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Mavericks fail to take next step despite record number of wins

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DALLAS (AP) _ The Dallas Mavericks, who won more games than ever before, still weren't able take the next step.

After 57 wins in the regular season and the franchise's first-ever playoff sweep in the first round against Minnesota, the Mavericks' season ended again after five games of the best-of-seven Western Conference semifinals.

``For us to get to this point in the postseason, I'm very proud,'' guard Michael Finley said. ``But with the good things come bad things. With the success of our team, we had high expectations, not just to go to this round but to advance to the next round.''

Last year, San Antonio eliminated the Mavericks in the second round. They overcame an 2-0 deficit in the best-of-five first-round series against Utah to advance in their first playoff appearance since 1990.

Sacramento beat the Mavericks, the NBA's highest-scoring team in five years and the league's best road team, at their own game this year. The Kings wrapped up the series with a 114-101 win Monday night after winning both games in Dallas (125-119 and 115-113 in overtime).

``There's no consolation in losing, no matter what,'' Mavs owner Mark Cuban said. ``We made a lot of strides, we made a lot of progress. We never thought there were any shortcuts. We just have to keep working.''

Coach Don Nelson knows his team isn't where it needs to be, but he is still proud of what it accomplished.

``We had such a wonderful year with so many ups and very few downs,'' Nelson said. ``We were beaten in this series by a better team. They deserved to win. It would have been more fun if we could have won one of our games at home and made it a great series.''

Despite his obvious disappointment, even the outspoken owner knows the reality of trying to take a team to the next level.

``When you look at history, no team has just turned the corner _ don't make the playoffs for 10 years, and all of a sudden two years later win the championship,'' said Cuban, who bought the team in the middle of the 1999-00 season. ``It's disappointing no matter what, but we know we have a great nucleus.''

Finley, a two-time All-Star, and Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki _ both first-time All-Stars this season, are the Big 3 Dallas has built around.

Nick Van Exel and Raef LaFrentz came in a trade deadline deal in February, providing a complementary guard for Nash and giving the Mavericks a center who allowed Nowitzki to concentrate on his natural forward position.

Adrian Griffin and Greg Buckner, both third-year guards, provided quality minutes in their roles as part-time starters, and Eduardo Najera in his second season continued to be a hard-nosed player. The Mavericks also continue the slow development of 7-foot-1 Wang Zhizhi from China.

Cuban, who has constantly tinkered with the roster since buying the team, likes what is in place now.

``This is a team that can and needs to stay together for a long, long time,'' Cuban said. ``As we play together more and mature and learn how to play together better, there's great things ahead.''

The Feb. 21 deal with Denver brought Van Exel and LaFrentz, the Nuggets' top two scorers, along with guards Avery Johnson and Tariq Abdul-Wahad, who were injured and didn't play in the postseason.

Dallas gave up Tim Hardaway and Juwan Howard, the centerpiece of a roster-altering deadline deal involving eight players with the Washington Wizards the previous season.

The Mavericks averaged more than 105 points during the regular season. But they also gave up an average of 101 points, and their defense was constantly exposed by the Kings, who averaged 113 points in their playoff series.

``We have to improve defensively, there's no question about that,'' Nash said. ``But I don't think we have to completely change our style. We just have to be better defensively, take more pride and have more commitment.''
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