Originally posted on Fox Sports Houston  |  Last updated 3/24/12
HOUSTON -- The first time I ever saw Shawn Marion, he was sitting in the stands at a place called The Sports Arena in Hutchinson, Kan., and he was signing autographs. He was there to play in the NJCAA Tournament, and I was there to watch. This was 1998, and I was a sophomore in high school, which is to say it was a very long time ago. That isn't relevant, except that 1998 was the same year one of my teachers said something about basketball I have never heard anyone say before or since, and what he said now seems suddenly and improbably applicable to the Dallas Mavericks. "You don't understand basketball," he said, "until you're too old to play it." If my teacher was right, the Dallas Mavericks are right on the cusp of understanding how to play basketball. Their core of Marion, Jason Kidd, Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Terry and Vince Carter averages 34.8 years of age. Kidd, their point guard, turned 39 Friday. But these are basically the same Mavericks that won the NBA championship just one year ago, and so everyone wonders if they can somehow do it again, despite the age, despite the odds. The Mavericks beat the Houston Rockets 101-99 Saturday night at Toyota Center, which put Dallas (28-22) two games ahead of Houston (26-23) in the Western Conference and pushed the Rockets a half game out of the final spot in the playoff race. Dallas would be the No. 5 seed if the season ended today. It would be fair to say the Mavericks looked less athletic than the Rockets, and less athletic than they were a year ago. Dallas looks less athletic because it parted ways with two of its best athletes, Tyson Chandler and J.J. Barrea. Owner Mark Cuban has not hidden his intent to make a big free-agent signing this offseason, so the Mavericks appear to exist in that weird space between building and rebuilding, not quite whole, but not quite ready to give up on this championship core. The temptation is to dismiss this team. Too old. Too slow. Too not the Miami Heat. There is plenty of opportunity for geriatric humor, here, and yet you look at the Southwest Division of the Western Conference, and it's led by San Antonio and Dallas, even as the stubble on Kidd's chin gets grayer and the circumference of Manu Ginobili's bald spot grows larger. How? Well, the Mavs shot 46 percent, went 6-for-22 from the 3-point line got outrebounded by 14 and still won in overtime on the road. Games like that are how. There were no grand conclusions to be drawn from Saturday's game. It was Dallas', and then it was Houston's, then Dallas' again. The hero changed every minute. Was it Terry, who made three clutch shots? Was it Houston rookie Chandler Parsons, whose 3-pointer sent the game into overtime? Was it Dallas' Brandan Wright, one of the team's few youngsters, who had the best game of his career with 14 points, six rebounds and seven blocks? Or how about Nowitzki, who had 31 points? The answer is probably all of them and none of them. It was a wonderfully played basketball game that both teams are right to feel they deserved to win. Dallas did, but it should be noted the Rockets are without two of their three best players in point guard Kyle Lowry (illness) and shooting guard Kevin Martin (shoulder). Dallas' bench had Wright, and Houston's bench was in the starting lineup and maybe that was the difference. Still, the Mavericks were good Saturday night. Not great, but good. Marion, Nowitzki and Terry were all terrific. And that's the thing about the Dallas Mavericks as a Finals contender. They won it all just a year ago. Kidd and Nowitzki and Marion and Terry obviously understand basketball. But are they too old to play it? Not quite yet.
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