For all the talent of Dirk Nowitzki
and Michael Finley
, the ball spends most of a Dallas game in the hands of a different Maverick. Therefore, it is not a stretch to declare that as far as Steve Nash
goes, so goes his team.
This season, that has already been farther than most expected. The upstart Mavericks are within a game of advancing to the second round for the first time since 1988. And Nash has surprised observers with his best season as a pro. He averaged 15.6 points and 7.3 assists during the regular season, and in the playoffs, he has upped his scoring average to 20.8. In one already-glorious season, Nash has helped turn around the fortunes of a long-suffering franchise, as well as his own career.
Drafted by the Suns in the first round of the 1996 NBA Draft, Nash showed flashes of brilliance behind Kevin Johnson and Jason Kidd
in Phoenix, so much so that Dallas felt comfortable pulling the trigger on a 1998 draft-day deal. The Mavericks sent the rights to first-round pick Pat Garrity
, a future first-round choice and two other players to the Suns for Nash, who was supposed to solve their problems at the point. Unfortunately, he didn't -- at least not right away.
Nash struggled in his new role, shooting only .363 from the field and missed the final 10 games of the lockout-shortened season with a lower back strain. Last year was not much better. Though he raised his shooting percentage to .477, his minutes and assists per game dropped. In addition, injury struck again, as a right ankle tendon strain cost him 25 games.
To outsiders, the Nash experiment may have seemed a failure. But Dallas coach Don Nelson saw things differently. He recognized that Nash seemed to get a hang of things down the stretch of the season, as he averaged 13.4 points, 7.8 assists and 39.9 minutes in his last 10 games. Perhaps more importantly, the Mavericks won nine of those contests. So it was without trepidation that Nash was given the reins of the Mavericks to start this season.
Nash took the opportunity and ran with it, proving that he is not only a starting point guard, but also a fine one at that. He has emerged as the catalyst of the Mavericks' run 'n gun offense, happily hoisting threes or setting up his high-scoring teammates. Though he has one of the sweetest shooting strokes in the NBA, Nash still maintains a pass-first mentality, making him a dual threat with the basketball.
In the playoffs, he has also emerged as a leader. With his team having blown an 11-point lead and trailing by a point with less than 30 seconds remaining in Game 3, it was Nash who wanted the ball. His team was on the verge of being swept by the Jazz, but Nash calmly backed in John Stockton
and hit a tough fall-away over the veteran to put Dallas up by one with 22.7 seconds to go. He then thrived in Game 4, scoring 27 points and igniting fans and teammates alike with his determined play. It was Nash's 30-foot buzzer-beater at the end of the first half that gave Dallas a three-point lead. The momentum from that shot carried straight through to the second half, when the Mavericks turned a tight game into a 30-point blowout.
With every swift drive to the basket or three-pointer off a high screen, Nash has the Mavericks believing that a series victory is within their grasp. And as the team heads back to Utah for Game 5, it has to like its chances.
"We definitely feel confident," Nash said. "We feel we're coming of age. If we continue improving, we'll reach the stage where we can say we've arrived."
Though he was speaking about his team, the same holds true for the individual.
Jordan Brenner is a member of the NBA Editorial Staff.