Preparing for playoffs

Mavericks still aching over blown lead against Miami in finals
Thursday, January 18, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 12:03 a.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

DALLAS — A few games ago, Avery Johnson turned to one of his assistant coaches and asked what the Dallas Mavericks’ record was.

Johnson wasn’t really looking for an answer. The question was meant to emphasize that until late April, he cares less about wins and losses, and more about how they are playing.

“I think your really experienced, good teams focus on those things,” said Johnson, the reigning NBA coach of the year. “The more you can do that, the better you can be. We had a stretch where we’d won 10 games and it felt like one game. That’s what we’re looking for.”

Then again, it’s easy to ignore your record when you are winning as often as the Mavericks.

The Mavs have won five straight and 18 of 19. Since starting 0-4, they are 32-4 with a pair of 13-game winning streaks.

Despite this success, Johnson isn’t pleased with his top priority, the way Dallas is achieving it.

Before a 109-96 victory against Houston on Tuesday night, Johnson was grousing about sloppy starts and getting only “24 to 28 minutes of good basketball” per game. He has also been concerned lately about a lack of production from his centers.

In some locker rooms, players would tune out a coach being so harsh when the record is the best in the league.

Johnson, though, has his players’ attention, partly because they still feel the sting of blowing a 2-0 lead in the NBA finals and losing four in a row to the Miami Heat.

“We may get away with stuff now, but we know we’re going to have to step it up a level in the playoffs,” guard Devin Harris said. “He’s trying to teach us to build it now so we’ll already be prepared. ... Nothing is won in the regular season. It’s about getting better.”

Dallas will hit the halfway point of its season tonight when Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers visit. Then the Mavericks go to Miami on Sunday to play the Heat for the first time since the finals.

Looking around Miami’s arena, some Mavs may notice the 2005-06 championship banner that could’ve be hanging in Dallas. It’ll be another reminder of “what might’ve been” that will linger around this club until they win a championship, if they ever do.

That’s the one benefit of having fallen short last year: No complacency this year, at least not since the 0-4 start.

“Last year, it wasn’t all that bad, you know, when you step back and look at it,” Johnson said. “We had a lot of positives. At the same time, it does burn. You have nights where you think about that and you don’t sleep.”

It also helps that Dallas’ best player, Dirk Nowitzki, is one of the league’s most humble superstars.

Nowitzki sets the team-first tone because wins matter so much more to him than points. He often sits back early in games to make sure others get rolling, especially sidekick Josh Howard, and he is spending more time on the bench in hopes of being fresher for the postseason. He is also continuing to work on his defense.

Scoring is still the main reason fans were chanting “M-V-P!” for him Tuesday night. He had 12 points during the game-winning 20-4 fourth-quarter run and finished with 30, marking the sixth time in nine games he’d scored at least that many.

“There are a lot of guys that are playing on an MVP level,” Johnson said. “But what he’s doing night in and night out, I wouldn’t take anybody else over him.”

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