waiting, brewing, for the right moment to pop.
"That's what makes it so when I say something," he said, trailing off before finishing the thought. "When you say something, you have to be more emphatic."
The Mavericks' 96-94 upset win in Game 1 of the series may have sent a few shock waves around the league and through the two-time defending champions.
But on the day after, both teams had settled back into the cautious courtship and soft paws of attention that has so far made for a strange beginning to this nascent, but potentially volatile, rivalry.
"This is our first time facing each other in the playoffs so it's tough for me to really call it a rivalry," Bryant said Tuesday after the Lakers practiced. The regular-season games between the two teams "have been fun matchups, I enjoy playing against them. They compete, they work hard, they don't quit. So from the competitive standpoint, I really enjoy it.
"I really don't know what to tell you because only thing I know from those Dallas Maverick teams of the past is what I saw on TV."
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It should be noted that Bryant went on to defend Dallas' past playoff performances.
But like Jackson and the rest of his teammates, he kept a safe distance from the Mavericks.
During the Lakers' run to three straight NBA Finals, Dallas has been just another team hunting them. Each year getting closer -- maybe -- to dethroning them. Each year looking -- strangely -- a lot more like them.
The Mavericks have been built, admittedly even, to beat the Lakers. Every part designed to match-up with its Lakers counterpart.
It remains to be seen whether this form of imitation will be flattering on the Mavericks. The best teams are generally forged organically, with an ideal in mind, not a villain to take down.
But this approach seems to have produced an interesting dynamic in the Mavericks.
Having finally met the object of their pursuit, Dallas seems unburdened of the pressure and angst that has led to so many implosions over the past decade.
"I'm pretty sure a lot of people had us breaking down mentally," Dallas guard Jason Terry said. "Especially when they seen the plays that ended the first half. My foul, Dirk's technical.
"But not this team. In year's prior, maybe. But we're a mentally strong team. You've got to give a lot of credit to our veteran core guys that have been down the block before.
"We realize what's at stake. When you have past failures, you've got to learn sooner or later."
Which is how and probably why Cuban found himself smiling so coyly before Game 1.
"He's under control," Terry said of Cuban. "I honestly believe, past failures. You learn, you live, you go forward."
The question is just how long that restraint and self-control will last.
Cuban managed to hold his tongue Monday, but his smile sold him out.
He's about to burst.
And if the Mavericks' near self-immolation at the end of the first half is any indication, his team isn't that far behind him.
Across town on Tuesday, the Lakers were still working out just how concerned they should be about the way Monday's series opener ended.
Though it usually works out for the Lakers, in the back of their minds they all know the next hole they dig for themselves could be their last.
"In 2008, we kind of waltzed our way to the NBA Finals and then didn't win it," Lakers guard Derek Fisher said. "The last couple years we've had more interesting, dynamic times getting to the Finals and then we figured out a way to win in the Finals .
"We've just done what's necessary to win and we've accepted the fact that it won't be perfect."
True to form, Jackson said that his message to his team Tuesday was to focus in deeper on "the purpose of what we're doing out there," but reminded his team that if a play here or there at the end of the game would've gone the Lakers' way, the negative narrative of the day would be different.
When prompted, and yes, I'll admit that my question led him in that direction (not that it'll make any difference to the league office), Jackson fired off his first missive about the officiating in this series.
"The decision at the end of the game where we couldn't put a substitute in, I think was misplaced," Jackson said.
Compared to some of his past complaints, it was pretty dull.
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But compared to how dull he was in the first round of the playoffs it was at least something.
Privately, the Lakers' coaching staff was annoyed by the rough play that was allowed in the first four games of the New Orleans Hornets series.
"Pau got fouled on almost every play," one team source scoffed after Game 4.
But they sat on that frustration for another, more worthwhile moment.
Tuesday afternoon, Jackson was still holding back.
Waiting, like Cuban and this potentially great series, for the right moment to pop.
Ramona Shelburne is a columnist and a reporter for ESPNLosAngeles.com