Beards Be Gone

27 03 2013

Take a good look at the image above. This face will look a little different very soon.

From starting out the first third of the season without their superstar, to having six different starting centers at different points, to losing seven straight overtime games, the 2012-2013 NBA season has not been kind to a Dallas Mavericks franchise that is so used to it being nicer the past 12 playoff-filled seasons.

Nothing has come easy. This isn’t to say that the blame shouldn’t be on their shoulders, especially since they have allowed plenty of games to slip right by them countless times. However, the basketball gods have made it clear they want the Mavs to work for their 13th consecutive playoff appearance.

The Mavericks showed that they are willing to work for that milestone Tuesday night. And they showed it in a big way.

The Dallas Mavericks inched past the Los Angeles Clippers 109-102 in overtime as Dirk Nowitzki not only pushed his way past Patrick Ewing for 17th on the all-time scoring list but also pushed his team one win away from a .500 record and from some clean-shaven faces.

American Airlines Center clearly had a playoff atmosphere right from the opening tipoff. It started with the ceaseless boos for LamLam Odom and ended with the chants of “Air Ball” after Matt Barnes air-balled a wide-open three-pointer with 22 seconds to go in overtime that would have tied the game.

In between these two events was a game filled with plenty of cheering for the home team. The Mavs and Clippers simply put on a fantastic basketball game that remained close throughout. If you haven’t heard at this point, Chris Paul is pretty good at basketball and is statistically one of the best clutch players in the game. The Clippers opponent had a player just as clutch with a completely different array of skills. And much, much more facial hair.

Paul and Dirk played some of their best basketball of the season, each setting season-highs with 33 points. Chris Paul made two different shots that could have been game-winning shots. However, due to O.J. Mayo finally deciding to show up when it matters most and Dirk scoring the Mavs first eight points in overtime, Paul had to settle for two pretty good shots and another loss.

This big-time offense from the Mavs stars was clearly a huge reason they came out on top, but the defense down the stretch was just as important. And it started with Elton Brand and his never-ending motor. Not only did he collect eight points, five rebounds and four blocks in 25 minutes off the bench, but the 13-year veteran shut down All-Star Blake Griffin.

BrandGriffinIn the first five minutes of play while Brand sat on the bench, Griffin went 3-for-3 from the field, 2-for-2 from the free-throw line and had eight quick points. Once Brand entered the game, Griffin had no field goals until late in overtime when the game was already over.

It may be in a completely different way, but Brand has found a way to replicate the type of energy off the bench that Jason Terry brought to the floor and hard-nosed defense Tyson Chandler has made a living off of. When he guards big men on the block, he rarely is sucked into pump fakes and firmly holds his ground. This intelligent defense kept the Mavericks in the game when the offense couldn’t find a rhythm on the other end of the court. No other Dallas big man can do what Brand does night in and night out.

There’s one more old man that has to be mentioned. (That’s not counting Vince Carter, who simply needs to forget about this horrible night filled with a multitude of mistakes.) This is the old man that had one more assist and six fewer turnovers than Chris Paul. That’s right – Mike James.

After making a worst first impression than Manti Te’o did on the NFL, James (10 points, six assists, four rebounds, one turnover) has figured out his role, and the team’s 9-3 record since he became a starter is proof. No longer do people have to wince when James begins to dribble; instead, they can become excited for what he’s going to do with the ball. He is playing smart basketball and creating for his teammates as a starting point guard is supposed to do.

Now, we can’t forget about the man that goes by the name Dirk. Tuesday night showcased a vintage Dirk that reminded the nation why he is so unguardable. Head coach Vinny Del Negro threw Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and even a smaller Barnes at the bearded power forward in order to find some way of stopping him. Dirk and his one-legged fadeaway jump shot gladly showed all of these players just why he can still play at an elite level. There’s no question.

Nowitzki performed this way during the Mavericks’ biggest regular season win since last year when they took down the San Antonio Spurs in overtime. This one is even bigger due to the fact that the playoffs are less than a month away and because this is the Mavs first win against a top 4 Western Conference opponent (Thunder, Spurs, Clippers, Nuggets) in 12 tries this season.

“It’s a good time to be playing your best basketball of the season,” Nowitzki said.

So, even though it’s nice to see this team playing so well and coming into form, why would they want to push for a playoff spot when they will inevitably be bounced in the first round just like last year?

Pride. Pride in the Maverick and what it represents.

At three different points this season, Dallas had a record of 13-23, 20-28, and 25-32. Tanking could have been initiated at any of these points and Mark Cuban could have started watching March Madness to see what lottery-bound player would be coming to his team. This isn’t an outlandish idea as NBA teams will commonly do this once they realize there’s not much more to play for.  But the Mavericks aren’t finished.

“Our work is not done. … The motivation is clear. This has been a winning franchise for a long time,” Rick Carlisle said.

As a Mavericks fan and a sports fan, I find very few things more respectable than the grit and grind this team has shown in order to get to where they are now and where they will end up. There were plenty of excuses they all could have given in order to mark this season as a lost cause. I mean, this was a team that had Eddy Curry start a basketball game…. Eddy Curry. Yeah.

But through it all, they never gave in and never gave up. And this attitude starts right at the helm with their head coach and franchise player. Carlisle and Nowitzki have made it clear to the media with their interviews throughout the season that they believe in their team. They will always believe. Because of this relentless optimism, they find themselves on the doorsteps of basketball in late April…again.

No matter the outcome of this season and possibly postseason, the Dallas Mavericks have given DFW sports fans a reason to not lose all hope in pride for their sports teams. The Cowboys seem to be obsessed with mediocrity and collapsing at the end of the season. The Rangers…let’s not even go there.

The 2011 NBA Champions have shown that they will not give up on their city. They will not give up on their franchise. They will not give up on Dirk.

The Los Angeles Lakers may seem like the logical choice to grab the eighth and final playoff seed with their star-studded roster. The Utah Jazz may also seem like the more probable choice with their strength of schedule and amount of home games they have left to play. But with the Lakers losing their last three games and the Jazz losing nine straight on the road and nine of their last twelve, the surging Mavs can see the playoff-light at the end of the tunnel. The path is filled with difficult playoff teams as opponents, but it’s there.

The Mavericks are clearly a team that will continue to fight for their lives and improve their chemistry until they have no more games to play, but this murky path will still be difficult to follow and conquer; however, with a healthy Dirk leading the way, this team is about to prove their doubters wrong one more time.

Get out those razors, Mavs.

And get ready for the playoffs.

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