Nowitzki bails out Mavericks


Sun, Jun 04, 2006 - Page 24

Dirk Nowitzki has a firm grasp of basketball and the English language, but his description of the Dallas Mavericks' shaky existence Thursday night came out a little garbled.

"In the third quarter, when we were down seven, I just saw the whole season swimming away," Nowitzki, the Mavericks' German import, said after leading Dallas to a 117-101 victory against the Phoenix Suns.

Presumably, he meant "slipping," not "swimming." Either way, the Mavericks needed a life preserver and a prayer. Nowitzki delivered both, with 22 points in the fourth quarter and 50 in the game, and now the Mavericks -- relegated for much of their history to the kiddie pool -- stand one victory away from splashing in the deep end.

Leading by 3-2 in the best-of-seven series, Dallas has two chances to close out the Suns and win the NBA Western Conference title. The Mavericks have been this close twice before. In 1988, they reached Game 7 of the conference final but fell to the Lakers. In 2003, they were taken out in six games by the San Antonio Spurs.

Nowitzki was almost 10 the first time the Mavericks fell short. He was an injured bystander when they were eliminated in 2003 after injuring a knee in Game 3 of that series.

But the Mavericks are a vastly changed group since their most recent heartbreak, and not only because Nowitzki is as healthy, as mature and as dominant as he has ever been. The team was retooled in the past three years, making moves risky and controversial.

Of the teammates who surrounded Nowitzki in 2003, only two remain: the reserve swingman Adrian Griffin and coach Avery Johnson, who was a backup guard.

Don Nelson, the former coach and general manager who built the Mavericks, stepped aside last year. He was replaced by Johnson, a rookie head coach.

The so-called Big Three who brought the Mavericks back to prominence -- Nowitzki, Steve Nash and Michael Finley -- were reduced to the Big One.

Nash, the creative playmaker, left as a free agent in 2004, when the Suns offered more money than Dallas was willing to pay. Finley, the sweet-shooting veteran swingman, was cut last summer under the NBA's amnesty rule, which allowed Dallas to avoid paying millions in luxury taxes.

In place of Finley, the Mavericks rely on Josh Howard, a developing third-year forward who was taken 29th in the 2003 draft. In place of Nash, the Mavericks have a 23-year-old point guard, the boyish Devin Harris.

Waiving Finley, a respected elder statesman, was a tough move, made tougher when he signed with the rival Spurs -- and made tougher still when the Spurs nearly beat the Mavericks in the conference semifinals.

Nash's departure was similarly emotional, made tougher by his close friendship with Nowitzki -- and tougher still because he led the Suns to a second-round victory against Dallas last year.

But with the franchise poised to go to NBA finals, where it has never been, every move is cast in a new light. Just do not ask the owner, Mark Cuban, if a berth in the finals validates it all.

"Validation, schmalidation," he wrote in an e-mail message. "The only reward is a ring. Everything else is what friends argue about over beers before they play quarters."

That said, Cuban's best move may have been installing Johnson last year after Nelson stepped down. Johnson, 41, had served just one season as an assistant when Cuban promoted him. Had he waited, Cuban might have had a shot at hiring Phil Jackson or Larry Brown.