|The Celtics will have their hands full trying to slow down the Mavericks' Dirk Nowitzki. (Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)|
With an NBA Finals appearance under their belt, two superstars, and a blazing record, the Dallas Mavericks seemed to not only have numbers on the backs of their jerseys last season, but bull's-eyes, too.
With three superstars and the NBA's best record, the bull's-eyes now seem to accompany the Celtics.
The Mavericks (31-13), who remain a Western Conference power and make their lone visit of the season to Boston tonight, seem relieved that the focus has shifted to Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, and the Celtics (35-8).
"They are the hot regular-season team," said Mavericks coach Avery Johnson. "A lot of people are picking them to win the championship or the East. They haven't played in a playoff series, but there are high expectations.
"We had high expectations. We were in a similar boat."
The Mavericks had a 2-0 lead before losing four straight games to the Miami Heat in the 2006 Finals. Dallas entered the 2006-07 season with championship aspirations and one of the league's most feared scorers in Dirk Nowitzki.
After a 0-4 start last season, the Mavericks won 52 of their next 57 games. Dallas finished a league-best 67-15, tied for the sixth-best regular-season record in NBA history, and earned the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference playoffs. Dallas had the league's MVP in Nowitzki and a fellow All-Star in forward Josh Howard.
The Mavericks felt that no matter who they played last season, they would get their opponents' best because of their record and the hype surrounding them. Such talk is regularly heard now by the Celtics.
"We just got off to a good roll," said Mavericks swingman Jerry Stackhouse. "We knew that coming off going to the NBA Finals we were one of the teams to beat. Everyone was up for the games against us and there is no pressure for them."
Said Johnson: "It can be pretty draining when you have [the bull's-eye] on you 82 times. You've got to be mentally focused and strong. It's a challenge you can't sweep under the rug. It requires commitment and mental toughness."
While the Mavericks had a great regular season, it didn't ensure success in the playoffs.
Dallas played eighth-seeded Golden State, coached by former Mavericks coach Don Nelson, in the first round of the playoffs. Although the Warriors were 3-0 against Dallas in the regular season, the Mavericks were huge favorites. The loose Warriors shocked the Mavericks in the first two games in Dallas, before winning the series, 4-2.
"In a series where a 1-seed is playing an 8-seed, if you sweep, that's what you're supposed to do," Stackhouse said. "And if you don't, it's a great story. We created the pressure by not winning at home. They played well at our place.
"It all accumulated in the playoffs, not the regular season. It goes to show you that the regular season and the playoffs are two different things."
Said Johnson: "You want to peak at the right time. That's the trick. Great teams like the Patriots do both, peak in the regular season and the playoffs. But we weren't one of those teams."
After Boston's 24-win campaign in 2006-07, Johnson is happy to see the storied Celtics strong again, and his good friend, Celtics coach Doc Rivers, winning again.
"They are having a great regular season," said Johnson, the NBA Coach of the Year for 2005-06. "I'm so excited for Doc. He's coached his butt off with the young players. He's a terrific coach, and to [win] with veterans is real special.
"They are similar to us because we had star players who have never won. There is a big bull's-eye. Everyone measures themselves against you. It will be a good challenge for us because we'll be the underdog."
While the bull's-eye might be on the Celtics, Johnson and Stackhouse won't go so far as to call them the favorite to win the championship.
"They still have a lot of challenges," Stackhouse said. "It seems like a bull's-eye. Great start. They had a favorable schedule early on. Teams are coming at them now. To really get the bull's-eye, they've got to win their division, the Eastern Conference.
"They are a contender. But you've got to look at Detroit and Cleveland, they are still the cream of the crop in the East. Boston got off to a hot start, but now they are back in the pack. Kevin Garnett has missed a couple games. Ray has been out. But every team has [injuries]."
Said Johnson: "The Spurs" - who won the title last season - "are still the favorite."
Rivers gave the Celtics yesterday off in large part because of injuries. Garnett has missed the last two games with an abdominal strain. Rivers said Monday that Garnett is feeling better and could play tonight. Allen missed Tuesday's win over the Heat with flu-like symptoms and received intravenous fluids at a Miami hospital . . . Mavericks guard Devin Harris is not with the team because of a left ankle injury. Stackhouse is with the team but will not play tonight because of a strained right hamstring. "I'm getting a lot better. I just have to make sure everything gets right," said Stackhouse, who hopes to return Wednesday against Milwaukee . . . The All-Star reserves will be announced tonight at 7 on TNT. Pierce is expected to make the Eastern Conference team, while Allen is on the bubble. Garnett will start at forward and Rivers will coach the East . . . Boston is 12-0 against Western Conference opponents, but has yet to play West powers Dallas, New Orleans, Phoenix, and San Antonio.
Marc J. Spears can be reached at email@example.com