Big D has big downer in Dampier

Updated: May 11, 2005, 2:51 PM ET
By Marc Stein | ESPN.com

PHOENIX – It was no desert mirage. There really was an ice bag spotted on the lower left leg of Amare Stoudemire on the eve of Wednesday's Game 2 clash between the Phoenix Suns and Dallas Mavericks.

So there you go.

Now you know the highlight so far for Erick Dampier in these playoffs.

Lowlights? How much time do you have?

Dirk and Damp: War of words
Dirk Nowitzki on Erick Dampier after Game 1:
"He's a step slow on everything. He never got involved in the game. He has always been in foul trouble. The first series was the same thing. He gets a quick two fouls in the first two or three minutes, and we can't be aggressive any more. Then he gets the third foul and has to sit. ... The bottom line is we've got to get something out of our center position. We really haven't gotten anything out of it."

Dampier in response to Nowitzki on Tuesday:
"He can say what he wants. We really didn't get a lot from anyone. This is not a one individual game. It's a team concept. We didn't play the way we are capable of playing, so for him to say something like that is totally stupid."

More on Nowitzki and Dampier

You'd obviously have to start with Dampier's rough Monday night, when Stoudemire outscored him 40-zip and Dirk Nowitzki skewered his teammate with multiple criticisms in a postgame ripping for the media that no one ever expected from the soft-spoken German.

Well, guess what?

Chances are it's not going to get any better for Dampier. In this series? Hearing Stoudemire's ankle or heel feels a bit sore might be the highlight for Dampier.

For two reasons:

No. 1: The money Dallas didn't spend on re-signing Steve Nash was used to land Dampier in a sign-and-trade. Which means the soap opera attracting the most focus at this Southwest track meet – next to Nash vs. Nowitzki and Nash vs. Jason Terry and Nash vs. Mark Cuban – is suddenly Nash vs. Dampier.

No. 2: Dampier has already missed his opportunity to hush Nowitzki and back up his season-long claim that he's "The Best Center In The West."

After repeating his boast that he's a better center than anyone not named Shaquille O'Neal, Dallas' marquee offseason acquisition wound up totaling 23 points and 25 fouls in the final five games of the Houston series.

Now?

Dampier isn't going to be on the floor long enough against the smallish Suns to respond to Nowitzki's call-out and the growing fan discontent with his play back in Dallas. After just one game, Dallas' coaching staff already knows its only shot to stay with the Suns is playing Nowitzki and no one else taller than 6 foot 7 except reserves Alan Henderson and Keith Van Horn (if Van Horn returns Friday or Sunday from a bad ankle sprain).

So now what?

That's only one of the questions the Mavericks and the inhabitants of Mavsland are asking themselves, as Year 1 of Dampier's seven-year, $73 million contract draws to a muted close.

It's worth remembering that Cuban didn't splash out the cash for Dampier to deal with Phoenix. No one last summer was making moves to match up with the Suns. The Mavericks saw Dampier as the first legitimate center they could field since the James Donaldson days, which would make them a) more traditional defensively after years of Don Nelson gimmicks and b) more competitive with San Antonio, Houston, Minnesota, and yes, even Detroit and Miami if they dared to dream of a Finals berth.

The harsh truth, though, is Dampier has disappointed far more than he has dazzled in his debut Mavs season. Team defense unquestionably improved with Dampier as an anchor in the middle because he allowed the Mavs' other defenders to stay with their men instead of running over to double-team a big man. Yet Dampier has frustrated teammates and club officials with his iffy hands, well-chronicled mood swings and habit of focusing on himself. Ask Dampier to give the team more, and his first response, just about every time, is that he needs more offensive touches.

This is all particularly galling for new Mavs coach Avery Johnson, a former teammate of Dampier's in Golden State who lobbied Cuban harder than anyone else to make such a financial commitment to a big man that the Warriors, rather tellingly, barely tried to re-sign. The feeling here is Dampier should feel fortunate that his boss remains such a strong supporter. Johnson's response Tuesday to the Nowitzki-Dampier tiff was simply to say, "I'll take care of it."

Not that Nowitzki should expect a reprimand. Public criticism of teammates is not something to encourage, but the Mavericks learned quickly that you almost have to shame Dampier to motivate him. And considering Nowitzki's history as an international diplomat – he never lashes out at anyone publicly, not even after his buddy Nash was let go – the cynical side of me wonders whether someone in the organization urged him to speak out to light a fire.

So don't criticize Nowitzki for the pointed commentary. Lighting into Dampier behind closed doors seldom works.

In pretty much the only instance it did work during the regular season, it might be because news of the berating leaked out. Dampier's best stretch of the season followed ESPN.com's disclosure in late January that Johnson, still just an interim coach filling in for an ailing Nelson at the time, called Dampier into his office after a home win over Denver and yelled at him so loudly that Johnson's voice could be heard through the walls. The story circulated quickly, and a chagrined Dampier, with his doghouse status made public, answered with seven double-doubles in a stretch of eight games, including a 26-rebound outing against Philadelphia and a 15-point, 14-rebound showing against Shaq.

A six-week absence caused by a stress fracture in his right foot soon followed, and Dampier has yet to rediscover his post-scolding level. Yet that didn't stop Dampier from announcing to the world that he would outduel Yao Ming in the first round, and you also can safely surmise that some of the Nowitzki frustration that spilled out stems from Dampier's undelivered promise.

The Mavs are praying they're wrong and Dampier can find a way to be a factor against the Suns. But he's dealing with two mismatches – vs. Nash and vs. Stoudemire – and the latter almost guarantees no shot at redemption for Damp until the next round. To have any shot at getting to the conference finals, Dallas knows it must reach back for its small-ball playbook and give more minutes to Marquis Daniels, Henderson and Darrell Armstrong. If Dampier couldn't successfully bang with Yao, he's never going to be able to run with Amare.

The Suns aren't shy about saying so, either.

"We always like the matchup for Amare," Suns coach Mike D'Antoni said. "We think he's unguardable."

Stoudemire's thoughts?

For starters, he laughed off the idea that any discomfort in that left leg could slow him down. He didn't stop smiling when someone invited him to play armchair general manager and rate the Mavs' decision to let Nash, 31, walk over down-the-road durability concerns, then commit a longer contract to an inconsistent 29-year-old.

"Never, never, never," Stoudemire said, asked whether he'd have made that move.

"But I'm kind of glad they did."

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

Marc Stein | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com
• Senior NBA writer for ESPN.com
• Began covering the NBA in 1993-94
• Also covered soccer, tennis and the Olympics

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