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by Mike Fisher    Fri, Jun 13, 2008, 07:24 PM

Hey, Mavs fan: The Lakers’ 3-1 deficit in the NBA Finals might be good for what ails us.

Of course, there’s not enough Bag Balm on the planet to completely sooth the pain of what’s happened to Dallas in the last three postseasons: one monumental first-round ouster, one sadly-predictable first-round ouster and one disastrous NBA Finals choke-away. But the failings of the regal Lakers do demonstrate, I think, that failings can happen to anybody.

THE INVISIBLE SUPERSTAR: Haters fail to realize that without Dirk Nowitzki, the Mavs wouldn’t win enough games to keep them from the business end of the lottery. But that same reliance means that when The UberMan struggles, his team is likely to follow suit.

Dirk’s most infamous struggles in the last three years came in the 2007 first-round series against Golden State – the postseason following his regular-season MVP win. And got killed for it.

But Dirk has nothing on Kobe Bryant in this postseason, which follows his regular-season MVP win.

Hey, when does the stoning commence?

In Thursday’s Game 4 – with the Lakers at home, with a chance to tie the series, and playing well enough to be ahead by 24 early – Kobe had just two field goals and seven points in the first three quarters. He finished with 19 points on just 6-of-19 shooting.

Am I trying to justify Nowitzki’s occasional flops? Yessir. Had Dirk been Shaq’s sidekick in the Diesel’s prime, Dirk would likely have titles just as Kobe does. But now, with Bryant playing the same role for his team that Dirk plays for his – The Man – the two of them have the same number of titles.


Which justifies, I think, the position that while Kobe is a superior talent than Dirk, he remains vastly inferior  to Jordan.

(Speaking of numbers: Everything came up 24 for Kobe. He wears jersey No. 24. He was playing in his 24th career playoff game. And did I mention HE WAS AHEAD 24 POINTS!)

One more parallel that is notable: In the last three seasons, Dirk’s Mavs have, again, those two first-round ousters and (probably) one NBA Finals loss. How have Kobe’s Lakers done in the last three seasons? Two first-round ousters and (probably) one NBA Finals loss.

Another note: Neither superstar handled the Finals failures with immediate aplomb. In Miami, Dirk punted basketballs and kicked stationary bikes; In LA, The Drama Queen is screaming at teammates and offering quotes about “getting drunk’’ and “wetting the bed.’’ (see the video here)  

And another: When the Lakers drove the ball up for a final, meaningless possession in Game 4, Kobe was nowhere to be found. He walked off the court with three seconds remaining.

Yes, Dirk – like any other superstar in any other sport – has occasionally disappeared figuratively. But The Drama Queen topped him by disappearing literally.

THE AUERBACH-ESQUE COACH (OR NOT): Dallas’ Avery Johnson was touted for his “Red-ness’’ when Avery earned his 100th win faster than anyone, topping the mark previously held by Auerbach. LA’s Phil JackZen has long been justifiably compared to the Celtics legend due to Phil’s total of nine NBA titles as a coach, matching Auerbach.

Avery’s errors are magnified by their uniqueness: During the 2006 Finals, he decided to change Miami hotels. Why? To start the 2007 series in Golden State, he decided to change starting lineups. Why? At the end of the 2008 series in New Orleans, he huffily decided to cancel practice. Why?

Phil JackZen’s problems are more subtle. One example? A problem of consistency: It is fair to say that LA’s offense has been good in just 14 of the 16 quarters played.  Meanwhile, he’s coaxed maybe one good quarter of play out of Lamar Odom, he’s allowed Sasha to play (and act) out of control and he’s watched as Kobe’s Drama Queening has spread to the rest of the roster.

JackZen is supposed to be the game’s best coach. He has in his stable the game’s best player. He helps oversee a franchise that is gilded, and oversees a team that many assumed would be dynastic. Yet when he cracked the whip at halftime on Thursday, his thoroughbred team did not respond.

“I mentioned at halftime we had to come out and win the third quarter,’’ said Phil after the game, confounded, therefore, as to why his Lakers stormed out onto the floor and were outscored 31-15 in the third quarter.

THE EVAPORATED LEAD:  The way we phrase it around here, Dallas had a 2-and-7/8th’s-game lead in the 2008 Finals. I mean, it was over – especially because the Mavs were up 13 points midway through the final quarter.

Until Dallas wins an NBA title, that collapse – the Mavs, of course, somehow lost that game and then lost the ensuing three – the Mavs will be forever haunted by the Game 3 That Got Away.

But it’s not nearly as embarrassing as LA’s Game 4 That Got Away.

The Celtics' 97-91 victory came after the Lakers had led by 21 points after the first quarter (the biggest first-quarter lead in NBA Finals history) and after they later pushed the advantage to 24 (making this the biggest choke of a lead in at least four decades). Midway through the third, they were still up 20.

THE INTERIOR SOFTIES: Dallas was officially and sarcastically labeled “Soft White Boyz’’ by after Nick Van Exel told tales of how, before he came here, that was the Mavs’ reputation. Shawn Bradley is long gone, but the reputation lingers, maybe because of the anti-Euro bias that suggests to some that Dirk is “soft.’’ Of course, it’s not just the white boyz; the big men who’ve been part of the last three postseasons, Erick Dampier and DeSagana Diop, are generally considering something short of “enforcers.’’

And the Lakers? Their interior game is epitomized by Pau Gasol, the 7-foot Euro who seems to want no part of banging with the likes of Kendrick Perkins and P.J. Brown.  It’s not all about numbers; after all Gasol was good for 17/10 on Thursday.  Consider late in G4, when Ray Allen breezed by the clueless Sasha. Pau watched Allen go in for the uncontested layup without, well, contesting it.

Generally in this series, Pau has no baus.

THE INABILITY TO STOP ONE OPPOSING PLAYER: The Mavs bumped into this phenomenon in each of their three playoff exits. In 2008 Chris Paul (21.1 points, 4 rebounds and 11.6 assists in the regular season) jumped to 24.6, 5.6 and 12 against the Mavs. In 2007, Baron Davis (20.1, 4.4 and 8.1 in the regular season) vaulted to 25 points, 6.2 rebounds and 5.7 assists against the Mavs. And in 2006, Dwayne Wade (27.2, 5.7 and 6.7 in the regular season) averaged 34.7 points, 7.8 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 2.7 steals against the Mavs.

Dallas (or the whistles) turned Wade into The Greatest Singular Performer In Finals History, according to Hollinger.

And now the Lakers are plagued by the exact same sort of problem with Paul Pierce.  He averaged around 19 ppg during the regular season and he’s around 19 ppg for this postseason. But in Boston’s three wins, he’s averaging 25 ppg. And more – get this – he’s often drawing the assignment of guarding Kobe Bryant. And he’s winning.

Over the course of four games, The Truth has consistently been superior to The Black Mamba – and it’s happened head-to-head, meaning it’s Kobe who has been the one “unable to stop one opposing player.’’

THE OUTPLAYED-BY-‘NOBODIES’ BENCH: It was painful to watch the Mavs seem completely helpless against star-caliber performers like Wade, Davis and Paul. But in each of the ousters, the contribution of bit players would be just as frustrating.

“How can we not stop Jannero Pargo?!’’ “How can we not stop Matt Barnes?!’’ “How can we not stop James Posey?!’’

Well, the Lakers can’t stop James Posey, either. Posey was a Miami player in the Finals two seasons ago. He’s a Boston player now, and on Thursday, he scored 18 points – featuring an icy late 3 – to key the win.

The Lakers aren’t just being manhandled by Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. At different points in the series, they’ve also been shocked by Posey, by scrapheaper P.J. Brown (21 points in Game 2), by disrespected starting PG Rajon Rondo (16 assists in G2) and by scrub Leon Powe, who scored 21 points in Game 2 but is otherwise such a nobody that JackZen wasn’t certain how to pronounce his name. LA’s inability to stick with Boston’s JAGs is especially stunning given the fact that the Celtics have at times played without two injured starters in Perkins and Rondo.

THE NO. 1 SEED TURNED ‘BAD SEED’: The 2007 Mavs tore through the NBA at a historic pace, ending with 67 wins, the No. 1 seed in the playoffs, and massive expectations as the odds-on favorite to win the title. These Lakers were also the No. 1 seed in the West, winning the most games in this year’s impossibly tough conference. And LA was a big favorite to win it all before the start of the playoffs (and a 2-1 fave to beat Boston).

And now the Lakers are the Mavericks – as Mark Cuban would say, preparing to finish in a 29-way tie for last.

No team in NBA history has ever climbed from a 3-1 Finals hole. The Lakers are now likely to take their place alongside the other second-place finishers, the other chokers, the other “failures.’’ And they are doing so in a way that is an at-least-mild comfort to tortured Mavs fans.


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