MAVS end superb season looking forward to future

Tuesday, May 15th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

DALLAS (AP) _ Experience, Don Nelson said, was all he wanted for his young Dallas Mavericks this postseason. As they did in the regular season, the Mavs exceeded their coach's expectations.

Although the Mavericks' season ended with four blowout losses to San Antonio, the end won't be this team's epitaph. The 2000-01 season will go down as the year Dallas once again became a team on the rise.

From 53 regular-season wins to a stunning first-round upset of Utah to their Game 4 victory over the Spurs, the Mavericks achieved and overachieved.

They endured a 21-game absence by Nelson while he fought cancer. They put up with the antics of an owner who was fined seven times and suspended twice.

When their great chemistry was threatened by five players being traded in late February, the new guys blended in quickly, tightened the rotation and improved the team.

``We had a great year,'' forward Dirk Nowitzki said. ``It was a pleasure playing with everyone and playing for the coaches. We can be proud of what we achieved.''

Nowitzki is another great story. In his third year from Germany, the 7-footer blossomed into the team's leading scorer and rebounder. After a rough start to the playoffs, he adapted his game and became a force again.

In Salt Lake City, which he called ``a bad state,'' the 22-year-old Nowitzki let the first serious booing of his career rattle him, then scored 33 points in both home games against the Jazz, keying Dallas' comeback from an 0-2 hole.

In the sweep-preventing victory over San Antonio, he had 30 points three days after food poisoning and despite losing a tooth in the fourth quarter.

With a false tooth implanted, Nowitzki was the Mavs' only weapon in Monday night's season-ending 105-87 loss in San Antonio. He had career-bests with 42 points and 18 rebounds and added six steals. He joined Michael Jordan as the only players with 40-15-5 playoff games since steals became an official statistic.

Nowitzki's emergence this season, along with Michael Finley's second straight All-Star appearance and Steve Nash's improved play at point guard, provided the backbone for Dallas' best season since 1988.

Using a running, jump-shooting scheme, the Mavs averaged 100.5 points per game, fourth-best in the NBA, and were the only team in the top five in field-goal, 3-point and free-throw percentages.

Adding Juwan Howard and Calvin Booth at the trading deadline improved the inside game, but it wasn't enough to sustain Dallas when the shooters got cold in the playoffs. Five of the six playoff losses were by 11 or more points.

But the Mavericks learned a lot about postseason basketball _ the new level of intensity from veteran teams, the different officiating from the regular season, the meaner crowds. That experience will serve them well.

``Now we know what it is like to get to the second round of the playoffs; now we just need to find out what it is like to get past the second round of the playoffs,'' Howard said. ``Hopefully at this time next year I'll be talking with a smile on my face on our way to playing for a championship.''

Although Nelson and owner Mark Cuban love making splashy deals, Dallas will probably be quiet this offseason.

Shawn Bradley will be a free agent and Finley could be, but both are expect to re-sign. The Mavericks have limited space under the salary cap and no first-round pick. The biggest loss might be assistant coach Del Harris, who could become Cleveland's coach.

Finley, the team's leader on and off the court, can become a free agent by opting out of his contract. He's shown no interest in leaving and after going 1-for-17 Monday night he sounded intent on making up for it next season.

``I think this series, I didn't hold up my end of the bargain, said Finley, who had to be fatigued after leading the league in minutes for the second time in three years and hardly resting during the first round.

``Coach said the playoffs were going to be a learning experience and I'm definitely going to learn from this.''

Nash was worn out, too, having played for Team Canada at the Olympics last summer then gone through the full season and the grueling first-round series.

He expects the Mavericks to bounce back strong next season.

``We have some pride in what we've accomplished, but I don't think anyone is going to go home this summer and feel, `Hey, my job is done,''' Nash said. ``Everyone is going to want to come back next year even better.

``We'll look back at this as a stepping stone. But by no means has this been a monumental accomplishment for us.''