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Thursday, May 22
 
After chaos, Mavs rally around what they do have

By Marc Stein
ESPN.com

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

SAN ANTONIO -- They are fuming.

They are fortunate.

They are the conflicted Dallas Mavericks, who, once they got past their fury on Wednesday night, realized that their stay in San Antonio was not nearly bad enough to stay too mad.

They were clearly enraged and unnerved by the officiating Wednesday night, when it took less than a quarter for the referees, for the second game running, to shift the focus from the players onto what they were doing. Dirk Nowitzki racked up three fouls and a technical. Don Nelson got two Ts and got tossed. It all happened in the first nine minutes, and regaining their lost composure pretty much consumed the rest of the Mavericks' evening.

Yet it's when they finally settled in the fourth quarter, with a mini-revival that made the San Antonio Spurs question their close-out capabilities once again, that the Mavericks reached an important conclusion. As Steve Nash observed: "We don't feel like we're in a bad position." That's because the Mavericks go home for Friday's Game 3 at 1-1, in spite of this 119-106 defeat in Game 2, knowing that they didn't played well here.

Nick Van Exel
The Mavs' Nick Van Exel, left, has yet to find his scoring touch against the Spurs.
All Dallas has done so far, really, is rally well.

"That's a good way of putting it," forward Raef LaFrentz said.

Assuming they eventually start playing to capacity and -- gasp -- take an early lead for once, the Mavericks will ultimately have to be happy with their trip. Reason being: Dallas' good rallying was rather productive, probably more productive than the Mavericks had a right to expect, which eventually made it easier to let the Game 2 tension go.

The Mavericks are barely shooting 40 percent from the field for the series, and are still waiting for their sixth man extraordinaire, Nick Van Exel, to re-ignite. Nevertheless ...

They stole a game Monday night. Rallying well and relentless free-throw shooting led to the first Game 1 road playoff victory in franchise history.

Then more good rallying in Game 2, after all the referee chaos in the first half, had the Spurs muttering to themselves again, as a 94-75 lead to start the fourth quarter was whittled to eight points.

"The same old thing," said San Antonio's Tim Duncan, referring to the Spurs' ongoing troubles holding leads in the fourth quarter. "The same old thing."

Of course, the Mavericks' ability to rally and scramble and hoist themselves out of almost any hole with their relentless gunning -- "There's no 3-point defense for Dallas," said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich -- is only a foundation for more if they also break from their own disturbing trend.

Eight times in their past nine playoff games, the Mavericks have faced a double-digit deficit. Expecting to keep routinely erasing them is a foolhardy strategy.

I let it really take me out of my game. It was ridiculous the way I just got so frustrated.
Nick Van Exel

"That's been our problem the whole playoffs," Van Exel said. "Not being hungry at the start of games and letting teams really jump on us early and then having to fight back and relying on what we know we can do in the second half.

"We have to change it around. If we make teams play from behind, we don't know what can happen. We don't know if they can come from behind and dig and claw and fight their way out of it."

For the Mavericks to have a chance to find out, against a team that found Duncan some help in Game 2 from Malik Rose and Stephen Jackson, Van Exel is going to have to more closely resemble the Van Exel who riddled Sacramento for 25.3 points per game, in the series of his life. Nash was also quiet Wednesday night, but Van Exel is struggling mightily against the bigger Spurs, having managed just 27 points in the two games on 8-for-28 shooting.

Of greater concern, Van Exel has just four assists to five turnovers in the first two games, although he disputes the notion that the taller, longer, stronger defenders he's seeing this series -- Manu Ginobili and Bruce Bowen -- are causing his struggles.

"I'm just not making shots," Van Exel said. "I'm getting all my shots. I'm getting my floaters, my runners in the lane. I'm just not hitting them. I've got to be more aggressive, not be so passive."

After initially lashing out at the officiating, since he also received one of the Mavericks' five technicals, Van Exel did blame himself somewhat, saying: "I let it really take me out of my game. It was ridiculous the way I just got so frustrated."

Indeed. A split on the road against the favored Spurs, with Dallas rallying from behind all week, should frustrate the Spurs, if anyone.

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.
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