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Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavs are leaving mouths agape with their recent play.
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Mavs' play raising expectations in Dallas if nowhere else

Posted Dec 12 2010 1:53PM

Given the chance to agree with Gregg Popovich, Mark Cuban took a contrarian route. That's not surprising considering the nature of Spurs-Mavericks, but this difference in opinion had more to do with scrutiny than rivalry.

Pop tabbed Dallas as possibly the league's best squad right now. Cuban countered that designation falls on the South Beach SuperFriends. Miami's streak aside, San Antonio's skipper won another point or two in the debate when the Mavericks were up 25 in the first quarter Saturday against another Western Conference superpower.

Cuban's desire to keep the heat on the Heat is understandable. The spotlight is so intense on LeWosh that the suggestion has been made that even the Lakers are gliding under the radar. Yes, the two-time defending champs of Kobe and Zen celebrity. Don't buy that one.

Just don't shine it on Cuban's Mavericks. A franchise known more for its playoff humiliation, despite an impressive decade-long run of playoff trips and 50-win seasons, may not want the burden. Leave the demands on the shoulders of the Lakers and Heat.

These Mavs can't hide in the shadows. At least according to the coach who lost his job in Big D principally for failing to live up to Cuban's championship aspirations. Put up or shut up?

"There's as much pressure on them to win a championship as any of the teams I had," Avery Johnson said during last week's visit to Dallas.

Johnson, in his first season in New Jersey, was back on the same hardwood he patrolled for three-plus years for the first time since being fired after the 2008 first round. Much has changed tangibly in the two-plus years since, starting with Rick Carlisle's coaching staff and the roster. The only primetime players left from Johnson's last team are Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Kidd and Jason Terry.

Somewhere along the way, the expectations changed, too. Johnson, Nowitzki and the rest of those Mavericks were crucified for their postseason shortcomings, especially the 2006 Finals collapse and the following first-round bust as a No. 1 seed with 67 wins.

The other Dallas point guard taken through the wringer before being jettisoned said these Mavericks just aren't under the same microscope.

"We got a lot of scrutiny because we had high-level expectations, we set the bar high, we made it to the Finals," said Devin Harris, also with the Nets. "This team is striving to get to that, so I think that's why you don't see as much scrutiny because they haven't achieved that high level yet. But I definitely think they have the potential to do so."

And while the Mavericks still expect to win, and win big, does anyone else outside of North Texas? This is team that lost in the first round this past April as a second seed and a collective yawn followed. Dallas' regular seasons suggest title contender, but no one really thinks they can win one.

Do they?

"It's all about perception," Johnson continued. "They're right there and they'll probably be one of the top three seeds in the Western Conference this year, and there comes a certain amount of responsibility with that."

Sign us up, Carlisle said. Whatever the national view of the Mavericks is and whatever is expected in a league dominated lately by the Lakers and assumed to belong to Miami in the future, Carlisle wants the pressure and scrutiny and all that comes with being one of the select few capable of standing tall in June.

"Pressure makes players better, makes coaches better," he said. "We've got a sign in our locker room that says, 'Love pressure.' It has one of two effects: It makes diamonds or it bursts pipes."

The Mavericks ran their winning streak to 12 by holding off Utah on Saturday. The usual suspects, led by Nowitzki and Kidd, are getting the job done, but this team isn't just about its future Hall of Famers. Tyson Chandler, the offseason pickup that raised a few eyebrows, has become more than just a starting center, an All-Star darkhorse and defensive anchor.

Chandler has quickly become an emotional leader, winning over his new teammates with his fire. DeShawn Stevenson won over the room with his hard work and professionalism. So much so that a small group of team leaders went to Carlisle with the idea that Stevenson should start. The suggestion has paid off, with the former trade throw-in bringing defensive balance and a wicked 3-point stroke to the starting backcourt alongside Kidd.

"We know we have a great team and we're a beast," Terry said. "We're very confident in what we're doing."

As for pressure, Cuban said the media overrates it. All the pressure the Mavs need is posted on the wall in the inner sanctum of the locker room.

"We post the standings right there," Cuban pointed out. "They see it every day. They know what's up. Guys aren't stupid. Not this year."

Cuban's thinly-veiled shot at past teams may underscore the difference in this veteran-laden squad that doesn't appear saddled by the franchise's playoff legacy. There's been enough turnover, while keeping enough of the right pieces.

The Mavericks are in prime position, as those standings suggest, to challenge the Lakers or anyone else in the Western Conference come April and beyond. Carlisle added that pressure and expectations and scrutiny means you're pretty good.

It may not be championship or bust in Dallas, but the title chase is still on.

"Yeah, but we've got a ways to go," Carlisle said. "We're going to get healthier as time goes on. In the meantime we've got to make this thing work at a high level and, heck, we're on a 12-game winning streak and we're in second place in our division.

"No one is getting too giddy around here."

Art Garcia has covered the NBA since 1999. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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