When trying to stop 6'1" Dallas Mavericks super-sub Nick Van Exel in the Western Conference finals, the San Antonio Spurs' Bruce Bowen says he will look "right here" and points to his belly. "A guy like Nick moves everything," explains Bowen, a 6'7" defensive ace. "Body fakes, head fakes, ball fakes, eye fakes. Nick has all kinds of fakes. But he can't move his midsection. Nobody can. So if you concentrate on that and ignore all his herky-jerky stuff, you have a chance."
There's always been a lot of herky in Van Exel's game, but the jerky has had a different connotation. Throughout much of his 10-year career Van Exel has been considered a coach killer—that blend of wondrously talented player, jovial teammate, clubhouse lawyer and me-first head case. But as the Alias Mavs (standing joke: They have no D) advanced to this fascinating don't-mess-with-Texas showdown, Nick the Quick emerged as Mister Maverick: leader, spokesman, diplomat and, most important, go-to scorer. "Without Nick Van Exel," says Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, "the Mavs would already be out of the playoffs."
Dallas coach Don Nelson agrees. "We owe this series to Nick," said Nelson after the Mavericks beat the Sacramento Kings 112-99 in Game 7 last Saturday, closing out a second-round series in which Van Exel averaged 25-3 points on 51.9% shooting. The Mavs also owe a good deal of the credit for their previous series win to their southpaw sixth man, who hit key shot after key shot in a seven-game conquest of the Portland Trail Blazers.
In Monday night's Game 1 at the SBC Center in San Antonio, the Spurs found a way, at least temporarily, to curtail Van Exel—but not the Mavericks, who stole a 113-110 victory. Van Exel scored only 14 points on 3-of-12 shooting, but Dirk Nowitzki more than compensated with 38 points and 15 rebounds, and Dallas hit 49 of 50 free throws to overcome an 18-point deficit.
The only other time two Texas teams met in the Western finals was in 1995, when the Houston Rockets beat the Spurs in six games and went on to repeat as NBA champions. That was the I-10 Series between cities linked by a 200-mile stretch of interstate; this is the I-35 Series, with the teams 280 miles apart. The usual civic-honor bets are on: The mayors have wagered full-course dinners, and the winning team's flag will fly over the loser's city hall throughout the Finals. No one feels more Texas pride than Avery Johnson, a backup point guard for the Mavericks who spent all or part of 10 seasons with the Spurs and was the heart and soul of their 1998-99 championship team. "But I know where the lines are drawn," says the 38-year-old Johnson, who played sparingly this season and was added to Dallas's coaching staff for the playoffs. "I have great friends in San Antonio, but I want to kick their butts bad."
As of Monday there was no word from the White House on whether The Top Texan planned to attend a game. Until he does, marquee billing in the Lone Star Series belongs to Spurs 7-footer Tim Duncan, who was named league MVP for the second straight year. "He's the best player in the league for sure," says Van Exel. " Shaq is the most dominant, but Tim's the best. He's long, he's strong, he shoots outside, he puts it on the floor, he makes his teammates better, he draws double teams, he rebounds, he plays defense. That's all."
Well, not all. Duncan is also the no-nonsense, fundamentally sound emblem of his franchise, the main reason, along with David Robinson, that San Antonio carries the Boy Scouts' stamp of approval. The Mavs are hardly the NBA's Bad Boys—they trail the Blazers by many arrests and countless bong hits—but there is a gunslinger's cockiness about them that contrasts with the Spurs' quiet professionalism. And, increasingly, the source of their swagger is Van Exel.
What has been so eye-opening about Van Exel's postseason is not only his scoring average, which had increased from 12.5 points during the regular season to 19-9 through Game 1. It is also the fact that he has suddenly become harder to handle than a pack of frat boys on spring break, scoring at will and regardless of defender. Even when he's closely covered, he can uncork a shot from an unpredictable angle "like a pitcher delivering the ball behind a sneaky delivery," as Dallas assistant coach Del Harris puts it. Van Exel goes left and right with equal facility, gets himself into the lane for what he calls "my little flip shot," drives the baseline, posts up on either block, bangs mid-range jumpers and pulls up or steps back to drill threes (2.3 a game in the postseason through Monday). That's all.
At various points in his career Van Exel has flashed such a dazzling array, but to see it so cold-bloodedly displayed in back-to-back seven-game pressure cookers was revelatory indeed. Popovich's theory is that rarely has a player been so perfectly matched with a system as Van Exel is with Nelson's pop-till-you-drop—or, in this case, pop-till-Pop-drops—brand of offense. "For a player, it's nice when everything you do is right," says Harris, gently poking fun at his boss's permissiveness. Van Exel remembers "maybe two or three times" during the season when Nelson mentioned that he might have taken a bad shot. "And even then [ Nelson] added, 'But I liked your aggressiveness,' " says Van Exel. "He gets the most pissed off at you when you don't shoot."
But Van Exel has always been aggressive on offense (and frequently the opposite on defense). There are other reasons he's been Van Excellent of late. Such as: