DALLAS -- The fan in the blue T-shirt couldn't have been older than 18, his enthusiasm bubbling over like a pot of boiling water. With the Mavericks and Celtics tied and the clock winding down in the fourth quarter Monday night, Dirk Nowitzki isolated on Boston's Glen Davis. With a hard jab step, Nowitzki created the slimmest of space between himself and Davis, just to elevate and knock down a 16-foot jumper that gave Dallas a two-point edge with 16.4 seconds left.
"DIRRRRK!" the fan bellowed, his arms high in the air. "Taking us all the way!"
On this night, it was believable. The Mavericks stood toe-to-toe with Boston and walked away with a win. But successful regular seasons are nothing new in Dallas. No NBA team has won more games than the Mavericks (287) since 2005-06, and Dallas' 10 straight playoff appearances rank just behind San Antonio's 11. But while the Spurs tend to capitalize when they get to the postseason (evidenced by the four championship banners), the Mavs often fall flat.
Sure, they looked like a powerhouse during their run to the 2006 NBA Finals. But since that trip, the Mavericks have been wiped out in the first round three times and eliminated in the second round once. In 2007, they were the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 8 seed in a seven-game series when Golden State cleaned the floor with them. The Hornets bumped them off in five games in 2008, and the Nuggets did the same in the 2009 conference semifinals. In 2010, San Antonio sent them packing in six games.
Nowitzki has often taken the blame for his team's postseason struggles. Many pointed the finger at him for not responding well in '07 when the Warriors stuck Stephen Jackson in his chest. But Nowitzki has been one of the few consistent performers when it's counted most for the Mavs. In Dallas' last three playoffs, Nowitzki has averaged at least 26.7 points while shooting no worse than 47.3 percent from the floor.
He will never be Kobe Bryant or Michael Jordan in clutch situations, but he's still an A-list player with plenty of game. Teammates Jason Kidd, Jason Terry, Caron Butler and Shawn Marion aren't on Nowitzki's level, but they are still very good players. The problem is, they're just not good enough for Dallas. As one team source said, "To win in the playoffs with this group, we have almost no margin for error."
The Mavs suck you in with the promise of a 50-win season and crush you with their inability to transfer that success to the playoffs. This season doesn't look to be much different, either. They've already knocked off Boston and Denver; Kidd is averaging 10.7 assists and running the offense like a man 10 years his junior; they have real depth at center (Tyson Chandler, Brendan Haywood) for the first time in the Nowitzki era; and they have a dynamic young player in injured guard Roddy Beaubois, who is just itching to break out.
But Dallas has been plagued by the kind of sloppiness (17.5 turnovers per game) that kills playoff teams, and a bench (23.5 points per game) that ranks 28th in the NBA. And it's hard to see how thirtysomethings like Kidd, Marion and Terry are going to get better when the calendar turns to April.
Bottom line, to get out of this Groundhog Day-like loop, Dallas needs to make a change beyond what it's already done. Since February 2008, the Mavs have acquired Kidd, Marion, Butler, Haywood, DeShawn Stevenson and Chandler to revamp their roster. Mark Cuban committed $80 million to Nowitzki last summer and signed Kidd to a three-year, $25 million extension in 2009 because Kidd, even at 37, is still better than most point guards in the league. Cuban didn't sit on the sideline when LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh were being courted. He just didn't have enough to get them.
But to avoid history repeating itself again, the Mavericks may need to take even more risks. They have movable assets like Butler ($10.5 million expiring contract) and Stevenson ($4.2 million expiring contract). James, Wade and Bosh are no longer available, but there could be a few potential difference-makers who are.
Gilbert Arenas has played 57 games over the last three seasons and is owed $80 million over the next four. But when healthy Arenas, 28, is one of the game's most dangerous scorers, and a Kidd-Arenas backcourt would be a matchup nightmare for most opponents and would turn the Mavs into a lethal scoring outfit. Andre Iguodala is due $56.5 million over the next four seasons, but the 76ers' swingman is a top-shelf defender who runs and finishes the break as well as any wing man in the league.
Crazy? Maybe. But Dallas may have to think a little outside the box if it wants its season to continue into May. The Mavericks have done an expert job assembling a superior regular-season team over the years. Trying something different might yield a better result in the playoffs.