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No doggin' Dallas as favorites
by Gary Clemente / May 4, 2002

Woof.

The underdog Sacramento Kings have to be reeling just a little bit. Just enough to wonder if the Dallas Mavericks are justified to be tabbed as the eventual winner of their playoff series. Outside of a possible titanic battle with Lord Shaq and Prince Kobe down the road, Dallas will have its hands full and then some with the Kings.

Sacramento’s Chris Webber, for one, isn’t running from the underdog label. If you listen close enough, he can almost be heard smacking his lips over it. Sometimes, being stuck with a loser label will bring out the best in any player.

“I’m looking forward to playing in a series where we’re not expected to win,” Webber crowed. “All the experts and everybody’s opinions are that Dallas will win. I’m looking forward to playing.”

Hear that Captain Dirk? Webber is planning on beaming up a few rainbows over you. It’s obvious the man wants to put all the pressure on the Mavs that he can while watching them wilt under the burden of their favored team status. Still, Sacramento isn’t feeling too cozy these days with talk about how the Mavs will buzz saw through the Kings the same way they lumberjacked Minnesota’s T-Wolves this past weekend.

The Mavs’ and Kings’ records, when compared, make you wonder whether their playoff encounter should be judged a standoff beforehand. The numbers certainly don’t lie, but do they? Sacramento had the NBA’s best regular season tally, notching 61 wins—a definite advantage, giving them home court dibs throughout the entire playoffs. The underdog Kings are also a hefty 37-6 at home in Arco Arena, packing a punch with a lineup that includes All-Stars Webber and fellow pistolero Peja Stojakovic.

Suffice to say, that Sacramento is a confident bunch. As the league’s last trading deadline went by during the season, the Kings just yawned and went without making even the slightest addition to their lineup. Dollars to donuts, though, they must have at least arched an eyebrow when the Mavs hammered down a blockbuster trade for Nick Van Exel, Raef LaFrentz and Avery Johnson.

Outside of Dallas fortifying themselves with a trio Grade A choice cuts, why is Sacramento’s stock just this side of a bear market going into their meeting? Utah had something to do with that. The Kings looked far from being heads of state as the Jazz cut them down to size for many of their four game series. Playing solid defense, the low scoring Jazz smothered Sacramento’s offensive might, holding them to an average of 89 points per game. That was down from fiery 104 during the season. Telling, too, was the sobering fact that the Kings never whipped Karl Malone and company by more than five points the entire series.

The Kings’ Doug Christie brushed off the offensive sputtering with the explanation that after so many confrontations during the season, the Jazz just know how to push the King’s buttons. The Mavericks, meanwhile, don’t have to make any dramatic improvements if they want to advance into the semifinal round. Mostly, they need to keep seeing improvement from Nowitzki.

Say what? How can you get any better than Nowitzki’s playoff leading 33 points a game and 15 boards? Against Kevin Garnett, all the 7-0 German did was blitzkrieg KG with 100 points to Garnett’s 72. And Nowitzki only screwed up on a total of three 3-pointers and four free throws the entire T’Wolves series.

The key is rebounding and charity shots. When Nowitzki crashes the glass for 15 rebounds or more, the Mavs win. Likewise, when the sharpshooter makes it to the stripe a dozen times or more during a game, the Mavs win. Dallas would like Nowitzki to keep up that pace while praying that his two sore ankles hold up during the rest of the playoffs.

For now, the only pain the red-hot Nowitzki is feeling is the aggravation from so much media attention lately. He was just named a second team All-NBA selection and this week he will thunder onto the cover page of Sports
Illustrated. The first Maverick in their troubled history ever to do so. Coupled with fellow Mavs Steve Nash and Michael Finley’s top fifteen standing in playoff scoring, along with Nowitzki (no other team has three), and you
wonder why the Kings are the underdogs?

Gary Clemente is a freelance writer based in Dallas and a regular contributor to HoopsHype.com

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