The thousands of loyal fans that flock to the TD Garden to see the Celtics each night have learned to take it for granted that a seasoned, consistent lineup that executes well together can win together. We've been watching the same starting five take the court for three years now in Boston, and we've seen them reach the game's ultimate goal together.
We get it. You keep the same group together for a while, they develop as a unit, the wins pile up. It's a proven formula.
But then you examine the curious case of the Dallas Mavericks. Who ever heard of a team gutting two-fifths of its starting five in February, starting over, and suddenly making a run at a championship?
That's the case with the Mavs this year. It was Feb. 9 when Caron Butler played his last game in a Washington Wizards uniform — on that day, the Mavericks were seven games off the Lakers' pace in the playoff race, a distant fourth in the Western Conference. On Feb. 13, the Mavs swung a blockbuster trade for Butler and Brendan Haywood.
They integrated both of them seamlessly into the starting lineup. You'd expect a team like that to have a period of growing pains, adjusting to new personnel on the fly. Not the Mavs — all they did was rattle off 13 straight wins without skipping a beat.
They're still mired in a race for the No. 2 seed in the West with Denver and Utah, a race that will no doubt go down to the wire as the three teams vie for playoff position. But at this point, with the Mavericks still learning to play together and still showing so much potential to improve, you have to like their chances.
Over the past week, the Celtics have seen all three teams — the Mavs, Jazz and Nuggets — as they battle through a difficult March.
In the Jazz, they saw a potent, athletic team that knew how to control the pace of the game. A surefire contender in the West race, no doubt.
In the Nuggets, they saw a tough, physical group of guys, led by a veteran point guard and a dominating scorer. Another great team in a great conference.
But the Mavs, in due time, will be better than both of them. They're stacked with talent, experience and the will to win. With Butler, they have a great two-way player that can both score and defend against the league's best wing guys. In Jason Kidd, they have a smart veteran who can lead an offense like none other. In Dirk Nowitzki, they have one of the best forwards of his generation.
We in Boston learned that a team led by three title-hungry veterans can go a long way in the NBA. Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen had never won the NBA Finals before, so they united behind a common goal, worked together and got it done. If those three could do it, then why can't Butler, J-Kidd and Dirk?
The Mavericks got a huge boost last month when they added Butler and the imposing defensive presence of Brendan Haywood. They have a deep, potent and above all determined team. This could be their year.
If you're the Lakers, you're looking at the standings this time of year and sizing everyone up. Trying to figure out who's got the best shot to take you down.
This year, the answer to that question is Dallas. You'll see. They're not only a huge threat to the L.A. out West, but they've got a shot to make the kind of noise the whole NBA will hear.