Monday, March 24, 2003
Numbers back up Najera's impact in Dallas
By Marc Stein
Editor's note: As part of "The Stein Line" every Monday, ESPN.com senior NBA writer Marc Stein takes you around the league for the latest news in "Coast to Coast."
If not quite cast as a savior, the Mavericks see Eduardo Najera as their playoff difference-maker, especially against Sacramento's Chris Webber. If Najera can stay healthy, that is.
Of course, even if Najera does, it's still a big burden to place on a 6-foot-8 power forward who averages 7.0 points and 4.7 rebounds in his third NBA season. Yet there actually is some statistical justification for Dallas' faith.
When Najera plays 20 minutes or more, the Mavericks are 21-3. They're 11-0 when he scores at least 10 points, 8-0 when he grabs at least eight rebounds, and 13-1 when Najera gets at least three offensive boards -- the first loss coming Thursday at home to San Antonio.
Mavericks insiders are convinced they beat Sacramento in the teams' last meeting largely because Najera was playing against the Kings for the first time since getting hurt in warm-ups of Game 1 of the teams' playoff series last spring. Webber, pestered by the Mavs' grittiest defender, needed 26 shots for his 24 points.
The issue with Najera isn't just health, though. In the playoffs, Mavericks coach Don Nelson figures to be faced with this decision: Najera vs. Nick Van Exel in crunch time. Nelson generally prefers to have his five best players on the court whenever he can, but that alignment -- Van Exel, Steve Nash, Michael Finley, Dirk Nowitzki and Raef LaFrentz -- renders Dallas small and especially vulnerable defensively and on the boards. With Najera, they're less explosive but indisputably tougher.
Factor in the Van Exel numbers and you'll understand Nelson has to be strongly considering more burn for Najera once the playoffs start. When Van Exel plays 24 minutes or less, the Mavericks are 22-2. When he plays 30 minutes or more, the Mavs are 13-13. When Van Exel is forced to take 15 shots or more -- fact is, he has generally been a reluctant shooter since coming to Dallas -- the Mavs are 5-9.
All of which suggests that small ball hasn't been as successful for Dallas as you'd imagine for a team with an overall record of 52-17.
Starting slower, on purpose, worked for Wolves
|The Mavericks are a different team with a healthy Eduardo Najera on the floor.|
Minnesota started 30-10 last season, faded to a No. 5 seed and didn't forget it. That's why Flip Saunders lowered the intensity bar in training camp, making instruction the focus.
Part of it was self-preservation, because the Wolves were also banged up in October, with Wally Szczerbiak and Joe Smith out in addition to out-for-the-season guards Terrell Brandon and Felipe Lopez. But Saunders also wanted to save something for now, and the plan seems to have worked. From an 18-16 start, most of which Szczerbiak missed, the Wolves are 27-10 and have a highly favorable schedule from here to the finish line.
Only four of Minnesota's final 11 games are against teams with winning records, and one of those is at Portland in the battle for home-court advantage in the first round. With Scottie Pippen plagued by knee trouble and the Wolves gaining strength this time, favor Minnesota to claim the No. 4 spot and home-court advantage in the playoffs for the first time.
"Maybe we peaked too early last year," Saunders said. "As a staff, we made a very conscious effort to change the way we practice -- the competitiveness in practice -- and scale that back a bit."
Said Szczerbiak: "I think the injuries made us stronger, I know it was frustrating for me in the early part of the season, but now we're really starting to build a head of steam, winning big-time games. We're just in the right frame of mind this year."
The Wolves, though, are advised to remember that the Blazers are a better road team than they are at home, lest anyone thinks a long-awaited trip to Round 2 is a cinch.
Gasol, West team up for a title run ... no, really
|Wally Szczerbiak, left, and the Timberwolves are rested and ready for the playoffs.|
It's not just the Grizzlies. Memphis' other hot team is little Lausanne High School, which unexpectedly reached the state's Division 2 title game before suffering a 68-49 loss Saturday to Brentwood Academy.
Stars of that team? Marc Gasol, a beefy 7-footer from Spain, and Jonny West, a guard who recently moved from the L.A. area to Tennessee.
You guessed it. Marc is a much thicker version of his older brother Pau Gasol, and Jonny is the son of a Grizz employee named Jerry West.
Baylor belongs, too, in the exclusive 30-6-5 Club
Apologies to Clippers general manager Elgin Baylor, who has suffered enough this season watching his talented team underperform. On top of that, Baylor was recently omitted from a list making the rounds featuring players who have averaged 30 points, six rebounds and five assists in a single season.
Orlando's Tracy McGrady and the Lakers' Kobe Bryant are trying to join the club this season. Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, Jerry West and Michael Jordan are charter members & but so is Baylor, one of the game's original rim-level stars. In 1960-61, his first season in L.A. with the Lakers, Baylor averaged a gaudy 34.8 points, 19.8 rebounds and 5.1 assists. At a mere 6-5.
Pick Sixers: 2001 or 2003?
Now that they're winning again, the 76ers will again spark debate about their current club and the team that reached the 2001 NBA Finals -- the team that dealt the Lakers their only loss of the '01 playoffs.
We've said all along that today's Sixers aren't there yet, because those Sixers had an unmistakable defensive presence and oozed grit, but we sought additional counsel from New Orleans' George Lynch, a key component of the Finals team.
"With Allen (Iverson) as a leader, and just knowing the character of some of those guys in the core group -- Eric Snow, Aaron McKie -- anything can happen," Lynch said. "But I don't know what that team's psyche is, what they talk about every day.
"That team that went to the Finals had the momentum from the start. We started the season 10-0. A lot of stuff was going on that summer (Iverson was nearly traded) and we went into training camp that year with something to prove. We just made a strong run."
|Allen Iverson's 76ers are drawing comparisons to Philly's '01 finalists.|
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here. Also, send Stein a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.