The Dallas Mavericks finally earned some respect last week. Long a harmless child among the NBA big boys—Aw, see how pretty they shoot.... Now get along and let the grown-ups play—the Mavs mastered the champion Los Angeles Lakers in back-to-back fourth quarters to win Games 3 and 4 and square the Western Conference finals at 2-2. "This team had been beat down, stepped on and kicked, and they showed they had what it takes," said proud owner Donald Carter, who, in fact, had done a little Maverick-bashing himself back in February when he questioned whether his team lacked a killer instinct.
Dallas has always had a fine blend of talent, some nice guys and a knack for vapor-locking when it counts. But after being twice humiliated at the Forum in their conference-finals debut, the Mavs regrouped in Dallas to unsettle Los Angeles with a 106-94 whipping on Friday night and 118-104 romp on Sunday. A number of Mavericks were responsible. There was seven-foot Roy Tarpley, clearing rebound after rebound. There was guard Rolando Blackman, doggedly affixing his nose to Byron Scott's. There was playmaker Derek Harper, burying ghosts and three-point shots. There was even the mercurial Mark Aguirre, meshing with the rest at crunch time. Gushed coach John MacLeod, in his first year with the Mavs, "It's the blossoming of a unit."
L.A. seemed less concerned about the Mavs' maturation than about its own mental lapses. After scaling the Jazz and Mount Mark Eaton in seven games in the second round, the Lakers saw only the championship series on the horizon. But in Game 3 on Friday night, they got a taste of Texas reality. Dallas crushed them 52-33 on the boards and held them to only four field goals in the final period. "We just didn't finish anything," explained coach Pat Riley. Then on Sunday, L.A. outglassed the Mavs, the league's best rebounding club, 37-23 through three quarters, only to go nine minutes without a rebound in the fourth as Dallas racked up 22. "We disintegrated," Riley said.
The Mavericks' weekend triumphs at Reunion Arena followed a pair of precision blowouts—113-98 and 123-101—at the Forum. L.A. breezed for 50 fast breaks, converting 35 of them, and when the tempo slowed, the Lakers posed other problems for Dallas. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was skyhooking with impunity without Eaton to confront him ("For the first time in my life," said James Donaldson, the Mavs' 7'2" center, "I'm too small"). James Worthy was having little trouble with Aguirre, and Magic Johnson was a force in the low post.
With the Dallas D stretched thin, Scott punched holes in it with his jumper and slashed through it with his drives, averaging 26.5 points and shooting .581 in the first two games. When a recent Basketball Digest article proclaimed Blackman and Harper the best back-court in the league, Scott was irked. "I would like to say it's nothing special playing against them, but that's a fib," Scott said. "I want to go out and dominate in every phase of the game." Johnson, Scott's backcourt mate, said before the series, "I've read a lot of quotes that they wanted us. Well, here we are."
And, yes, Dallas did want them. "We have a reputation for being wimps, weak, soft," says MacLeod. "We're kind of poking along up the NBA ladder, trying to gain respectability." As the Mavs approached Game 3, Carter appealed to Tarpley: "Have raw meat for lunch. But don't get so much you don't want any more tonight."
Carter was appealing to a receptive listener. As the Mavs' sixth man, Tarpley is relentless on the glass and endlessly active at both ends of the court. "When I get in the game I just want to be everywhere," he says. "I feel like I'm the guy who can change things for this team. I can be the spark."
In Game 3, Tarpley pulled down 20 rebounds and scored 21 points. He even ruled the Mavs' own boards; his 11 rebounds off the offensive board were more than any Laker had at both ends. Most important, by keeping L.A. preoccupied with his glasswork, Tarpley effectively bottled up the break; the Lakers were 10 of 19 on the run. "He's a demon," said L.A. guard Michael Cooper.
In Game 4, the demon was Harper, who exorcised one of his own by pouring in 35 points, a career playoff high. In the second half, when Johnson shifted into his I-won't-let-us-lose mode, Harper not only refused to wilt, he accelerated his assault. It was just four years ago against these same Lakers, in Game 4 of the Western semifinals, that Harper unwittingly dribbled out the clock with the score tied. Dallas eventually lost in OT. On Sunday, in Game 4, he dribbled out the clock again. This time the Mavs were comfortably ahead. "Ain't that something?" Harper said.
It was indeed, but the Lakers, with two of the remaining three games at the Forum (the teams were to play there Tuesday night), still had the advantage. "We'll get it cranked up," assured Riley. "We've been there before." The Mavs haven't. But now that some of those questions about fortitude have been answered, there's hope for the future.