Players say it all the time: They want their team playing its best going into the playoffs.
Well, the Dallas Mavericks certainly are. And they have about as good of a first-round matchup as they could get.
So maybe Jason Terry is on to something when he keeps insisting "the best is yet to come."
Terry has been using that line for days, even proclaiming it to a sellout crowd before the season finale Wednesday night. He was right in the short term, with several things falling into place and the Mavericks winding up with 50 wins and the No. 6 seed in the Western Conference, neither of which seemed likely just a few weeks ago.
"We've continued to gradually build," coach Rick Carlisle said. "We've just really become a fighting team the last couple of months. That helped us."
Dallas will open the playoffs Saturday night in San Antonio, taking on a Spurs team that narrowly won the Southwest Division and will be looking to add 2009 to its collection of NBA titles in odd-numbered years (1999, 2003, '05 and '07).
But the Spurs will be without Manu Ginobili, which means they're a very different club. While the Mavericks also are different from the bunch that won a Game 7 in overtime in San Antonio three years ago, Terry and Dirk Nowitzki are still around and they'll make sure their team is not intimidated by having to win at least one road game to take the series.
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"You always want to steal the first one, then go from there," Nowitzki said. "We'll just see what kind of defense they throw at us and what kind we throw at them. It's a game of adjustments after that."
This has been a season of adjustments for Dallas.
Coach Avery Johnson was fired last April following a second straight first-round ousting and a third straight playoff series loss. Players welcomed the change, but started 2-7 overall and 0-4 at home under Carlisle.
So Carlisle scrapped the Princeton-style offense he installed in training camp and went with a variety of what Johnson ran. After falling into another rut in late January, he made another switch -- letting Jason Kidd run the offense.
Things finally began to improve, especially at home, where the Mavs are 15-1 since the All-Star break.
Yet they also tend to have some real clunkers on the road. There was a blowout loss in San Antonio when the Spurs were without Ginobili and Tim Duncan, then another in Oklahoma City on a night the lowly Thunder were without their top two scorers. Team owner Mark Cuban followed that loss with a threat to get rid of anyone who wasn't trying hard enough. They were better for a while, but still lost at Memphis two weeks ago, when the Grizzlies were long since eliminated and Dallas needed every win it could get.
The main reason the Mavs are rolling into the playoffs is Josh Howard returning to the lineup and to his All-Star form of a few years ago.
After missing 11 games in November and December and 11 more in March, all because of an aching left ankle, Howard understood the only cure is offseason surgery. Knowing he'd have to tolerate pain no matter how hard he tried, he's decided to go all out and endure the consequences.
Howard is back to flying toward the rim in the half-court offense and in transition, becoming the go-to guy for Kidd that was expected when Dallas traded for the point guard last season. He's once again the team's best defender on the perimeter and he's no longer stirring up off-court controversies like advocating marijuana on local radio or saying the national anthem isn't for him because he's black.
His impact is easy to measure: Since rejoining the lineup March 31, Dallas is 7-2 overall, 6-1 in the games he's played.
"His energy on both ends of the floor is what we were missing," Nowitzki said. "Hopefully his ankle responds the right way. We've got a couple of days off now, then let it rip this weekend."
Carlisle's lineups have changed frequently all season, with Howard's health giving the rotation an extra twirl. The upside is that Carlisle has a better feel for when to start Antoine Wright or J.J. Barea at shooting guard, and knows he can rely on Brandon Bass and James Singleton as backups. Ryan Hollins has become an energy guy at center, but Carlisle lately has opted to go with smaller lineups when he takes out center Erick Dampier.
Terry comes off the bench, too, although he hardly seems like a sub considering he averages nearly 34 minutes and 19.6 points. Nowitzki averaged 25.9 points, third-best in his career and fourth-most in the NBA.
"Right now, we're a confident group," Kidd said. "We're playing well, we're playing together."
Carlisle proudly notes that Dallas is the first team to start 2-7 and finish with 50 wins. This is the ninth straight year the Mavericks have reached that standard of excellence.
However, Dallas is the only team to have such a long stretch of 50-win seasons without winning multiple NBA titles. That's right, not just a championship, but several. The Mavericks have reached the finals only once and blew their chance for the championship by letting a 2-0 lead slip away against Miami in 2006.
They haven't won a postseason series since, but the last few weeks sure have felt like it. Dallas went 4-1 in games against playoff teams to move out of the No. 8 seed and a first-round matchup against Kobe Bryant and the Lakers.
"We've banded together," Terry said. "I think that's made us tougher mentally. I think we're prepared. We're a playoff-ready team. I keep saying it, but the best is yet to come."
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)