Wednesday April 28th, 2010

Mark Cuban's back was hurting him last weekend as badly as the Spurs were punishing his Mavericks. A two-hour workout followed by a kickboxing class had left him in pain -- "like I got shot between my hip and my back" -- as he sat behind the Mavs' bench watching Dallas lose Games 3 and 4 at San Antonio.

But he woke up Wednesday to a more promising outcome. After their 103-81 win at home, the Mavs trail the Spurs 3-2, and they looked forward to Game 6 at San Antonio hoping to even the series and restore home-court advantage to Dallas for a Game 7.

The Mavs' turnaround was embodied by Caron Butler, who generated 35 points and 11 rebounds in the blowout win Tuesday. Over the previous four games he had averaged 14.5 points and totaled a team-worst 14 turnovers, resulting in his benching for the second half of Game 3. "He's trying to do too much, he's trying too hard," Cuban said when we spoke last weekend in San Antonio. "That led to some turnovers."

It's easy to say that Butler was more aggressive while scoring 35 than he had been in the previous games, but it probably isn't true. After his benching, he would open Game 4 by looking to shoot, but he missed his first four attempts while committing two turnovers in the opening quarter. The truth is that Brendan Haywood's appearance in the starting lineup for Game 5 (in place of Erick Dampier) combined with lapses in San Antonio's defense to create space for Butler to attack.

Will the Spurs restore their defense to a high level for Game 6? Will Tim Duncan raise his play after producing 15 points and shooting 22.2 percent over the last two games?

"Kiki Vandeweghe once told me to be a great player you have to do two things really, really, really well," Cuban said after watching Duncan average 25.7 points and 10 rebounds over the first three games of the series. "Tim Duncan can hit his hook shot and finish on the pick-and-roll as well as anybody, and he has Manu [Ginobili], who can throw it to him as well as anybody, and we're doing a horrible job of protecting against it. If we can solve that pick-and-roll we're in good shape, and if we don't we've got a big problem.

"I can't tell you how many times Damp or Haywood was in his face and he made his hook shot. That's incredible and that's a credit to him: He knows what he has to do and he does it well."

Both Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki have had rough moments against the opponents' focused defenses, with the Mavs' star going 13-for-34 over the losses in Games 2 and 4. Each big man is in his 30s and has played more than 37,000 minutes, yet they've looked spry more often than not in this series.

"You're blessed when you can be good at the things you love, and he loves it," Cuban said of Nowitzki. "He loves the game, he wants to be good at it. That's who he is. They've happened to get a combination that works, whether it's Tim and Manu and Tony [Parker], or Shawn Marion and Caron Butler and Dirk -- those are all guys who work hard at their game, and that's why they play for a long time."

Rick Carlisle has begun to face speculation about his future should Dallas lose in the opening round. But Cuban praised Carlisle in comparison to his predecessor, Avery Johnson.

"Where Avery had problems that led to his dimsissal was he stopped listening to people,'' Cuban said. "Avery was such a hard worker -- he worked too hard. He thought he could figure it all out himself, which was kind of how his [playing] career was: I will work hard enough to get it done. But he stopped listening. Rick is not like that -- he has [assistants] Dwane [Casey] and Terry [Stotts] and he listens to them. That has been the biggest change.''

In hiring Casey and Stotts, Carlisle was not bringing in old friends to work with him -- these were merit hires viewed as the best candidates to help him. "He was looking for the best people he could find,'' Cuban said. "That's why there's so much turnover [among head coaches] -- everybody wants to have 'their guys' [as assistants] and that creates a lot of problems.''

Cuban wasn't surprised to find his No. 2 Mavs trailing the No. 7 seed.

"What you do over the first 75 games isn't necessarily reflective of what you're going to do over the playoffs," he said. "It gives you the best opportunities because of seeding and home-court advantage, but it's not necessarily how things are going to play out."

The irony of the seeding is that one of the league's best teams will be knocked out in the first round. But Cuban doesn't pretend that fans across the country will be saddened to lose his Mavs or the Spurs.

"In terms of the Mavs, it's up there as high as it can be," he said of their long-standing rivalry with San Antonio. "In terms of Texas, it's up there as high as it can be. In terms of reality, it's up there as high as it can be. But in terms of the ratings, it's nothing. That's because both teams are professional. We both have a lot of respect for each other."

But Cuban has tried, predictably, to create interest.

"I like to tweak them," he said. "I'm more vocal, obviously, but I try to look at the bigger picture and see what I can do for ratings on my own, even if it means everybody in this town [San Antonio] hates me."

For the record, he declared his hatred first.

"Actually, I said I hate the Spurs, but only because we respect them so much," Cuban said. "But that part didn't make the headline."

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