Despite rocky year, Mavs hold out hope of another surprise title run
The defending champion Mavericks are in a dogfight to make the playoffs
Lamar Odom didn't work out, the offense has slipped and Dirk isn't as dominant
Mark Cuban notes that Dallas was discounted late last season before winning it all
OAKLAND, Calif. -- As the Dallas Mavericks discussed their pressure-packed plight on Thursday night, it was tough to separate the reality from the rhetoric.
The defending champions had downed the inferior and decimated Warriors 112-103, inching a half-game ahead of Houston and Denver for the sixth spot in the Western Conference. But the unthinkable remained in play: The Mavericks (33-26), who lead ninth-place Utah by two games and hold the tiebreaker, still could miss the playoffs for the first time since 2000 if they aren't careful in their final seven games.
Yet past all the one-game-at-a-time talk and focus on a "playoff mindset" (translation: try even harder), there was a very real sign that Dallas has no plans to head home early, courtesy of 2011 Finals MVP and resident Mavericks spokesman Dirk Nowitzki.
"You know, Holger's going to come pretty soon here," he said with a grin. "He's going to be on the way, on the boat over. We're going to get some work in, to get sharp."
The man of whom he spoke is Holger Geschwindner, a 66-year-old former physicist from Germany who discovered the young Nowitzki on a court in Wurzburg and has become the most influential coach in his storied career. For the past 10 years, Geschwindner's pre-playoff visit has been as much a staple of Nowitzki's routine as the Mavericks' winning at least 50 regular-season games.
Every year, the mentor and his student refine his innumerable skills one last time before the playoffs, fixing what might be broken in his shot and discussing the challenges ahead. The schedule, surprisingly, is in their favor. Because the Mavericks have a rare four-day stretch without games before their season finale at Atlanta on April 26, Nowitzki -- who has seen dips in his scoring and shooting percentages this season -- will have a chance to focus on his individual workouts. He's planning to spend a total of seven to 10 days working with Geschwindner. And by the time they're done, Nowitzki intends to be ready for a title defense.
Even with all the distractions (like the Lamar Odom saga) and defeats (15 in their last 28 games), the Mavericks say they still can win it all. They cite the misplaced skepticism of last season and how they overcame it, when many observers predicted that Portland would upset Dallas in the first round. The Mavericks' hope (or dream, depending on your level of cynicism) is that they can replicate that formula.
"At this point last year, there were coaches of other teams saying they wanted to play the Mavericks," Dallas owner Mark Cuban told SI.com. "We were going on our West Coast swing [late in the regular season], and we were getting blown out. You just never know. And this season is even crazier, because I don't think the regular season is really going to be a reflection on the postseason because there's no preparation time, no practice time, and that will change in the playoffs.
"We always feel that, right?" Cuban said of having a chance to win a championship. "I mean, no one gave us a shot last year. We were the underdogs in every series we played. You just don't know. That's why you play the games."
As Nowitzki noted, the conference is "wide open." Just 4½ games separate the third-place Lakers from the Rockets and Nuggets.
"OKC has been consistent all year," Nowitzki said of the Thunder, who lead San Antonio by a half-game for the top seed. "Of course they're young, and they've got fresh legs and are more experienced than last year. But I think other than that, everything is wide open.
"There are a lot of dangerous teams. I don't think a lot of teams in the top four want to see a team like Memphis as a five or six seed -- [a team] that's playing well, that's physical. The Lakers are going to be there. The Spurs are playing probably the best ball the last month or so. They're so deep now with Stephen Jackson off the bench -- another playmaker, another shooter. So there are a lot of good teams. That's why in the West it's fun, and we hopefully get in the playoffs and compete."
But the fact remains that the 2010-11 Mavericks had it all over the latest version, even before the playoffs began. They finished with a .695 winning percentage that humbles the current group's .559 pace. Last year's team was eighth in points per possession, well ahead of this season's No. 23 ranking. And while Cuban's offseason decision to preserve his salary-cap space for the future rather than re-sign the likes of Tyson Chandler, J.J. Barea and DeShawn Stevenson might eventually prove wise, it's clear this team has not recovered from those losses.
The owner's attempt to add depth by sending a protected first-round pick and a trade exception to the Lakers for Odom in December officially backfired this week, when the underperforming former Sixth Man Award winner was told to leave the team after he reportedly had a locker-room argument with Cuban on Saturday in Memphis. Odom has one season left on his contract worth $8.2 million, but only $2.4 million is guaranteed if he is waived by June 29. The Mavericks are expected to pursue trades for Odom this summer, and the Warriors are reportedly among the teams likely to be interested.
When asked whether it was important to resolve the Odom situation before making a playoff push, Cuban said, "There's nothing left to say about Lamar."
Nowitzki, however, had plenty to say.
"We could probably talk about [the situation] for an hour, but I'm not going to bash my ex-teammate," Nowitzki said. "He's a good dude. And when he was around, I liked being around him. It just didn't work out.
"But if you look at the deal before the season, as a franchise, we've got to make that deal to get the Sixth Man of the Year basically for a trade exception or whatever it is. I think it was definitely something we had to look at ... but it just didn't work out the way we all wanted it to."
If Nowitzki has his way, his workouts with Geschwindner will mark the beginning of yet another unexpected championship run.
"We've been talking about playoff mode now for two-and-a-half weeks, so it's a must," coach Rick Carlisle said. "The pressure that comes with that is a good thing. It's the kind of pressure that you like. It brings you to higher levels, and we embrace it. We embraced it last year in the playoffs, and it got us a ring."