- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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DALLAS -- A sign hangs in the Mavericks' underground practice facility that doesn't attract national press coverage. It's another sturdy dark sheet with white letters, only this one bears a simpler message than the banner that gets all the pub.
This one makes no mention of all those easy scores Sacramento used to drum Dallas out of the '02 playoffs.
This one, in the far corner of the gym, merely reads: MAKE THE EXTRA PASS!
Of course, now we know the simpler sign is just as Kings-related as the one that screams: 115 LAYUPS AND DUNKS! The Mavericks were back on the floor with their role models Tuesday night, back in the playoffs against the Assist Kings, and layups were just a product of the problem. Dunks, too.
The real problem was the passes.
It was the extra passes. The ball never stopped moving when Sacramento had it, and the Kings likewise had the better transition defense. Little wonder, then, that the difference between the teams reached a disheartening 28 points before garbage time drew Dallas to some false respectability in a 124-113 defeat.
Sacramento amassed that 28-point lead despite the fact that Mike Bibby, whose many uncontested forays to the hoop last spring inspired the famous banner, had pretty much the quietest game of anyone in Rick Adelman's top-eight rotation. Bibby collected seven assists, including a Pass O' The Night contender to Bobby Jackson as part of a breathtaking fast break in the second quarter, but he only took five shots. Bibby was happy to blend in, keep the ball in motion and then share the Kings' top-secret strategy afterward.
"We wanted to make them play defense," Bibby said.
Probably not a bad idea, against these Mavericks.
"We weren't settling for the first shot," Bibby said. "We tried to make them play defense, and it helps that the shot was going down."
It certainly was, and that created a tempo that the Mavericks, two days removed from outlasting Portland's physicality in seven games, didn't have the legs or memory for. Strange as it sounds, with limited time to plan and adjust, Dallas didn't look ready to run-and-gun.
Yet even if they were ready, the Mavericks are facing the one team that runs and guns better. Dallas' strength, to be specific, is shooting. The Kings' strength is passing, augmented by the reality that Sacramento -- after a few playoff humblings of its own -- has learned how to get back on defense when it matters.
As covered in this cyberspace before, Sacramento has Bobby Jackson, Doug Christie, Keon Clark -- players known for their defense but who never look out of place at the other end. The Mavericks don't have anyone like those three and got another combined washout in Game 1 from their $120 million center platoon: Raef LaFrentz, Shawn Bradley and the DNP'ed Evan Eschmeyer.
The Kings' bigs, meanwhile, continue to be the best passers on their team. Seven turnovers could not blight Chris Webber's night (24 points and nine assists) and Vlade Divac got involved enough to score 14 points in what amounted to a 15-minute cameo. Peja Stojakovic was the prime beneficiary of it all, totaling 26 points. Jackson added 23 in just 27 minutes off the bench.
Six days off, after closing out the Utah Jazz, clearly didn't heap the rust in.
"It was definitely a good thing for me," said Webber, who continues to be plagued by ankle and knee soreness.
Said Divac: "It's the way basketball should be played. Sometimes we overpass, but we don't take bad shots."
On this evidence, it was tough to argue. Dallas closed to within six points, 52-46, with 3:34 left in the first half on an uplifting dunk from Eduardo Najera. From there, in a 10-minute span spilling into the third quarter, the Kings' share-first approach led to offense from six different sources in a 35-13 run that sent the local fans home early. The Kings hit 14 of 19 shots in that stretch, while Dallas went 7-for-20 without a single free throw, with Dirk Nowitzki getting only three of those shots.
On both sides, apparently, it was the passes. The passes that were and weren't made.
Don't misunderstand: There were plenty of nifty layups and dunks. Webber left Shawn Bradley at the free-throw line on one swoop for a dunk. The aforementioned fast break was better than textbook: Webber batted a rebound to Bibby, who flung a touchdown pass downcourt to the sprinting Jackson for a layup. None of it would have been possible without the flings that sets things up.
"We won by 20," Bibby said, exaggerating only because it seemed like it. "I don't necessarily need to score every night."
Not if the passes keep connecting, and definitely not if Nick Van Exel's assessment is true.
"Right now it's just mental," Dallas' Van Exel said. "It's just mental. They feel like they can beat us and they go out and play like that. We feel maybe we can beat them and that's how we play."
Not an inspiring sign.
The Kings' passing clinic was too much for the Mavericks' defense in Game 1.