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Mavs following Nowitzki's lead toward top of the West

Dirk Nowitzki isn't a team cheerleader. He never has been, never will be and has never even pretended to be. So why are fans and media alike waiting for the 12-year veteran to become one?

"I'm just not a rah-rah kind of guy," Nowitzki said. "I'm just more of a quiet guy, always have been. But I think I've become more comfortable over the years saying a little something. As you get older, you learn how to handle situations better, on and off the floor. I still could be better I guess, but I've evolved."

It should be enough that the 31-year-old Nowitzki has guided Dallas to the second-best record in the West. It should be enough that Nowitzki is on track to record his 10th consecutive 21-point, eight-rebound season. It should be enough that the 7-foot, 245-pound power forward sees his job through the prism of his team.

But some Mavericks fans, who felt cheated out of a title when the team won 127 regular-season games from 2005-2007 as their franchise player was getting paid handsomely to bring them one, want more. They want a vocal, take-the-reins leader.

"If we win, I did my job as a leader," said Nowitzki, the 2007 MVP. "Some nights it might be scoring 30, some nights it might be getting 12 or 13 rebounds, some nights I might have to be a decoy and set some screens to get guys open. If we win, I'm fine with whatever I do."

That isn't exactly Kobe Bryant demanding the ball in crunch time or Kevin Garnett dressing down a teammate for a boneheaded play. But it is the approach of someone who makes a point of getting some breathing space from the game each summer, as he did on a safari in Botswana last year.

As Dallas looks ahead to the second half of the season and ultimately the playoffs, Nowitzki's biggest challenge may start at home. The Mavs have already lost six times at American Airlines Center, more home defeats than they had in six of the past eight seasons. Plus, their 12 home wins (against six losses) are one fewer than their road tally (13-6).

"For some reason, on the road we shoot better than we do at home," Nowitzki said. "We haven't really made shots at home, we haven't really played well. We're actually trying to figure that out."

What doesn't need figuring out is the Mavs' 8-0 record when shooting at least 50 percent, and their 7-8 record when shooting less than 44 percent.

"I never thought I would say this, but we've got to work on some things on offense," Nowitzki said. "We need to move the ball a little more and get guys to the right spots."

And despite their recent lapses, the Mavs rank eighth in defensive field-goal percentage (44.7) -- a skill they will need to maintain pace in the West, not to mention an essential element in their bid to make another run at that elusive championship.

But Dallas' immediate future depends on Nowitzki, and his willingness to develop as a player and a person where Dallas' immediate future lies.

"I'm still not as efficient in the post as I want to be," Nowitzki said. "I'm trying to get better at understanding the angles down there, how to attack and where to attack, and how to play against double teams."

He also has learned to play against the pressure of an impatient fan base and, lately, the tabloid press after his fiancée was arrested at his home and eventually sentenced to five years in prison for violating probation in a prior forgery and theft case. "My private life had never been looked at before. It wasn't something I liked but I've been around the media for 12 years and I understand it was a big story. "I've tried to move on. I didn't want to change and be all by myself. For me, basketball was an escape; I was with my friends in the locker room and they treated me normally, they made me laugh."

Enjoy as he does time with the guys, Nowitzki isn't just one of them, but after a most trying year, he's earned the right to be treated line one.

Yi Jianlian. No one has benefited more from the coaching change in New Jersey than the 7-footer, who is shaking off two years mediocre play to become the stretch power forward the Nets envisioned when they dealt Richard Jefferson for him. Under Kiki Vandeweghe, Yi has averaged 17 points, 7.3 rebounds and 1.1 blocks while shooting 35.3 percent from three-point range -- a rare bright spot in New Jersey's miserable season.

Shaq's generosity. There's more to the NBA's leading clown than nicknames, team dissension and declining play. Shaq has now taken to helping those no one could. Twice this year O'Neal has picked up the funeral costs for young children killed in tragic circumstances. After paying for the services in November for a 5-year-old North Carolina girl who was kidnapped and killed, Shaq did the same for a 4-year-old killed by a stray bullet during a New Year's Eve service at a church in Atlanta. O'Neal may not be the Superman his tattoo suggests, but his willingness to use his wealth to help ease the pain of those a lot less fortunate is heroic in a lot of ways.

Lionel Hollins. A season after the Grizzlies lost 58 games, Hollins has turned Memphis into a .500 team -- one whose up-tempo style has revived its fan base. Hollins has the support of team centerpiece O.J. Mayo andveteranforward Zach Randolph, who has butted heads with previous coaches but described Hollins as "a coach you can believe in." With all of the bad decisions owner Michael Heisley has made, hiring Hollins is one for which he can crow proudly. (In fact, Heisley reportedly is working to extend Hollins' contract.)

The Pistons. A few weeks ago, this space praised Charlie Villanueva for his off-the-bench contributions to the then-surging Pistons. Uh, can we get a do-over on that? Though Villanueva has continued to play well, Detroit lost 13 consecutive games before Tuesday's victory against the Wizards. On offense, the Pistons rank second to last in the league in scoring (91.7 points), while on defense, opponents are shooting 47.4 percent. Only four teams are allowing a better percentage. "I got to do a better job of leading this team from start to finish," Ben Wallace said after a recent loss to the Sixers. "I know what this team is capable of doing. I got to get this team ready from the start." When a 35-year-old center averaging 4.6 points after almost retiring in the offseason is your team's leader, wouldn't that raise a red flag?

Vince Carter. Since spraining his ankle Jan. 2 against the Bulls, Carter has averaged 7.3 points and shot 20.5 percent. More troubling for the Magic are comments from the team questioning his role. "Vince is the type of player who needs the ball in his hands," Rashard Lewis told the Orlando Sentinel. "He dominates the ball sometimes. That's how he became Vince Carter. We got to ... learn how to play with him dominating the ball." Coach Stan Van Gundy also weighed in, observing that the team plays better when one of its prime stars comes off the bench, which Carter did in a recent win over the Hawks. With Orlando scuffling lately, any move that gets it back on a consistent path is one Van Gundy won't let go of lightly.

The memory of Gilbert Arenas. Less than a week after the NBA suspended him indefinitely, Arenas has been all but erased from the league's memory. Souvenir items bearing his name have been removed from Wizards souvenir stores and a jersey bearing his name cannot be ordered on the league web site. And as the Washington Post's Dan Steinberg recently found, any attempt to create a customized Arenas jersey spits out a denial stating, "Language deemed inappropriate, derogatory, or profane will not be accepted. Please create a new entry." Is this really necessary? Arenas showed bad judgment; he didn't compromise the integrity of the league. Scrubbing all remnants he exists doesn't give fans credit for being smart enough to shun Agent Zero on their own.

• "Why did they take me? You should take someone that they really think was gonna play right away because just taking someone to sit on the bench, you waste a pick and you waste the guy's time. You wasted my time for three years not playing so you [mess] up a player and you [mess] up yourself, and I just didn't get it. So I just didn't get it. I guess they thought they were gonna be champions forever. I don't know."-- Darko Milicic, on why the Pistons drafted him No. 2 in 2003, to Slam's Eric Woodyard.

• "I didn't like the cold when I lived there, and I don't like it now."-- Heat superstar and free-agent-to-be Dwyane Wade, on growing up in the Midwest. The Bulls' front office is cringing.

• "I just think I've played too much basketball."-- Tony Parker tries to come to terms with his inconsistent play this season.

The Oklahoman: Despite being one of the league's youngest teams, the Thunder are also one of the more vanilla, which is just what coach Scott Brooks wants.

Washington Post: How did Gilbert Arenas travel the road from underrated goofball to league pariah?

Atlanta Journal-Constitution: Hawks forward Josh Smith and coach Mike Woodson have had a stormy relationship over the years. So why is Smith the only player Woodson keeps a picture of in his office? Seems this relationship is a lot more respectful than many thought.

FanHouse: Steve Nash, the Bono of basketball.

1. It's OK for locker rooms to be sponsored by casinos, and for David Stern to openly consider legalized betting on NBA games as a potential new revenue stream, but players can't participate in card games? According to the Nets and Wizards: Yep. In light of the Gilbert Arenas-Javaris Crittenton scandal, which reportedly started after a dispute over a card-game debt, the two teams banned card games on team flights. And it's been speculated that Stern will impose a league-wide ban. But card games aren't the issue here; the two guys who allegedly brandished guns are. The league should follow Jerry Sloan's lead and allow all the gambling players want, so long as it isn't for money. With all of the creative tasks veterans find for young players as part of their rookie initiation, I'm sure there are some creative stakes that can be arranged.

2. Jayson Williams' decision to plead guilty to aggravated assault in the fatal shooting of driver Gus Christofi in 2002 brings a sad end for a talented guy. Williams earned a fortune as a relentless rebounder in New Jersey, but he showed a much lighter touch as an entertaining teller of NBA tales and a vigilant keeper of his family's memories, no matter how painful. In other words, he was an NBA analyst in the making. Yet, like so many people with too much money and too many enablers, Williams' life after basketball has been one mistake after another. Here's to hoping he finds a more productive use of his time without the safety net of celebrity.

3. It's about time the NBA took some measure to get teams to sit down on their benches. Not that we can identify with those who shell out thousands of dollars to sit behind a bench, but NBA players should realize this isn't college; camaraderie is great but it doesn't pay anyone's salary. Stand up. Wave your towel as your teammates drop 11 straight points. But there's no reason a player can't sit down after a few seconds and let the fans behind him watch the game they paid a ridiculous amount to see.

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