DALLAS -- You can consider the fact that the Dallas Mavericks' starting point guard is a 37-year-old dude who had played a total of 15 games in the previous three NBA seasons and had to beg for a D-League audition a few months ago as proof of just how far this proud franchise has fallen.
Just know that the Mavs are 8-3 since inserting Mike James into the starting lineup.
As a result, with a dozen games to go in the regular season, Dallas has a reasonable chance to contend for the West’s last playoff spot. James, who has played a key role in the Mavs pulling within two games of the eighth-seeded Los Angeles Lakers, is loving every minute of it.
“I’m like a little kid in a candy store,” James said with a wide smile after scoring a season-high 19 points -- his most in a game since 2009 -- and dishing out five assists in the Mavs’ 113-108 win over the Utah Jazz on Sunday. “People don’t understand how much fun I’m having out there.”
It’s a heck of a lot more fun than sitting at home and hoping the phone rings.
James, who didn’t make his NBA debut until he was 26, had to fight to get in the league in the first place. He managed to carve out a productive career -- winning a championship ring as a Detroit Pistons reserve in 2004 and averaging 20.3 points per game for the Toronto Raptors a couple of seasons later -- and he refuses to let it end.
Here he is with his 11th NBA team, having successfully lobbied for an audition with the D-League’s Texas Legends that lasted two games before the point guard-desperate Mavs called him up. He survived two 10-day contracts and has thrived as a starter, averaging 10.4 points and 4.8 assists in the past 11 games to help the Mavs get hot.
“They keep trying to tell me that I’m not able to play this game,” James said, still smiling. “They keep telling me that the game has passed me by. It’s not about proving nothing to no one, but it’s like, you know what? Because everyone keeps trying to tell me I can’t play this game no more, I’m out there having a great time.
“I’m out there doing something that I love doing, looking forward to tomorrow’s practice because I love working.”
While he’s in phenomenal shape for a man his age, James had to work himself back into NBA game shape after joining the Mavs. That, of course, is to be expected of a player who didn’t have a full-time job the previous three years and was out of the league for the entire 2010-11 season.
James’ shooting percentage looked like a mediocre utility man’s batting average for several weeks. It’s still only 36.5 percent overall, but James has hit 40 percent of his 3s this season, including 29 of 60 in March.
“Once he got his legs, you could just see he had more arc on his shot,” sixth man Vince Carter said. “He’s just been in an unreal rhythm for our team.”
James is far from a perfect point guard. He’s really a combo guard who is more comfortable scoring than distributing, which is why he took the brunt of the blame when Dirk Nowitzki's hot hand didn’t get fed nearly enough in the Mavs’ past two losses.
But the Mavs appreciate James’ fearless attitude. They respect the way he fights and love that he never shies away from a challenge, whether it’s taking a big shot, defending the opponent’s best guard or whatever else is necessary to keep the Mavs’ playoff hopes alive.
“He has a tremendous enthusiasm for the game, and he competes,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “He’s a competitor. He’s a gamer.
“The thing I like about him: He’s one of these guys that has great experience, and he has great confidence in himself. If there’s blunt things you need to say to him, you can be completely straightforward with him. He’ll take everything the right way, and he’ll keep battling his butt off.”
James had to battle his butt off to just get back into the league. He’s having a grand ol’ time helping the Mavs win now, as hard as it all is to believe.