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Wednesday, January 25, 2012
Dirk Nowitzki leading the charge all that matters

By Jeff Caplan

DALLAS -- In about 12 hours Dirk Nowitzki will address the media with something of his own state of the union. The Dallas Mavericks can only hope their chief is ready to put down the TV mic and get back to his real job.

Until he does, and until he puts his knee and conditioning issues to rest, the Mavs, the oldest team in the league, are in for a rough road. The up-and-humming Minnesota Timberwolves extinguished the good feeling of two straight wins without Dirk over the sad-sack New Orleans Hornets, who nearly stole the Mavs' 83-81 victory, and the terribly thin Phoenix Suns.

Coach Rick Carlisle declined to address Dirk's progress after he missed his third game during this week of off-court work designed to get the 7-footer's right knee back on track and his conditioning -- and determination -- back to NBA standards.

As Minnesota's 105-90 win Wednesday night showed, good teams -- and don't take its 8-10 record at face value -- are quite capable of taking it to these shorthanded Mavs -- now 11-8 and tied for eighth in the West -- who continue to be without key reserve Vince Carter as well. And don't look now, but the Utah Jazz will be seeking payback Friday night. That impressive, hard-nosed win in Salt Lake City last Thursday was the last game with Dirk.

"We've been winning the last couple games on teamwork, energy, guts and will, and we have skilled guys on the rest of our roster other than Dirk," Carlisle said. "We didn't do that tonight, we were inconsistent. We never got anything really consistent going after we had gotten the 14-point lead. Give them credit for continuing to attack and being aggressive and staying with it, but we failed to answer that run at the end of the first half and it didn't get better from there."

For 23 minutes of the first half, Dallas was sailing along and the sellout crowd that watched the team finally slip on their championship rings was clapping along as Carlisle aligned the bench in more creative groups of five. He ended the first quarter and started the second with Rodrigue Beaubois, Jason Terry, Brian Cardinal, Brandan Wright and Yi Jianlian. A few minutes later Ian Mahinmi subbed in for Yi. This group has gotten some decent run the last two games.

And give it credit as it took the Wolves by surprise for a 46-32 lead, turning turnovers into easy buckets and some high-flying ones, too, courtesy of Terry-to-Wright. But things went south from there and Minnesota went into halftime down just two, and then Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love -- and a nice young team around them -- double-doubled the Mavs to death. A 21-4 run spanning the last minute of the second quarter and first five of the third put the Wolves ahead by seven and then an 8-2 run to end the third and an 8-1 run to start the fourth did the final damage.

But what can really be expected against quality teams with Dirk and Carter sitting out and Lamar Odom -- well, not even Carlisle seems sure of where Mr. Odom is at these days.

"We just got to take it one game at a time. That’s part of the NBA," said Shawn Marion, who deemed the 15-point loss, embarrassing. "Ain’t noithing going to be picture-perfect. This is my 13th season, so I’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly. At the same time, it’s about staying focused and we’ve just go to go, gradually help each other and stay on the same course. That’s all that matters."

Dirk returning recharged is really all that matters. This is a one superstar team that needs him to be super to have a chance. The prevailing wisdom for this season is just make the playoffs. The owner has said as much, and the veteran starting point guard said it again after Wednesday's loss. The Western Conference is not great, but it is loaded with good teams -- nine of which already have double-digit wins.

With the season whipping ahead toward one-third of the way through, health is what's most important. Without it, even an afterthought of a playoff spot could be in jeopardy.

"The team is always going to be looked upon as a team," Jason Kidd said. "We’re not individuals in the sense of you’ve got to win and and lose as a team. We looked at it like that last year; we didn’t care who put the ball in the basket. Right now it’s just a matter of getting your body right and being ready once the real season starts."

In about 12 hours we should get a better idea on the actual state of the union.