- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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DALLAS -- It's pretty much the only thing Dirk Nowitzki has been unable to produce in the 2011 playoffs.
Not even Nowitzki can muster a working hypothesis that purports to explain Mark Cuban's increasing reluctance to say anything for public consumption.
Surely you've got a theory, Dirk. Right?
"That," Nowitzki replied, "is a good question.
"He never told me that he was gonna do it, but I kinda like it."
Nowitzki has been the unquestioned face of this franchise since the free-agent departure of Steve Nash in the summer 2004, but Cuban has been the undisputed voice of the Mavs -- for richer and poorer -- from the moment he burst into the NBA's consciousness as Dallas' boisterous new owner in January 2000.
This postseason, though, Cuban has been as surprising as the Mavs themselves, muzzling himself to the point that another valid question is in circulation.
Namely: Is it time to consider the possibility that there really is a new Mark Cuban?
Two games into the NBA Finals, after Cuban's monthlong insistence on silence survived two more tough tests, it's getting harder to dismiss the notion as some sort of ruse. The 52-year-old billionaire formerly known as the most flammable of NBA owners didn't erupt as some expected after the Mavericks fell behind in a series for the first time in these playoffs with a Game 1 defeat in Miami. Cuban then sat stone-faced as Dwyane Wade hovered triumphantly over the Mavericks' bench for a few extra seconds after draining a 3-pointer that staked the Miami Heat to a seemingly impenetrable 15-point lead in Game 2.
In the same building where "several acts of misconduct" infamously cost him a $250,000 fine during the 2006 NBA Finals, Cuban was clearly trying harder than ever to exude some sideline calm, unaware that Wade's combustible 3 was about to unleash an epic Mavs comeback.
It's been well-documented that Cuban hasn't said much of anything on the record to reporters lately, but this was a different sort of restraint. It's an effort that his players and coaches clearly appreciate, too, since he's delivering something Nowitzki has been seeking since the aftermath of Dallas' 2006 Finals collapse, when Dirk responded to four straight losses to Miami on the game's biggest stage by announcing that his boss needs "to learn how to control himself" as much as that poise-shy edition of the Mavs needed to.
"I think the way Mark has handled things this season and this postseason has been phenomenal," said Mavericks guard Jason Terry, one of two holdovers from the '06 team along with Nowitzki. "He's learned. All of us have. We've grown mentally tougher together. That's what losing does to you."
Asked if he thinks Cuban's determination to stonewall the media and rein himself during games was actually helping what threatens to trump 2006 as the Mavs' best-ever playoff run, Nowitzki added: "It hasn't hurt. Let me put it like that."
It all started in the Mavericks' second-round series with the Los Angeles Lakers as silence born mostly out of superstition. Before the first two games of that series in L.A., Cuban made himself available to the media on the floor about an hour before tipoff as he usually does on the road, only to be surrounded by local reporters hounding him about possibly buying the Los Angeles Dodgers and past quote feuds with Phil Jackson and Ron Artest. Quickly tiring of that line of questioning -- and obviously thrilled to be leaving Hollywood with two wholly unexpected victories -- Cuban had all the incentive he needed to start avoiding the press pack.
And once the wins kept stacking up, there was no going back. Cuban still engages in pregame small talk with media types, even now before games in the Finals, but he's made it clear that he will reject any reporter's attempt to conduct an on-the-record conversation for the foreseeable future. Cuban's only printable comments for the past month have been restricted to a couple of stock phrases or tweets -- such as "We believe" and "Go Mavs" -- and his "We ain't done yet" vow to Mavs fans during the Western Conference trophy presentation.
Yet it's the in-game determination to avoid the spotlight, even more than the media boycott, that has won Cuban admiration in the locker room, after years of whispers and suggestions that Cuban's crusade to improve NBA refereeing created a corresponding blame-the-refs culture that has held the Mavs back.
The truth is that there's always been some upside for the Mavs' two biggest stars to Cuban doing the bulk of the interviews, since that lessens the media load on Nowitzki and Jason Kidd, neither of whom thirsts to do a lot of talking. But Cuban's apparent determination to challenge referees less and avoid a repeat of '06 -- when he and the officiating shared all the bold headlines with Wade and Pat Riley -- has been received by his players and coaches as a contribution from the boss to rival his $90 million payroll.
"He's been very disciplined," Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said before the Finals began. "I will use that word in a very complimentary way, because I really feel like what he's doing is important."
Said Nowitzki: "This league is about the players. It's about Miami against Dallas now. It's not the owners.
"I love what he's doing."
Even without a full explanation.
Maybe that will finally come when the Mavs' playoff ride is over, but the closest thing to an admission from Cuban that anything has changed occurred shortly after the closest thing to a slip-up.
At halftime of the Mavericks' Game 2 loss to Oklahoma City in the Western Conference finals, Cuban started complaining to the officiating supervisor in attendance -- longtime NBA referee Bernie Fryer -- about the three-man crew working that night: Greg Willard, Bill Spooner and Tom Washington. And with Fryer seated just behind a press table, several reporters heard the exchange, during which Fryer defended his refs and Cuban responded by saying: "You're not watching the same game I am."
But by the end of the intermission, when he had to pass Fryer and the assembled press again to make it back to his regular spot on the baseline for Mavs home games, Cuban had calmed considerably.
"The old Mark," Cuban joked as he walked by, "would have been fined already."
He avoided a fine in that instance and otherwise has scarcely flirted with the prospect of writing yet another check to a league office that has docked him nearly $1.8 million over the years.
Which must be why NBA commissioner David Stern, in his annual Finals news conference earlier this week, didn't even want to risk trigging a relapse by speculating about Cuban's motivations.
"It's too delicious," Stern said, "but I'll pass."
Said Mavericks center Tyson Chandler, likewise skittish about tempting fate: "He hasn't talked thus far and we made it this far. So I don't want him to start talking now."
1hEthan Sherwood Strauss
1dMatt Walks, ESPN.com