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MIAMI – He sat there on David Letterman's show with a cocksure grin and a smack-talking mouth in a guest appearance whose bad timing was exceeded only by its imbecilic arrogance.
What in the world (other than his Texas-sized ego) possessed Mark Cuban to go on national TV Wednesday and yuk it up like the NBA Finals were in the bag? What was Cuban thinking when he decided to take a pot shot at Miami Heat coach Pat Riley, criticizing his style of play as being ugly and overly physical?
Well guess what, the NBA Finals just turned into just that kind of Riley-perfect series – a physical slugfest.
It's a style that doesn't suit a Dallas Mavericks franchise that will have questions about toughness (physical and mental) until it either wins a title or has Cuban stop pampering them with opulent locker rooms, easy excuses and a home-court environment long on one slapstick silly gag after another.
The Heat didn't just outplay Dallas in their 98-74 victory on Thursday. They pushed the Mavericks around and out-toughed them to take a series that once looked over at 2-0 to a 2-2 tie heading into Sunday's critical Game 5 back at AmericaAirlines Arena.
"It's just really disappointing when the other team is pushing and we're not pushing back hard enough," lamented Mavs coach Avery Johnson.
You can't win the NBA title without being tough, and right now, that same old question is still hanging, unanswered, over Dallas. The Mavericks have the better team here, but that may not be enough if they are going to just wilt in the South Florida humidity.
Cuban may famously prefer a free-wheeling, wide-open game and goofy circus acts to entertain the fans, but you don't win championships by being prettier and friendlier than everyone else.
"I think when you get to this time," said Riley, who was heart-attack serious as usual, "it becomes as much about will as it is execution."
Will and toughness were the shortcomings that Johnson was supposed to solve, and in leading Dallas to the Finals, it appeared he had. But who knows now? The Mavericks haven't shown the ability to get nasty after getting popped in the chops – the way championship teams do – since a late Game 3 rally by Miami floored them.
"In New York, they call it Rucker Park," Johnson said. "Where I'm from [in New Orleans], it's called Lyman Park, playground basketball. And a lot of times, that's what it is because you can't expect anybody to bail you out.
"I've tried to get a team that really [doesn't] complain; [they] just play," Johnson said. "But when we're complaining and we're not playing, we're not going to get it done."
There is no doubt Johnson is wondering about his team's fortitude. "It's hard for me to watch some of this stuff," said Johnson, who as a player would never have backed down.
Other than Jerry Stackhouse, whose flagrant foul on Shaquille O'Neal spoke of a player who wasn't going to go down easy, there wasn't any spark. (Predictably, Shaq was not going to give Stack any satisfaction – "My daughters tackle me harder," he said.)
In an increasingly physical game, Dallas scored just seven points in the fourth quarter and watched its star Dirk Nowitzki hit just two of 14 shots and complain to the officials after nearly every miss.
"[Udonis] Haslem is roughing him up," said Johnson, who wasn't complaining, just stating fact. "[James] Posey is playing physical. They are putting a blanket on him and he's going to have to get that blanket off of him.
"You know," Johnson sighed, "we've had certain demonstrations on how to do it. Now it's just a matter of will power."
And this has been the question with the Mavericks. Cuban is a colorful personality and often a breath of fresh air among all those stodgy owners, but he also coddles the players, offers constant complaints about officiating that serve as easy excuses and can overstep his boundaries.
It would be dumb for a player, in the middle of the Finals, to go on a late-night TV talk show and rile the opponent. It would be downright stupid for a coach to do it? But the owner? The stinkin' owner? A guy who doesn't even play? It's inexplicable.
Everyone wants to watch Cuban have a good time, but winning a championship takes discipline and focus, not appearances on "The Late Show," the leaking of championship parade dates to the local newspapers and juvenile blog entries.
He should be either smart enough – or, since he's rich enough, hire someone smart enough – to stop inserting himself in the middle of a title chase and stop setting the less-than-serious tone, especially when he is trashing the exact style of play that has his team on its heels.
Dallas is playing right into the hands of Pat Riley, whose Heat will keep slugging until someone other than Stackhouse slugs back harder than a Hasselhoff.
Because no matter what Cuban thinks of Pat Riley's style of basketball, Miami's coach has four rings that not even Cuban may be able to buy.