While everybody is anticipating another Spurs/Pistons showdown for the NBA title, a couple of other teams have surprised this season. Let's take a closer look at the overachieving Mavericks and Clippers. The Mavericks have been very good for several seasons now, but they are not perceived as being an elite team by the public, simply because they have a history of flaming out in the playoffs. It was a label that hung over the Sacramento Kings from 1999-2003, when they seemed to have enough talent and depth to get to the next level, but something always got in the way come playoff time (injuries, the refs, big-game collapses).
The Mavericks appear to be the next talented young team trying to knock on the door of the NBA elite. Dallas has smartly built around 27-year old 7-foot star Dirk Nowitzki, who is having his best season with 25 points, 8 rebounds per game. He is a rare big man who is an inside-out threat and is hitting 42% from three-point land this season. They've added 28-year old guard Jason Terry (16 ppg), who is terrific at running the break. The Mavs have surrounded these guys with very good role players like 25-year old 6-7 Josh Howard, a No. 1 pick, and veteran scorer Jerry Stackhouse.
Stackhouse has not started a single game and credit should go to coach Avery Johnson for getting Stackhouse to accept and excel in his key sixth man role. Throw in role players like Keith Van Horn, Marquis Daniels and Erick Dampier, and this is a good combination of stars and role players. Significantly, their biggest improvement has been at the defensive end, and credit again must go to Johnson. Dallas recently went on a 5-0 road trip, not allowing a single team to score 100 on them. They are taking pride in their defense, too, something which has never been associated with the Mavs. Dallas is fourth in the NBA in blocked shots, and second in rebounding differential (+3.
7). They are in the Top 10 in opponents' field goal percentage too, allowing 44% shooting per game. Just as impressive as the 20-4 home record is their 19-7 road mark! As an underdog, Dallas is 4-1 SU, 5-0 ATS this season. They also know that the Spurs and the No.
1 seed are their target. Dirk Nowitzki said this week, "With all the off-season moves San Antonio did, we knew they were going to be the team to beat. We know for us to be on top in the West, we have to go through San Antonio at some point." They lost to the Spurs at home, 92-90, and won at home, 103-84. They get another chance March 2 at San Antonio and later in April.
This shapes up as one fascinating race for the No. 1 seed. The Clippers have been the biggest surprise. Veteran guards Sam Cassell and Cuttino Mobley are in their first year with the team and have solidified the backcourt. Up front, LA has a terrific tall young line behind potential MVP Elton Brand (25 ppg, 10 rpg) and 7-foot Chris Kaman. Brand has added a mid-range jumper to his game this season and it has brought him to a new level.
The Clippers lead the league in defense allowing 42% shooting, rebounds per game (43.8) and blocks per game (6.3). And they still are awaiting the return of Corey Maggette, who has only played in 13 games.
He is a terrific weapon when healthy. But keep in mind the Clippers are just 5-13 SU, 7-11 ATS as an underdog. So how have they fared against the Spurs? They failed to win or cover in a 95-87 loss. However, note that the game was in overtime, and the Clippers had 61 rebounds (the Spurs had 58). LA also shot just 33%. Kaman and Brand combined for 25 rebounds, while Duncan had 22! They will have two more shots at the Spurs before the playoffs (both at home).
It's still tough to get a sense how much these teams may threaten the Spurs in the West. Perhaps Nowitzki's remark sums it up best: You have to go through San Antonio to get to the Finals! Good luck, as always.Al McMordie. .
By: Big Al McMordie