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Stronger Mavs know only one way to shake soft label

by | Special to CBSSports.com
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DALLAS -- Three teams in NBA history have won 50 or more games in 11 consecutive seasons. One had Magic Johnson, one has had Tim Duncan and one has Dirk Nowitzki.

The Lakers entered the playoffs each year expected to win the championship. The Spurs have entered the playoffs each year as a threat to win the title. The Mavericks enter the playoffs this year with critics doubting they can win even win a first-round series.

Never has a team that achieved so much been feared so little. And it is two failings that have transformed the image of the team and led to criticism that is often mindless, yet repeated so frequently that it is now accepted as gospel.

The first European-born player awarded MVP, Dirk Nowitzki is leading the Mavs to their 11th consecutive playoffs. (Getty Images)  
The first European-born player awarded MVP, Dirk Nowitzki is leading the Mavs to their 11th consecutive playoffs. (Getty Images)  
In the 2006 NBA Finals, the Mavericks had a 2-0 series lead against Miami and a 13-point lead with less than seven minutes left in Game 3. They went on to lose by two points, then dropped the next three games. It was one of the great collapses in NBA Finals history.

The next season, the Mavs won 67 games -- tied for sixth most in a single season in league history -- but became the first top-seeded team in the history of the 16-team playoffs to lose a first-round seven-game series to an eight seed, the Golden State Warriors.

At that point, critics dismissed the Mavericks as soft, a generic term that has become overused and all too convenient. In some ways, the characterization did apply to those 2006 and 2007 playoff teams, but not in a physical sense. In each series, they lost their poise from top to bottom. Former coach Avery Johnson panicked several times and the players seemed overwhelmed by the determination of their opponents.

Overall, however, the label of soft is an imprecise criticism that demonstrates a lack of thoughtful analysis on the part of those who use it, including TNT's Chris Webber, who simply doesn't have the credibility to make such a statement.

Still, the only way the Mavericks can correct the misconception is to win a championship. That's what separates them from those eras of 50 wins by the Lakers and Spurs, who won five and four titles, respectively. A first-round victory over Portland will do nothing for Dallas. Nor will success in the conference semifinals and finals, because if the Mavericks were to lose in the championship series, many of the self-styled deep thinkers would tell us it was because they were soft. And the Mavericks know it.

"We're going to go into this thing guns blazing," Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said. "There are a lot of doubters. That's OK. We've never said we could talk our way to a winning run in the playoffs. We know we have something to prove in every game and every series."

The Mavericks had an impressive regular season. At 57-25, they tied for the fourth-best record in the NBA -- despite having Caron Butler, their second best offensive player, for only 29 games after he ruptured the patellar tendon in his right knee vs. the Bucks on New Year's Day.

Whether drive-by critics notice or not, the Mavs are a different team. In Tyson Chandler, they not only have the best center of the Mark Cuban era -- which coincides with the 50-win seasons -- but also the best in franchise history. In DeShawn Stevenson, who is in his second year with the team, they have a 6-foot-5, 220-pound defender who is unafraid of Kobe Bryant, Manu Ginobili or any of the premier two-guards in the league.

Still, the Mavericks face the same reality they've faced since that 2006-07 team -- which was easily the best in the league in the regular season -- flamed out against the Warriors: They simply are not as good as some of the teams they have to beat. With Kobe in L.A., Duncan in San Antonio and a frisky Oklahoma City team led by Kevin Durant in the West, it will be difficult for Dallas to make it to the Finals. And then there are the Celtics, Heat, Bulls or Magic in the East.

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But the Mavericks are confident. They're aware of their reputation. They read about Denver coach George Karl saying he preferred to play the Mavericks rather than the Thunder in the first round. They know NBA scouts say the Blazers are their worst possible matchup. Before Game 1 at home on Sunday, they will read predictions in the local papers and elsewhere that they will lose the series.

Never has a team been so good, but venerated so little.

"Everybody has an opinion," guard Jason Kidd said. "We're a jump-shooting team. You've got to be who you are. Sometimes people look for you to change, but we've been pretty good doing it this way. But we're different this year with Tyson Chandler. He can run, he can catch, he's emotional and he brings energy. He's a center you have to respect because he plays above the rim."

Most of the criticism has been aimed at Nowitzki, the franchise player who is both praised and criticized for his profound assets on offense. Nowitzki is unquestionably the best 7-foot shooter in basketball history. But the only way to hit a shot from 20 feet is to be away from the basket. Is that soft, or does it make perfect sense?

It's curious that criticism comes from Webber, who was never regarded as a physical player, nor as someone who came to play every night.

"He was a great passer who was a bit inconsistent in his approach to the game," former Mavs assistant and veteran NBA coach Del Harris said in describing Webber. "When he was good, he was really good, but he wasn't any sort of enforcer type."

Indeed, a comparison of Nowitzki and Webber reveals that Webber should spend a little more time trying to be insightful rather than parroting criticism four years in the making. Want to talk about gratuitous physical play? During his 15-year career, Webber was called for seven flagrant fouls. Over his 13 years in the league, Nowitzki has been called for nine.

Free throws are also telling. In 831 games, Webber attempted 3,906 free throws (4.7 per game) while Nowitzki has attempted 6,476 in 993 games (6.5 a game). Aren't free throws often a result of aggressiveness and battling inside?

Webber, who is three inches shorter than Nowitzki, averaged more rebounds -- 9.8 to 8.4. But Nowitzki has averaged more defensive rebounds -- 7.2 to 7. Webber has a 2.7-1.2 offensive-rebounding advantage, but wouldn't the greatest 7-foot outside shooter in the history of the NBA be away from the offensive basket more than a low-post player?

"Dirk got hit in a playoff series one time, spit a tooth out and continued to play," Harris said. "That's when I decided to never question his toughness again. I've seen ankle sprains that keep guys out two or three weeks keep him out two or three minutes. He gets rebounds in traffic and he takes it to the basket. He doesn't flinch, he tries to finish and he know they're going to bang him when he puts the ball on the floor. But he attacks the basket anyway."

Derek Harper played 16 years in the NBA, 11 with Dallas. He was one of the most physical guards to play in the past 30 years. When the NBA adopted rules outlawing forearm checking in the backcourt, a video of Harper manhandling another guard was used to demonstrate the need for change.

Harper is now a Mavericks TV analyst and he is puzzled because he remembers Webber, he says, as "a finesse guy. He wasn't a power guy.

"He was a finesse guy, plain and simple. So for Webber to call somebody soft -- there should be a mirror put in front of him so he can look at it."

The Mavericks enter the playoffs perhaps with their best team ever. A case could be made they are better than the Dallas team that went to the Finals and better than the version of the Mavs that won 67 games. Like the past four years, however, the opposition might also be better.

We know what the tired analysis will be if the Mavericks lose, but the reality this year is that if they fail, it will not be because they are soft, but because an opponent is a superior team or simply played better in the series. Sometimes the simple explanation is the accurate one.

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