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Friday, December 01, 2006

The Mavs Say, "King Me!"

Unfortunately, I did not see Friday night's continuation of the Mavs dominance in their now 12-game winning streak. But I heard parts of it on the radio and viewed the highlights and it must have been legendary. At least, that's how the Mavs radio team made it sound. But, how else do describe a 19-point dismantling of a once Western Conference rival in which the team led by as many as 32 points. The Sacramento Kings should bow to the Mavs right now.

Nonetheless, the team that worried Dallas fandom by starting 0-4 is long gone. Was it a group of new guys trying to fit in with the core? Was it the nicks and bruises of the preseason that left a number of players without many preseason reps?

That may have had something to do with the start. But now the Mavs are 12-4 and, in case you missed it, are in first place in the NBA's Southwest Division. Yes, even the Spurs are looking up at them. And the upstart Utah Jazz only hold a half-game lead in the conference. So surely, the improvement goes deeper, say to increased emphasis on ball movement and assists or the fixture of Devin Harris as a starter giving the offense an added dimension and the defense a very tough, very quick defender. Those are surely factors.

But the main factor comes elsewhere. It's not Dirk, who continues to play at a near MVP level. It's not Jason Terry, Josh Howard, and Jerry Stackhouse who have added to their gamess but not made drastic improvements. It's not the Mavs rediscovered three-point prowess. It comes from the one position that has haunted the Mavs since James Donaldson left: center.

And the main person behind the position's reemergence is none other than $70 million man Erick Dampier. Dampier regularly puts up double-double's and control's the lane defensively adding the force that has been marginally present at best for two decades. Some may think Avery's benching him last season finally got him motivated. Other's may think that the Mavs reached the NBA Finals for the first time with him playing good, but not great basketball, taking a ton of pressure off the big man.

I think it is something more subtle. This was the first offseason since he signed with the Mavericks that Dampier wasn't rehabbing an injury. The offseason he signed, it was a knee meaning no basketball related lower body work. That means you have a seven-footer with diminished lower body strength that will get fatigued quickly because everything he has to do requires more effort on his part than it used to demand. The next offseason was an upper body injury meaning neglect of his upper body strength that allowed him to muscle up for rebounds.

This year, however, he has had a clean bill of health, despite the scare of a preseason collison with Anthony Johnson and has shown a new energy. The ability to battle on the boards and on the block, both offensively and defensively, and run the floor. He's becoming closer to to the 12 and 12 (points and rebounds) guy the Mavs thought they signed two years ago.

Meanwhile, Diop has not shown appreciative improvement but continues to provide a defensive presence off the bench. And the good news is DJ Mbenga should return before long meaning Dallas can limit Dampier's minutes in the regular season in hopes of keeping him fresh and playing with his current fire when it counts.

With Damp's improvement leading the way, the Mavs have righted the ship and demonstrated they have, in fact, become better than last year's 60-win Western Conference king with no intention of being an NBA Finals one and done.

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