Thursday , Mar , 24 , 2005 C.Y. Ellis

Dallas has a chance in the West

By Warren Blatt, Sports Network NBA Editor

(Sports Network) – Don’t be surprised if the Dallas Mavericks do some serious
damage in the Western Conference playoffs. They have become one of those teams
that the other clubs are going to want to avoid playing early in the
postseason.

The Mavericks, who are 45-22, trail the first place San Antonio Spurs by 4 1/2
games in the Southwest Division. However. they have a strong hold on the
fourth spot in the playoff race and should at the very least have the
homecourt advantage in the first round of the postseason.

Even though the Mavericks have just 15 games remaining on their schedule, they
have a chance to catch the Spurs, who could be without All-Star forward Tim
Duncan for the rest of the regular season. Duncan is currently on the injured
list with a severely sprained right ankle.

San Antonio, which is 50-18 and has 14 games left on its schedule, will split
its final games evenly between the SBC Center and the road, while the
Mavericks will play nine of their last 15 games as the visitor. Ten of Dallas’
games are against clubs that are playing .500 or better. The Spurs have seven
games against teams that are playing under .500 this season.

Even if Dallas is unable to overtake the Spurs, who clearly have an easier
schedule than the Mavericks in the final month of the season, it should still
fell great about its chances of success in the postseason. Dallas has been
very successful on at home and on the road this season, as it is 23-12 at
American Airlines Center and is an impressive 22-10 as the visitor.

Once again the Mavericks have a very deep and talented roster, but they have a
different voice and a new energy with head coach Avery Johnson, who took over
on March 19th when Don Nelson resigned, calling the shots. Johnson has his
high-powered offensive squad playing with more intensity on defense, which is
something Dallas always struggles with.

In their first three games under Johnson, who is the eighth head coach of the
franchise and had coached 13 games this season when Nelson was out for various
reasons, the Mavericks, who were 9-4 with Johnson at the helm in Nelson’s
absence, have not allowed 100 points in any of the contests and are a perfect
3-0. Dallas has also managed to scored more than 100 points in all three of
the games.

Forward Dirk Nowitzki is having another unbelievable season for the Mavericks.
He has played in 64 of Dallas’ first 67 games and leads the team in scoring
(26.7 ppg) and rebounding (10.0 rpg). The four-time All-Star has scored in
double-digits in every game he has played in during the 2004-05 campaign and
has also registered 34 double-doubles. When the game is on the line and
Johnson needs to call for a last shot, one can be certain that Nowitzki will
have the ball in his hands.

With Shaquille O’Neal, who was traded by the Los Angeles Lakers to the Miami
Heat last offseason, residing in the East, Dallas has to feel great about its
matchups heading into the postseason.

Nowitzki’s supporting cast is more balanced than in year’s past, as he finally
has a center in Erick Dampier, who will help take the pressure off
Nowitzki down low during grueling seven-game series in the postseason.
Dampier, who is currently on the IL with a foot injury, has averaged 9.5
points and 8.7 rebounds in 48 games for the Mavericks, who acquired the
center last offseason in a sign-and-trade with Golden State.

High-flying Michael Finley, who has missed 18 games because of injury, has had
an average year by his standards. The 6-7 guard is second on the team in
scoring (16.6 ppg) and should be ready to join Nowitzki for a long run in the
postseason.

Guards Marquis Daniels, Jerry Stackhouse, Jason Terry and Devin Harris give
the Mavs incredible skill and depth in the backcourt. Stackhouse, who is also
on the IL and is the favorite to win Sixth Man of the Year, is third on the
team in scoring (15.6 ppg), while Terry leads the club in assists (5.3 apg)
and Daniels is contributing 10.9 points and 4.3 rebounds per game. The rookie
Harris is capable of filling in when needed, but don’t be shocked if he is
watching from the sidelines in the postseason as Johnson will most likely
chose to go with experience.

Veteran Keith Van Horn, who was acquired from the Milwaukee Bucks at the trade
deadline, and Josh Howard are solid forwards. Both fit in well with Nowitzki.
Howard, who is playing in his second year in the NBA, is a slasher who excels
on the break, while Van Horn can knock down the outside jumper and has plenty
of playoff experience.

The goal for the Mavericks is to be completely healthy heading into the
playoffs. If they are running on all cylinders it is going to be tough to play
them in a seven-game series.

If the Mavericks stay at No. 4 and the Phoenix Suns remain the top seed, the
teams could be headed for a collision in the second round. Dallas has the
ability to score with the explosive Suns and it could end up being one of the
most entertaining matchups in history, that is assuming neither club is upset
in the opening round.

Dallas has a superstar in Nowitzki, one of the deepest and most talented
roasters in the league and a fiery head coach who seems to be able to get the
most from his club.

Don’t be shocked if Dallas is playing in the conference finals and maybe even
the NBA Finals. The Mavericks are hungry and they have the talent to win the
West.