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Cowboys? This Thanksgiving it's all Mavs

11/23/2000

There is something America should know about Thanksgiving in Dallas. Something important to digest before the nation sits down to feast with those of us living in the land of turkey, pigskin ... and the NBA's best road record in the Western Conference.

This November, Big D tradition has been tweaked a tad.

On this Thanksgiving, the blessed Cowboys are the no-hopers. They've won four games. They were blanked in Baltimore for the first shutout suffered by Jerry Jones' lads in almost a decade. They will be fortunate, against mighty Minnesota, to covereth the spread.

On this Thanksgiving, the Cowboys are the stuffing and the Mavericks are the story. The 'Boys have gone 4-7 and the Mavericks, even more unexpectedly, lost just four of their first 12.

Tuesday's Mavs setback against Seattle, fresh off a six-games-in-10-days road trip, only mildly dulled the shine off the 8-4 start. In spite of the road-heavy schedule -- and the fact that its best rebounder and post-up option is a hobbling 6-4 reserve named Greg Buckner -- Dallas' long-suffering basketball franchise is inching out of the muck. Nothing is clinched in the first few weeks of an interminable regular season, but the Mavericks have at least managed to secure membership in the club of opening-month surprises.

Foremost on the list can only be Philadelphia. Phoenix is also up there. Sacramento and Cleveland, too. And now you can include the Mavericks, who are trying to halt the league's longest absence from the playoffs -- an imperfect 10 seasons and counting.

They're doing it with liberal doses of Don Nelson's Small Ball. They're relying on a jump shot-or-die mentality that alternately thrills and tortures their fans. Most of all, they're flourishing in spite of the fact that none of their many offseason acquisitions have come close to a home run.

And in the face of an ongoing Cuban Whistle Crisis.

The Mavericks are 3-0 in the last three games their outspoken owner has
skipped, all road games that followed the Phoenix incident in which he had
to be escorted away from referee Hue Hollins. In the last four games Mark
Cuban has attended, the Mavericks have only won one, with Cuban fined after
each of the three defeats. He gets uncharacteristically silent when such
numbers are thrown at him.

It's not a trend even a billionaire can afford, unless Cuban wants to turn every referee in the league against his team. We know he can handle the fines; it's the hidden charges -- ask Christian Laettner or Shawn Bradley if the refs ever forget a whiner -- that could prove most costly.

Somehow, though, employees of the Cuban regime have ignored it all. Believe it: This is easily one of the NBA's most resilient, together teams.

Dirk Nowitzki has overcome first-year Bust Of The Draft snickers to engage Sacramento's Peja Stojakovic in a nightly Best Foreigner In The League duel. Soft? Nowitzki, playing with a bum shoulder throughout the six-game trip, posted three straight double-doubles leading to victories at Seattle, Vancouver and Utah. Those wins gave the Mavericks a 5-2 road record, best in the West and, through Tuesday, tied for the most road victories in the league.

Steve Nash, a scapegoat among Mavericks fans for much of his two seasons in town, came back from Nash-ional Hero duty in the Olympics for Canada to become "the glue guy" Nelson always talks about. Nash gets everyone on the squad giddy and chatty and united, whether it's the introverted Michael Finley or the churlish Laettner or minutes rival Howard Eisley. There's also this: Nash is averaging 13.9 points and 7.0 assists, numbers which jump to 20.5 points and 14.5 assists in his two recent showdowns with John Stockton. That's the same Stockton who Nash has been expected to equal since his West Coast Conference days at Santa Clara. "It's only because of our skin tone," Nash said, brushing off the comparison.

There are some other interesting features here, even though no one in the Mavericks' front office is printing playoff tickets just yet. Finley has settled into his typical Iron Man rhythm: 18.3 points per game, 39.5 minutes per game. Bradley probably cost the Mavericks the Seattle game with a needless elbow and a weak post move in crunch time, but he has been a legitimately game-changing factor on defense: 3.85 blocks per game. Laettner, while not nearly the impact player Dallas thought it was getting, did hold Karl Malone to a season-low 13 points Monday night. Even the coaching staff is deep in the heart of the Texas, with Nelson and Del Harris acting as co-coaches, fronting a small army of sharp assistants: Donnie Nelson, Sidney Moncrief, Kiki Vandeweghe, etc.

The Mavericks also play consistently hard, no matter how unmercilessly Big Nellie rides them. Spectators near the bench can hear Nelson's loud scoldings of Finley and Howard Eisley on a nightly basis, but the effort never drops. Witness the loss to the Sonics on Tuesday night, just 16 hours after they got back home, and how Dallas erased a 14-point halftime deficit to take the game all the way to the buzzer. Hubert Davis had 20 third-quarter points to spark a comeback from 64-48 down, before the rested Sonics escaped with a 116-110 triumph.

"That's why we're going to be a good team," Nelson said.

Nelson, mind you, is also the first to caution that "we haven't turned the corner yet." Not with another 10 of the next 14 games on the road. Not with a per-game rebound differential of minus-5.9. Not with Eduardo Najera proving more consistent than fellow newcomers Laettner, Eisley and Courtney Alexander. Not with Buckner plagued by foot trouble -- and not with Buckner as the best board man and inside scorer.

Nelson is already on edge because he knows the beginning can be just as important as the finish. Going 16-5 last March and April, the second-best closing kick in the league behind the eventual champion Lakers, meant nothing. Why? Because the Mavericks opened 9-23.

To be more than a holiday novelty, to keep siphoning spotlight away from the crumbling Cowboys, the Mavericks have to last longer than 13 games. Or 16 games.

"I think the mood has changed around here," Nash said. "We expect to win games, and I think that's why we've been winning. Really except for the Utah game, we've actually been playing poorly and winning.

"But we've got to make the playoffs. Now is the time to prove that's really where we belong and stop just talking about it."

Marc Stein, who covers the NBA for The Dallas Morning News, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.