For one shining moment, one oasis of beauty in a space that has left us precious few thus far, they were the Dallas Mavericks of old. The reigning champs were who we remembered them to be, and all was momentarily right in the world. Playing their Western Conference Final opponent Oklahoma City Thunder, the Mavs put together their best game of the season and took the 100-87 victory … free tacos for everyone in the AAC for only the second time this year.
And DallasBasketball.com was there in force, The 75-Member Staff spilling over half of press row as Kevin Brolan threatened any who approached with a broken water bottle. It was plastic and most likely harmless, but got the job done.
K-Bro, Fish, Michael Dugat, Chuck Perry and Mike Piellucci contribute ... We start with how it looked when the fellas came out to warm up. Pep in their step!
First glimpse of a familiar sight
Just as this felt like an odd version of a reemergence for the Mavs as a whole, a butterfly retreated back into the cocoon to burst free again, we were granted our first solid proof that Lamar Odom may soon become the player we know him to be. The stats are not overwhelming, and there's little doubt the expectations have been temporarily lowered, yet the hope is there: this is the first glimpse of what we've seen so many times before from Odom … now in a Mavs uniform.
When he backed Kevin Durant into the paint and spun for a soft hook to draw nothing but net in the first quarter … the possibility that a corner was being turned crept in.
The stats: eight points on 2-of-4 shooting (as well as earning five trips to the free-throw line, sinking four of them), five rebounds (two on the offensive glass), and two assists.
Nothing spectacular: only a well-rounded peak into a solid night of contributions. In this the stats are both telling and deceiving.
The truth they share is a whisper of the wide breadth of skills Odom carries. He can score, defend, rebound and create for others. The deception they cannot share is the feel of the game, the flow of it. No longer was Odom a stone the passing stream of Mavs "flow" offense was forced to bend around. He was aggressive at times, and created for teammates at others, including a fair share of minutes running the offense as the fabled "point-forward," and he meshed.
No more was he a hitch in the defensive rotations, showing clear improvement in both cohesion and attitude. Fouls (four in 20 minutes) were an issue, but effort and effectiveness were not.
It wasn't perfect, but it was a glimpse. It was more than we've been shown, and the promise inherent in its presence is that the best is clearly yet to come. There's no denying the period of acclimation has been rougher than we foresaw, or that there are sure to be further bumps, but to ignore the hope shown against the formerly undefeated Thunder is to succumb to the poison of MavsVirus. Let the medicine of the season's first big win dig in a little deeper, and hopefully it will allow itself to take hold and spread.
We don't mean to exaggerate or bury the truth, which is that this was only step one … we're only rejoicing in the fact that we've finally found that first step to build upon with a player that has plenty of room to climb.
Experience the Vinsanity
Just as Odom may have played his best game as a Maverick, Vince Carter did the same.
The game entered the second quarter tied at 20, when Carter momentarily reminded us of yesterday's glory and temporarily shouldered the bulk of the offensive load.
While Carter was helpless to stay in front of Durant, he quickly returned the favor by getting into the paint at will, earning seven trips to the free-throw line in the period alone, and scoring eight points in only seven second-quarter minutes. Once Terry fed from his flame to catch his own fire (adding 10 in the period) the Mavs pushed the lead to as much as 11 and ended the quarter up seven.
Vince also showed the ability to pass on bad shots (mostly) and create for those around him as the game went on and the defense was forced to respect him. No pass stands out more than a drive into the lane and kick to a wide-open Dirk Nowitzki in the corner … causing the crowd to rise in unison and begin to cheer before Dirk had even begun to shoot.
As the crowd had known from the moment they saw the play develop, Dirk drained the three to put the Mavs up 12 with 1:15 to play in the third quarter. The Thunder did not yield, making Dallas work for their win, but in that moment you could feel the wind shift. That's why the crowd stood before the shot had even gone up. It was one of those small moments, a mere three out of 100 points … but you could feel it.
This was Dallas' game to lose … and that single moment was created by Vince Carter's ability to split the defense and attack the rim, not to mention the shooting prowess of some fellow named Dirk.
Again, we were treated with a glimpse of what this team may become. They remain a long way away … but for the first time this season, you could find breath for you hope on the court.
In the world we ordinary citizens occupy, the saying "it's not about what you know, it's who you know" is increasingly applicable in our hyper networked society. In the NBA, though, it's about what you know… and who knows you.
Indeed, the harsh truth is that officiating in the NBA is very much a reputation game, and that is something that bears watching amidst the ongoing maturation of young Ian Mahinmi.
Friday's 18-point performance against Toronto has folks asking if there's room for The Ianimal to grow into his skill set and maybe, possibly a larger role in the offense. Monday was another strong performance, but more subdued with a final line of 10 points on 5-of-8 shooting. That's by design, but also partly because he lacks that currency among the game's officials.
First quarter, he caught a lob into the post from Odom and missed a layup after absorbing a fair bit of contact from Serge Ibaka (the play wound up being up scored a block). In the second, he put in a layup amidst a shove that should have taken him to the line; again, no dice.
Like it or not, that stuff happens to 25 year-olds who have topped out with a career high of 8.7 minutes per game in a full season. Now, that number is up to 18.7 per night as part of his new role as the backup center – and with it, his cache within league circles.
That lob-and-catch play in particular is something that could be a nice little weapon to run with Mahinmi's size and ability to outjump opposing defenders; whether that or other forms of Ian's post game turn into much more could well depend on how much rope officials give him as the year goes on.
We know one thing: The Ianimal gets respect from The Fish for his cool Paris-collection leather jacket:
Big is the New Small
Rick Carlisle's mantra of "Be Ready" has his troops drilled for any situation and, by extension, any type of lineup. One unorthodox lineup that they, and the rest of the league, became accustomed to seeing was the 3-PG attack consisting of Jason Kidd, Jason Terry, and the recently-departed JJ Barea. A half-dozen games into the year, that unit appears to have been shelved in spite of an able-bodied replacement for Barea in Delonte West.
In its place is the no-PG attack, a wrinkle we'll probably be seeing a lot more of as Lamar Odom continues to round into form.
The cast of characters consisted of Terry and Vince Carter in the backcourt with Odom, Dirk, and Mahinmi up front, and chewed up a decent chunk of the fourth quarter, meaning that for four or so minutes the smallest guy on the court for Dallas was the 6'2'' Terry, followed by the 6'6'' Carter at the 2. That's combination of length and quality the Mavs haven't been able to employ since Jerry Stackhouse gave them a real scoring threat at the 2 - and it shouldn't be noted that Stack could never moonlight bringing the ball up the court the way VC did on a pair of possessions.
The key, of course, is Odom and how he continues to gel. Monday, the offense wasn't totally there but the playmaking was, with a number of well-aimed and –timed passes. It used to be nobody could out-quick Dallas' guards. Now, as so many surmised before the year, they might not be able to out-size their forwards.
The Numbers Game
*Dirk Nowitzki made a step-back jumper from 10 feet at the 7:40 of the second quarter for his 8,000th career basket. He's fourth among active players (behind Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan) and 31st on the NBA career list.
"Joked Dirk of his 8,000 FG's: "Only two of them were layups.''
*The Mavs scored 56 points in the paint and were tied on the boards, 41-all.
*Jason Kidd gave us a very Kidd-esque boxscore by taking only one shot for zero points but adding nine assists and five rebounds.
*"We didn't have any energy from the beginning. We need energy. It changes the whole game. We need to play with more effort. Everybody looks to me so I've got to start the game better." - Durant, who had to work awfully hard for his game-high 27.
Trix, your thoughts on the matter?
Carlisle called 'em for Odom and Carter -- as a way of reminding Odom and Carter than they are Odom and Carter, as Bob Ortegel mentioned to DB.com as it was happening. And then Dirk used the postgame visit to reinforce:
Said Dirk of Carter: "Vince is a very good post player for his size and when he plays at the 2 he's going to have a lot of mismatches and we want to get him down there when that happens. He has a good fade away and he can go in the middle and get fouled and he does a good job of ripping through, getting to the basket or getting to the foul line and that will be big for us.''
Said Dirk of Odom: "Lamar is so versatile that he can attack in a lot of ways. He can post up or he can drive either way so if those guys attack for us it will make it a lot easier for me and Jet to score."
Both Carter and Odom did that, in part thanks to Carlisle reminding them that they are Vince Carter and Lamar Odom.
If Durant is going to score 27 but Marion is going to answer with 17 of his own … that's a win ... Both the Thunder and the Heat started the night 5-0. Both lost, Miami going down to the Hawks. ... Meanwhile, Manu broke his hand for the Spurs, and just when you thought Dallas was being hovered over by a dark cloud ...
The Mavs had five players score in double digits: Dirk (26), Shawn Marion (17), Jason Terry (15), Carter (14) and Ian Mahinmi (10) … The Mavs had exceeded their points-in-the-paint average per game by the intermission by posting 32 (season average had been 31.2, which ranked 29th in the league). Again, they finished with 56 points in the paint compared to 42 for OKC … Dallas never trailed by more than two points … Jet making 3-of-5 treys on the way to 15 points, the defense allowing just 18 points in a critical third quarter, bench dominance to the tune of 47 to 25 in points -- it felt "normal,'' didn't it? …
The Tag-Team Centers
Haywood started and record six points and six rebounds in the first half. He was on the floor at the end, too, totaling 6/8 and two blocks for the game in 26 minutes. Ian Mahinmi created a different set of problems for the Thunder as a mid-range-jumper threat and a springy body. He was 5-of-8 shooting for 10 points and nine rebounds in 21 minutes. Ian is averaging 11.7 points and six rebounds over the last three games.
Jason Kidd wants them to get their due … and when it comes to BBIQ, he knows how to push those buttons.
On his brilliant downcourt pass to Haywood, who caught and dunked: "He's the big tight end! I trust him so that's why I threw it."
On Ian's personality: "Mahinmi has probably been the best player in this locker room, and he's going to keep getting better."
On the tag-team tandem: "They're probably the only two consistent guys for us."
Fish 1-on-1 with Big Wood
To The White House!
Mark Cuban says the NBA was "stupid and dumb'' not to schedule his Mavericks to play in Washington, D.C., this season so they could make a side trip to the White House for the annual champion's visit to meet the President ... so the Mavs finally set up the meeting themselves. They'll swing into D.C. on next Monday's off-day.
The Final Word
Remember this feeling? Remember how often we took it for granted a season ago, or how we never quite appreciated it for all it was … not knowing just how far it would lead?
Dallas put away a very good Thunder team, once again earning the moniker of a year ago as "Streak Busters" (remember, it was an 8-0 Hornets team that began the trend last season) and there is suddenly reason for optimism to live within the growing doubts this slow start has fostered. Time will tell if this is the first glimpse of a team that isn't as far off as it may appear, as Carlisle stated prior to the game, or a blip on the radar soon to be forgotten, but that shouldn't steal from the joy of the moment.
This team remains a work in progress, and at 2-4 for the season there isn't yet reason for overt celebration, but let's accept this for what it was: a big early season win.
We'll get our next vision soon enough, but for tonight, this glimpse was enough to support a smile for at least one night.
And later, we'll go month-to-month, as we consider Dirk's full quote:
"This team is set up to get better month-by-month,' Dirk says. 'We should have a good team in March and April. ... Saying that, we've still got to find ways to win. … This team has a lot of potential, with a lot of scorers, a lot of veterans who know how to play. We can be a very dangerous team."