When trying to stop 6'1" Dallas Mavericks supersub Nick Van Exel
in the Western Conference finals, the San Antonio Spurs' Bruce
Bowen says he will look "right here" and points to his belly. "A
guy like Nick moves everything," explains Bowen, a 6'7" defensive
ace. "Body fakes, head fakes, ball fakes, eye fakes. Nick has all
kinds of fakes. But he can't move his midsection. Nobody can. So
if you concentrate on that and ignore all his herky-jerky stuff,
you have a chance." ¬∂ There's always been a lot of herky in Van
Exel's game, but the jerky has had a different connotation.
Throughout much of his 10-year career Van Exel has been considered
a coach killer--that blend of wondrously talented player, jovial teammate, clubhouse lawyer and me-first head case. But as the Allas
Mavs (standing joke: They have no D) advanced to this fascinating
don't-mess-with-Texas showdown, Nick the Quick emerged as Mister Maverick: leader, spokesman, diplomat and, most important, go-to
scorer. "Without Nick Van Exel," says Spurs coach Gregg Popovich,
"the Mavs would already be out of the playoffs."
Dallas coach Don Nelson agrees. "We owe this series to Nick,"
said Nelson after the Mavericks beat the Sacramento Kings 112-99
in Game 7 last Saturday, closing out a second-round series in
which Van Exel averaged 25.3 points on 51.9% shooting. The Mavs
also owe a good deal of the credit for their previous series win
to their southpaw sixth man, who hit key shot after key shot in a
seven-game conquest of the Portland Trail Blazers.
In Monday night's Game 1 at the SBC Center in San Antonio, the
Spurs found a way, at least temporarily, to curtail Van Exel--but
not the Mavericks, who stole a 113-110 victory. Van Exel scored
only 14 points on 3-of-12 shooting, but Dirk Nowitzki more than
compensated with 38 points and 15 rebounds, and Dallas hit 49 of
50 free throws to overcome an 18-point deficit.
The only other time two Texas teams met in the Western finals was
in 1995, when the Houston Rockets beat the Spurs in six games and
went on to repeat as NBA champions. That was the I-10 Series
between cities linked by a 200-mile stretch of interstate; this
is the I-35 Series, with the teams 280 miles apart. The usual
civic-honor bets are on: The mayors have wagered full-course
dinners, and the winning team's flag will fly over the loser's
city hall throughout the Finals. No one feels more Texas pride
than Avery Johnson, a backup point guard for the Mavericks who
spent all or part of 10 seasons with the Spurs and was the heart
and soul of their 1998-99 championship team. "But I know where
the lines are drawn," says the 38-year-old Johnson, who played
sparingly this season and was added to Dallas's coaching staff
for the playoffs. "I have great friends in San Antonio, but I
want to kick their butts bad."
As of Monday there was no word from the White House on whether
The Top Texan planned to attend a game. Until he does, marquee
billing in the Lone Star Series belongs to Spurs 7-footer Tim
Duncan, who was named league MVP for the second straight year.
"He's the best player in the league for sure," says Van Exel.
"Shaq is the most dominant, but Tim's the best. He's long, he's
strong, he shoots outside, he puts it on the floor, he makes his
teammates better, he draws double teams, he rebounds, he plays
defense. That's all."
Well, not all. Duncan is also the no-nonsense, fundamentally
sound emblem of his franchise, the main reason, along with David
Robinson, that San Antonio carries the Boy Scouts' stamp of
approval. The Mavs are hardly the NBA's Bad Boys--they trail the
Blazers by many arrests and countless bong hits--but there is a
gunslinger's cockiness about them that contrasts with the Spurs'
quiet professionalism. And, increasingly, the source of their
swagger is Van Exel.
What has been so eye-opening about Van Exel's postseason is not
only his scoring average, which had increased from 12.5 points
during the regular season to 19.9 through Game 1. It is also the
fact that he has suddenly become harder to handle than a pack of
frat boys on spring break, scoring at will and regardless of
defender. Even when he's closely covered, he can uncork a shot
from an unpredictable angle "like a pitcher delivering the ball
behind a sneaky delivery," as Dallas assistant coach Del Harris
puts it. Van Exel goes left and right with equal facility, gets
himself into the lane for what he calls "my little flip shot,"
drives the baseline, posts up on either block, bangs mid-range
jumpers and pulls up or steps back to drill threes (2.3 a game in
the postseason through Monday). That's all.
At various points in his career Van Exel has flashed such a
dazzling array, but to see it so cold-bloodedly displayed in
back-to-back seven-game pressure cookers was revelatory indeed.
Popovich's theory is that rarely has a player been so perfectly
matched with a system as Van Exel is with Nelson's
pop-till-you-drop--or, in this case, pop-till-Pop-drops--brand of
offense. "For a player, it's nice when everything you do is
right," says Harris, gently poking fun at his boss's
permissiveness. Van Exel remembers "maybe two or three times"
during the season when Nelson mentioned that he might have taken
a bad shot. "And even then [Nelson] added, 'But I liked your
aggressiveness,'" says Van Exel. "He gets the most pissed off at
you when you don't shoot."
But Van Exel has always been aggressive on offense (and
frequently the opposite on defense). There are other reasons he's
been Van Excellent of late. Such as:
*The Mavs are winning. "You put Van Exel back on a bad team, and
he'd be just as much of an a--hole as he always was," says one
Western Conference general manager. Even Van Exel concedes that
he isn't a good fit on a struggling squad. "I like to win too
much," he says. He still frowns and grimaces and offers up other
spoiled-brat looks when things don't go right, which they
frequently don't on bad teams. "I think Nick has grown, and he'd
be better in that respect now," says Harris, who was Van Exel's
coach for four sometimes volatile seasons with the Los Angeles
Lakers. "But I hope we never have to find out."
*Van Exel has benefited from an improved relationship with Harris
and a developing one with Johnson. With an NBA resume that
includes pushing an official, flare-ups with teammates and
flipping the bird at fans, Van Exel's most shameful offense may
have been when, because of their Lakers history, he brushed by
the extended hand of Harris before a game last season when Van
Exel was with the Denver Nuggets. Harris is so universally
respected that Van Exel might as well have knocked an ice-cream
cone out of a kindergartner's hands. Yet shortly after that
incident, when Nelson solicited Harris's advice on whether to
pull the trigger on the seven-player deal that brought Van Exel
to Dallas, Harris gave a thumbs-up. Van Exel has noted on several
occasions that Harris's forgiveness was a timely show of trust
that helped him mature.
Johnson, who came to the Mavs in that same trade, has counseled
Van Exel on what he calls "off-court issues." Van Exel won't talk
about them other than to say, "Avery's helped me a lot." Johnson
wants to keep their discussions private but, like Harris, says
they have to do with getting Van Exel, who had an unstable
upbringing in Kenosha, Wis., to stop being so suspicious of those
"outside of his circle," as Johnson puts it. "All I wanted to
achieve was to help Nick find peace off the court, and I think he
has that now," says Johnson, who's a combination of pit bull and
pulpit preacher. "When you go out on the court without a lot of
weights holding you back, it's easier to play."
*Van Exel's brand of prickly leadership is not only accepted by
the Mavericks but also needed. Despite the Mavs' reputation as
the 21st-century version of Showtime, none of the major players
who preceded Van Exel to Dallas (Michael Finley, Steve Nash and
Nowitzki) are particularly outgoing. As time has passed, Van
Exel--increasingly savvy about public relations--has become the
team spokesman. He can go on a straight-faced riff, as he did
when the German 7-footer Nowitzki sat beside him after Game 7 of
the Portland series, talking about how "certain Mavs pretend they
don't understand English when it comes time to come out and set a
pick." And he can be efficiently frank, as he was when he told
his teammates in no uncertain terms that they were respecting
Sacramento "more than we're supposed to" after a 124-113 loss in
Game 1 at American Airlines Center.
"F 'em," Van Exel said of the Kings when he spoke to the media
afterward. That's exactly what he said--not the whole curse word,
just the one letter, and it served as an economical wake-up call.
It was recited so often in the ensuing days that Eddie Sefko, who
covers the team for The Dallas Morning News, suggested to owner
Mark Cuban that it be discreetly engraved on championship rings.
Thoughts of a championship are still absurdly premature, of
course, despite the Mavericks' victory in Game 1. But expect the
Dallas firecracker to become a major factor in what shapes up to
be a high-scoring series. For these days, Van Exel--herky but no
longer quite so jerky--is hard to ignore, even if you're
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Van Exel is with the Mavericks' POP-TILL-YOU-DROP OFFENSE.