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Present success takes Mavs' minds off Nellie's future

4/24/2003 - Dallas Mavericks

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

Sixteen teams tried and only three succeeded. Only three teams managed to spin their serves in and seize basketball's highly coveted Two-Oh Series Lead in Round 1: Sacramento, Philadelphia and the good-start specialists from Dallas, who completed the triad late Wednesday night by winning the sort of grinding playoff game everyone says they can't win.

It's not quite as fancy or historic as a 14-0 launch, but it's not far off for the Mavericks, since a 2-0 edge on the Portland Trail Blazers should have two clear residual effects.

The lead has to demoralize the Blazers, who can no longer claim that their playoff problems are strictly Laker-induced. Portland figured it could bully the Mavericks and at least claim a split, even without the ailing Scottie Pippen, largely because it didn't have to play the Lakers for once. The Blazers' postseason losing streak has instead been stretched to nine games, after two narrow defeats to a foe it has openly mocked, meaning that they now must summon the resilience -- possibly without Pippen -- almost never seen in league history. In the NBA's 155 seven-game series to date, the team that won the first two games prevailed 148 times.

That knowledge, meanwhile, has to energize and de-pressurize the Mavericks, who didn't finish the regular season nearly as neatly as it began. At worst, taking a 2-0 lead over the bigger Blazers should revitalize team confidence, which was drained somewhat by the so-so finish. With Don Nelson facing an uncertain coaching future, and San Antonio charging relentlessly, Dallas ultimately wound up losing the No. 1 seed in the West after losing Michael Finley for 13 games and going 7-6 in that span.

Yet it was during that costly stretch that Nelson realized even he was pressing too hard. So he stopped. The coach promised himself to stop stressing over unknowns and urged his players to do the same and just play. Much as the Mavericks can't afford a letdown now, as they attempt to reach the second round for the third successive spring, grabbing a 2-nil advantage will make it easier for the Mavs to heed Nelson's Be Loose message. He doesn't want his players talking or even thinking about the coach's future, because trying to turn back the Blazers and finally make some second-round headway -- with Finley only starting to resemble himself -- will be stressful enough.

"I think I've gone through those scenarios this year where I felt that I had to win every game, that I had to win Coach of the Year to keep my job, that I had to get to the Finals to keep my job," Nelson said just before the playoffs began. "I've gone through all that stuff in my head, but I'm a better coach when I don't go through that stuff. So I'm just not going to let myself go there.

"I've had a great career: 25 years. If it doesn't happen, and I'm GM for three years, that's the contract I signed. I'm a good coach. I think I've got some years left. But if it's time, it's time. You've got to be lucky in this league to coach 25 years."

Mavericks owner Mark Cuban continues to insist that the "most likely" scenario is that Nelson, who turns 63 in May, will be on the bench for season No. 26. "There is no reason," Cuban said, "to think he won't be back."

What happens in the playoffs, mind you, could give Cuban a reason, and Cuban doesn't deny that there's some palpable tension in the organization. Nelson made three attempts, two last summer and another in December, to secure a coaching extension on a contract that calls for Nelson to spend the next six seasons in a front-office capacity. Cuban declined, citing his policy of not renegotiating contracts "with management in any of my businesses when they have a job to do." That stance, though, inevitably led to the conclusion that Nelson and his staff was being lined up as scapegoats in the event of playoff failure.

Avoiding the Lakers in the first round, at the 11th hour, seemingly eased some of that tension, except that the Mavericks have historically struggled with the Blazers' roughhouse tactics, making them prime candidates for an upset. One could argue there's actually more pressure playing Portland; Dallas would have been given no chance to beat the Lakers in an opening-round series, making Nelson's progress with this group tougher to gauge.

As a No. 3 seed with 60 victories, the Mavericks are supposed to KO the Blazers. If they do, the focus shifts to seeing if they can finally prove something in Round 2, after absorbing 4-1 smokings the past two seasons from San Antonio and Sacramento. If they don't, especially now with a 2-0 lead, it'll be a full-scale local crisis.

Which is why Nelson has to be pleased with how the Mavericks are handling all this tension, on and off the floor. This team has to get deeper and tougher in the offseason to cement its elite status, no matter who's coaching, but Dallas has actually looked more composed in the playoffs than it did in the race for No. 1 with the Spurs, overturning Portland's halftime lead in Game 1 and winning a don't-blink shootout in the fourth quarter of Game 2.

They're not the same Blazers without Pippen, whose long limbs and defensive instincts trouble Steve Nash more than anyone Nash sees, but maybe these aren't the same Mavs you remember. A better read awaits if the Mavericks secure their rematch with the Kings, but they're doing good things now, having secured that 2-0 lead only the Kings and Sixers can match.

Some of the usual ills were on display Wednesday night, when there was only one guy on the court the Mavericks had to stop and couldn't. Dallas couldn't stop Bonzi Wells from scoring -- and scoring -- and conceded a handful of costly offensive rebounds, too. Yet credit Dallas for executing its half-court offense as well it has for months, pick-and-rolling past 100 points on a night when it was Wells, not Dirk Nowitzki, who couldn't miss.

Sacramento, again, will be a more telling gauge, but you'd have to say the Mavs are making their coach look good.

"We are not going to do anything until this summer," Cuban said, acknowledging that he's bound to get more coaching questions but committed to his timetable. "We all will sit down and figure out what is best."

Strong indications persist that Cuban favors continuity and will conclude that keeping Nelson is the best course. Barring an unexpected collapse against the Blazers or a no-show against the Kings that would force a re-think, the odds favor Cuban and Nelson agreeing on an extension, with the idea of grooming Avery Johnson as Nelson's successor, so long as Avery is interested. Johnson has said he wants to keep playing, and he easily could still play for several teams despite failing to make the Mavericks' playoff roster, but Dallas clutches to him tightly. The Mavs know they have a gem of a future head coach in AJ, who already runs the occasional practice when he's not soaking up wisdom from Nelson and trusty wingman Del Harris.

Yet that's all summer stuff, as Cuban said. The Mavericks are busy now, trying to win and grow and decompress all at once. At 2-for-2 so far, busy appears to be good for them.

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.