- Marc Stein, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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DALLAS -- Don Nelson contends that there have been other Don Nelson teams as potent as this one. Teams awash in runners and gunners who prefer the perimeter.
"But none of them," Nellie quipped, "has ever gone to the conference finals."
That's because, truth be told, Nelson has never really had a team like these Dallas Mavericks. Maybe no one has. They haven't won anything major yet, and they needed some injury assistance to get this far, but say this: It's a team with four present or past All-Star shooters/scorers, and the wholly unexpected capacity to be tougher in the playoffs than they were in the regular season.
Which is why, rather suddenly, Don Nelson's Mavericks don't seem so unappealing.
It's also why keeping this core together and adding to it, instead of breaking up the foursome and changing the coach, is an idea meeting scant resistance now.
A month ago, remember, the Mavericks were widely considered the Worst Sixty-Win Team in NBA history. On Saturday night, married to running and gunning as always, the Mavericks eliminated California from the wacky playoffs of '03 with a 112-99 victory over the Sacramento Kings. Dallas' second Game 7 victory in two weeks, no less.
"I'm sure plenty of people never thought we could win two Game 7s," Mavericks guard Steve Nash said. "People are probably going to continue to doubt us. At times it's been frustrating, but it's important for us not to think about what people think."
That's because people might not realize, even accounting for the Kings' Game 2 loss of Chris Webber and Portland's limited contributions from Scottie Pippen in the previous series, that the Mavericks have become gritty in fourth quarters of the biggest games.
The Big Four, as they're now known, are sharing the ball and demoralizing the opposition and "just break you down," in the words of Vlade Divac. Dallas' Big Four has combined for 71 points in two Game 7 fourth quarters so far. That's 71 points on 65.8-percent shooting -- 69.2-percent shooting on 3-pointers. Plus 80-percent shooting from the line.
In this Game 7, Michael Finley had 11 points. Nash scored nine, to go with four assists against zero turnovers. Nick Van Exel and Dirk Nowitzki each scored eight points. That's 36 points, which could be a halftime total in the East playoffs. That's 36 points in the fourth quarter of a Game 7 from four guys, who in December couldn't hold a 30-point lead against the Lakers and who later lost a nailbiter at home to the same Kings on a Keon Clark rebound basket. Twice.
The early warning to the San Antonio Spurs, then, is obvious, even though the Spurs hold home-court advantage in the conference finals, and even though the Spurs are the undeniable favorites after ending the Lakers' championship run.
Finish the Mavs off in six or less.
"When they're hot, they're hot," Divac said. Asked if the Mavericks were indeed better than last spring, when the Kings smoked them in five games, Divac did not take the easy out and pin the reversal solely on Webber's absence. "If they weren't better," Divac said, "we probably win the series."
The challenge in the next round will be controlling the tempo against a team that can impose its will at both ends far better than the Webber-less Kings. The Spurs can play fast or slow, and will undoubtedly count on Tim Duncan's ever-improving passing out of the low post to shred the Mavericks' still-suspect defense.
You can be sure that the Mavericks won't cower. A month ago, when Dallas won a meaningless regular-season finale at the SBC Center, Van Exel told a ballboy working the visitors' locker room: "See you in a month." Van Exel has since found a new level to back up those kind of predictions, on and off the floor.
Against the Kings, Van Exel more than doubled his modest seasonal scoring average, from 12.5 points per game to 25.3. But maybe more important in this series, he emerged as an influential vocal leader. Besides defense and rebounding, areas that still need addressing in the offseason, the commodity missing most in Dallas is leadership with an edge. Yet in the playoffs, Van Exel and Avery Johnson, who still handles a lot of the speeches even though he's not on the active playoff roster, have begun to make a noticeable impact there.
It's safe to say no one in Dallas can be heard pining for Brian Grant these days.
"Who?" joked Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, who vetoed a Van Exel-for-Grant swap at the trading deadline largely because of the financial implications.
"Sometimes the best deals are the ones you don't make," Cuban said. "You can't say enough about Nick. I don't know how he walks around. I'm sure he has to get specially tailored pants, because he's scraping the ground every game."
That was Cuban's rather graphic way of describing his admiration for Van Exel's, uh, guts. Cuban also praised the trio Formerly Known As The Big Three for being selfless enough to let Van Exel take such a prominent role at such a critical point of the season, which doesn't happen in every NBA city.
Van Exel insists that the Mavericks aren't playing with the idea "of saving people's jobs," but the side benefit of this run is that it has eased the considerable tension that was looming over the franchise.
With Nelson in the last year of his coaching contract, and Dallas perilously close in Round 1 to becoming to the first team in NBA history to blow a 3-0 lead, more than one Mavericks insider privately betrayed the fear that a full-scale makeover was coming.
The Mavericks are in the conference finals for the first time since 1988, and winning two Game 7s -- no matter who was or wasn't playing -- has to be worth something.
Nelson, meanwhile, is in the conference finals for just the second time as a coach, the first time since 1986.
Milestones to build on, in other words.
"All I can say is that I was hired (in 1997) to turn the franchise around, and I think we've done a pretty good job of that," Nelson said. "... Things have turned around in Dallas, and I'm proud of that."
They've actually turned around just since April.
"I just can't believe the credit they haven't gotten all year long," said Kings coach Rick Adelman. "If Finley hadn't gotten hurt, they probably would have had the best record in the league. It seems like people are always doubting them, but if you play or coach against them, they give you so many headaches."
Despite their many doubters, the Mavericks are showing just how tough they really are.