DALLAS – The Dallas Mavericks lost again Thursday, but give them credit. Unlike two nights earlier, Avery Johnson didn’t get cursed out in his office by Mark Cuban.
Cuban and Johnson each had reason to let a few expletives fly after their 94-90 loss to the Boston Celtics. Johnson, for one, stepped to the podium and immediately pointed to the 18-7 disparity in fourth-quarter free-throw attempts as “the difference.”
Some things never change with these Mavericks. They claim not to make excuses and then they make excuses.
But on Thursday, the Mavericks also made something else: progress. They played hard, they defended well and, in the end, they lost to a better team. The Mavericks didn’t give their owner and coach cause to yell at each other, and that’s good. For the next time Cuban and Johnson want to share a four-lettered vocabulary lesson, they would be wise to remember one thing:
This is on both of them.
Cuban and Johnson both wanted to trade for Jason Kidd. They both agreed to part with Devin Harris and DeSagana Diop, to change the core of a team that had grown together for four years. And they both decided to do this with only eight weeks left in the toughest Western Conference race ever.
So when the Mavericks lost Thursday by four points to the NBA’s best team? No one should have been angry – or surprised.
This is what happens when you import an aging point guard to guide your team through the season’s treacherous stretch run. After the Los Angeles Lakers traded for Pau Gasol and the Phoenix Suns brought in Shaquille O’Neal, the Mavericks felt they needed to make their own blockbuster splash. The difference: Neither Gasol nor O’Neal is being asked to direct their respective team’s offense.
“Point guard is the toughest change,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. “That changes everything for you offensively. Even if it’s the same type of player, he still doesn’t know your stuff. I’ve always thought that position changes everything: timing, when certain players get the ball.”
The Mavericks have realized as much. Harris often ran a one-man fastbreak while Dallas’ halfcourt offense was heavy on isolation sets. Kidd, though, is at his best when everyone’s running with him, and that was the case Thursday. Through three quarters, the Mavericks outscored the Celtics 22-4 in fastbreak points.
But when Boston slowed the game in the fourth with its numerous trips to the foul line, allowing time to set up its halfcourt defense? The Mavericks missed 12 of 18 shots, didn’t get a single basket in transition and committed six turnovers.
Kidd accounted for two of those misses, and he went just 1 for 8 for the game while totaling two points, nine assists and 11 rebounds. “I still think it’s not all natural to him yet,” said Dirk Nowitzki, who once rolled to the basket in the fourth quarter only to seem surprised when Kidd delivered a quick pass to him over the top of the defense.
Kidd also has had to get acclimated to Johnson directing the offense from the sideline.
“I try to execute what he calls, but my instinct is to try to get an easy basket,” Kidd said. “It’s just getting comfortable with these guys and understanding how easy the game can be if we can get out and run and get easy baskets.”
The next step, Kidd said, is convincing his new teammates they can run even after made baskets. You get the feeling he also needs to convince his new coach. Johnson was controlling as a player and he’s controlling now. When the Mavericks lost to the Spurs earlier this month, Johnson sat Kidd for the final, critical possessions, saying he preferred to have a better shooter on the floor.
Kidd was on the court in crunch time on Thursday, but the Mavericks are limited with what they can run until he gets more familiar with the offense.
“You almost have to give him freedom to try to figure it out,” Rivers said. “That’s difficult because, as a coach, you want to call something and you’re not sure if he knows it or not.”
Only time will cure that, and the Mavericks don’t have much of it. A guess: They will look smarter next season for making this trade.
“If we had our druthers,” Mavericks guard Jerry Stackhouse said, “we would have rather had the trade in December or January.”
Or July. After acquiring Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett during the summer, the Celtics now look like a well-oiled green machine. Down one with 33.8 seconds left, Boston walked out of a timeout and ran its play well enough to spring Allen open for the go-ahead 3-pointer.
The Celtics won despite shooting 34.5 percent, giving them victories in San Antonio, Houston and Dallas in the span of four days. Not since Sacramento in 2001 has a team swept through the Texas triangle.
“We don’t want to see Texas anymore,” Rivers said. “It’s a heck of a state, no taxes, and I don’t want to see any of those three teams anymore.”
The Mavericks don’t have that luxury. They live in the West, and their latest loss dropped them to 0-7 against teams with winning records since Kidd arrived. That’s a legitimate reason to be concerned. In the West only teams with winning records make the playoffs.
“We’re close and we’re getting closer,” Johnson said. “We just have to stay positive.”
That hasn’t been easy to do. Not with Harris playing well in New Jersey, having already led the Nets to victories over Cleveland and Utah. On Tuesday, the Mavericks came out flat, watched the Lakers roll to a 25-point lead and were booed off their own court at halftime.
Cuban turned up the volume after the game when he marched into Johnson’s office. The two reportedly had a heated exchange that Johnson didn’t deny Thursday.
“In my three years since I’ve been here,” Johnson said, “we’ve had fiery pep talks on the phone, at my house, at his house, at lunch.”
Johnson is right. This is nothing new for him and Cuban. There’s a reason why the Spurs used to call Johnson the Ghetto Preacher and there’s a reason why Sen. Herb Kohl of the Milwaukee Bucks gave Cuban his own nickname this week: Meddling Owner. That combination sometimes makes for a combustible relationship.
But Johnson and Cuban also need to remember they’re in this together. They already had a good team with Harris, one that was 10-3 against those same winning teams the Mavericks have since gone 0-7 against.
Instead of staying the course, the Ghetto Preacher and Meddling Owner gambled on Kidd and pushed all their chips to the middle of the table.
One month later everyone’s still waiting to see what hand they were dealt.