Friday November 9th, 2007

Taking a spin around the league ...

1. What did Dallas accomplish by sneaking a 120-115 victory Thursday at Golden State?

It was a reasonable first step in the Mavericks' recovery from their unprecedented playoff loss last May to the bottom-seeded Warriors. There are going to be complaints that the Mavs should have redeemed themselves emphatically with a blowout win, but that's not realistic. That's the equivalent of saying that the Warriors benefited from a fluke last spring, when in fact it was no such thing. The Warriors have the coach, the style and the quarterback in Baron Davis (37 points Thursday) to give Dallas problems, even if Jason Richardson has been traded and Stephen Jackson is missing because of a suspension.

The Mavs would be delusional to assume that they could suddenly throw a 20-point whipping on this team. Dirk Nowitzki (6-of-15 for 22 points plus 11 rebounds) was still befuddled by Golden State's rotations. On the other end, the Warriors were still spreading the floor, which created driving lanes for second-year swingman Kelenna Azubuike (27 points).

The difference this time was that the Mavs steadied themselves enough to make big shots in the final quarter. The key possession came in the final minute when Nowitzki drew in the defense before swinging the ball wide to Jerry Stackhouse for the uncontested and decisive three-pointer.

As they work their way through this season, the Mavs will have to improve their half-court discipline. Nowitzki will need to make better decisions from the post if they want to control tempo in the playoffs against teams like the Warriors, Suns and Nuggets. But no one could expect them to resolve all of their issues in the second week of the season.

All that matters here is that Dallas avoided humiliation in what felt like a must-win game for the Warriors (0-5). If they can steadily ratchet up their execution at both ends each time they face Golden State this season, then the Mavs will be able to look back on this win as the start of something good.

2. Is Shaquille O'Neal finished?

Of course not. Table the question until Dwyane Wade comes back, because right now Miami is asking the 35-year-old Shaq to carry Ricky Davis and Dorell Wright. A month after Wade's return, Shaq will be feeding off a top-five player while the Heat contend for the league's weakest division and its automatic No. 4 seed.

But the real issue is timing: Shaq has been pacing himself through these opening months for years now, and at his age he can't be expected to suddenly change his rhythm just because Miami let perimeter threats James Posey and Jason Kapono walk in the summer of Wade's surgeries. We aren't going to have a realistic gauge of O'Neal's influence until the post-All-Star months when he begins peaking for the playoffs. Will that peak approach the 30.5 postseason points he averaged a decade earlier? No, but he won't be settling for his current 12.8 points and 6.5 rebounds, either.

3. Should the Eastern Conference declare surrender and grant the Celtics a three-round bye in the playoffs?

Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce are averaging just 8.8 minutes of rest per game. They've been impressive defensively, but they've approached the early season as if it were the postseason, while most of the other teams are performing as if it were still the preseason. Rivals will be interested to see how fresh and energetic Boston's trio of 30-or-more-year-olds is looking in March and April.

4. How badly do the Cavaliers miss Anderson Varejao?

They're getting by, but that will change the longer he remains unsigned. Zydrunas Ilgauskas has started well with averages of 17.4 points and 14.2 rebounds, but how long can he maintain his current 35.2-minute pace? As promising as it is to see the Cavs exploiting their 7-foot-3 center, he has never averaged this much time over the course of a season and played just 27.3 minutes last year.

The Cavs have been competitive despite the absences of Varejao and Sasha Pavlovic (shooting 30 percent while playing his way back into shape after missing the first two games) as well as injuries to Donyell Marshall, Larry Hughes and Eric Snow. I'm feeling good about predicting the MVP for LeBron James, who so far has upgraded his rebounding (9.2), assists (8.2) and blocks (2.0) to go with his typical scoring (27.6 points).

5. What's been the key to the Clippers' surprising 4-0 start?

Corey Maggette is producing 19.8 points, Sam Cassell has showed flashes of his old form (35 points in 33 minutes against the Pacers) and Chris Kaman has been an outrageous 16.8-and-16.5 man in the four games. But don't look past the contributions of Tim Thomas, who was called out last week by Gilbert Arenas. Elton Brand's absence has put pressure on Thomas to spread the floor, and he has responded by making 13-of-24 three-pointers as part of his 16-point average.

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