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Final thoughts to ponder

Mavericks are eager to take the next step

Dirk Nowitzki has the Mavericks back on top with MVP performances after the sting of losing to the Heat in the NBA Finals last season. Dirk Nowitzki has the Mavericks back on top with MVP performances after the sting of losing to the Heat in the NBA Finals last season. (DUANE BURLESON/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

NEW YORK -- The model franchise boasts a roster deep in talent, versatility, and experience. The star takes big shots, but also gladly shares the ball. The coach is young, cerebral, and focused. The owner is wealthy, generous, and fiercely loyal.

The Dallas Mavericks cruise into TD Banknorth Garden tonight to play the Celtics with a 56-11 record, the best in the NBA. They score, they defend, and draw from a reservoir of options to beat you.

"On any given night, any team can beat them," said Paul Pierce, "but over a seven-game series? I don't see anybody who can beat them."

Go ahead. Say it. The Mavs know what you've been whispering: Unless they beat themselves.

The skepticism is a byproduct of the 2006 NBA Finals, when Dallas, having assembled a 2-0 series advantage over the Miami Heat, blew a 13-point lead with 6:34 left in Game 3. It was a stunning collapse, heightened by the team's inability to win another game in the Finals.

While Heat guard Dwyane Wade reveled in his status as the shiny, new clutch performer, and Miami coach Pat Riley basked in his rejuvenated image as the resident genius, Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki and 41-year-old coach Avery Johnson staggered back to Texas fixated on determining what went awry, and more importantly, how to prevent it from happening again.

No wonder Dallas players huddle before each game, place their hands in a circle, and issue their new mantra: Finish.

"There's no point in denying the fact we kind of botched a championship last year," said veteran Jerry Stackhouse. "We're not hiding from that. In fact, we're trying to be accountable for it."

And so the Mavericks navigate through a season in which they do not want to forget their shortcomings of the previous June, yet would prefer not to be reminded of it every 10 minutes.

Old wounds
Nowitzki, who missed a free throw with three seconds left in Game 3 of the Finals that would have tied the score, has grown accustomed to the queries. He is having an MVP season, and appeared to be the front-runner until Dallas lost a thrilling, double-overtime game to the Phoenix Suns March 14. The other MVP candidate, Steve Nash, made spectacular plays, including a fallaway 3-pointer to send it to overtime and a clutch steal in double OT that appears to have tipped the MVP scale in his direction, and trigger anew questions about whether Dallas can win the big one.

The scab, nearly healed, has been opened again. Nowitzki, addressing thirsty New York reporters earlier this week, told them exactly what they were hankering to hear. (The Mavericks blew out the Knicks in New York, 92-77, Tuesday.)

"Everyone remembers our meltdown in the Finals," Nowitzki told the New York Daily News. "The only way we can make that change is to get there again. We win 17 in a row, lose one [to Phoenix], and people say we're nothing. It doesn't mean we're all of a sudden a team that chokes leads away."

That premise is particularly absurd considering the Mavericks had to upend the San Antonio Spurs in overtime of Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinals at the Alamodome to keep their season alive last season. Nowitzki scored 37 points and grabbed 15 rebounds in that game. He then went on to average 28 points and 13.2 rebounds in a six-game series victory over the Suns in the conference final.

The Mavericks are certainly not solitary figures in the NBA museum of postseason heartbreak. Isiah Thomas and the Detroit Pistons were forced to live through the indignity of "Bird Steals the Ball!" in the 1987 Eastern Conference finals before they won back-to-back titles. Julius Erving's scrutinized quest for an NBA championship with Philadelphia was agonizing before he finally won one in 1983.

Mavericks owner Mark Cuban flatly rejects the concept his team should be questioned for what transpired last June.

"There was no letdown, there was no meltdown," he insisted. "We just didn't get any breaks. Stuff happens. You move on. I have to move on, or I'll say something that will get me in trouble."

Although the Mavericks preserved their core group from last season, they hardly stood pat, signing free agent Greg Buckner to upgrade their defense on the perimeter and acquiring Austin Croshere to spell Nowitzki. Yet the most critical pickup was the versatile Devean George, who can guard backcourt players or smaller, quicker forwards in the post so Nowitzki doesn't have to.

Point guard Jason Terry, who signed an extension over the summer, said there are other changes. The comfort level of the team, he said, has improved immeasurably.

"Last year, if I saw something on the floor, I hesitated," Terry said. "The play would go by, and then it would be too late. Now if I see it, I go for it."

This is what Johnson has mandated for his team as it attempts to adopt the persona he so admirably displayed during a 16-season NBA career. Johnson was neither heralded nor flashy, but he was a fearless competitor who defended, threw the extra pass, and made savvy basketball decisions.

Aside from his defensive approach, Johnson has paid particular attention to the subtleties that enhance team chemistry. He understands his starting center (and his former Golden State Warriors teammate) Erick Dampier, who does all the dirty work under the basket, needs to be rewarded occasionally, so he tries to call his number offensively at least once a quarter.

When two-time All-Star Stackhouse joined the team, Johnson recognized he might be reticent to accept a role off the bench, so he went on the offensive, heralding the value of a sixth man on a championship team.

"He made it seem like it was the best job in the world," Stackhouse said. "When someone's telling you, 'We're counting on you,' I mean, really. What can you say to that?"

Josh Howard, a 26-year-old All-Star, whose combination of skills and toughness has turned him into a feared two-way player, could well have benefited most from his coach's indelible imprint. Howard was the 29th pick of the 2003 draft, a slight that still rankles him.

Johnson, who began his career in the old USBL, certainly can relate.

"I like Josh," Johnson said earlier this week. "He plays with a chip on his shoulder."

Leading man
Howard said the true leader of the Mavericks is their coach, who has not only set the tone for what is expected, but also how those expectations should be met.

"In my mind," said Howard, "Coach has done three things for us. He's made us a defensive team, he's made it clear we aren't backing down from nobody, and he's gotten Dirk to move his feet in the post."

The players are not the only ones who have learned from last season. Johnson, too, is still a work in progress, defining and fine-tuning his coaching philosophy.

"You try to find your comfort zone," Johnson said. "I trust my point guards more than I did last year. I let [assistant coach Joe Prunty] run two practices this year. He ran none last year.

"You start to find out what you don't need. I'm trying to eliminate things. Sometimes coaches have plays that we think are pretty good, but then when we try them, they stink."

It remains to be seen whether the events of last June will help or haunt the Mavericks. Croshere, who played for the Indiana Pacers at the time, was merely a casual observer watching Game 3 in Miami. When he was acquired by the Mavericks, he requested the tape so he could watch the implosion with a more detailed eye.

"It was kind of tough to watch," Croshere acknowledged. "These guys have gone through something very powerful, very emotional. Slowly, the pain has subsided, and now it's turned into motivation for them.

"It never comes up specifically, but it's always there."

Stackhouse, who has played for four teams but has no rings, said there's only one way to erase the horrors of last summer.

"I won't lose that memory until we win a championship," Stackhouse said. "If I play five or six more years, and we never win one, that will be my memory of our moment on the big stage."

The model franchise appears to be built for multiple opportunities at a title. The average age of the starting lineup is 27.6, a number that would be significantly lower if not for the graybeard Dampier (he's 31). Their window of opportunity is hardly closing; in fact, you could argue it has just recently been thrust open.

"We don't have guys that have been together five years," Cuban noted. "Sometimes our offense becomes stagnant. We don't always rotate properly when we play zone. We're only two years into the plan. We're not there yet."

Nowitzki prefers not to wait (that goes for Cuban, as well). He believes this team that moves the ball so effortlessly, that plays defense so passionately, that shares the ball so unselfishly, can win it all right now.

And he is ready to take the big shot again -- any time, anyplace.

"Obviously, when I'm open, the thing's going up," he said.

The man who would be NBA king didn't wait long to finish that thought.

"And," Nowitzki added, "I always believe it's going in."

Jackie MacMullan's e-mail address is macmullan@globe.com.

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