Freefall puts early end to race vs. Spurs

The only one cringing as hard as Mark Cuban over the Dallas Mavericks' tumble is David Stern.

As if the commissioner didn't already know that NBA fans view the regular season as largely irrelevant, just take a look at the standings. At the season's mid-point four of the league's six divisions are yawn-fests. The Mavs' three-week slide has added the Southwest Division to that category, decisively altering what was shaping up to be a classic race to 82 between two fierce rivals potentially for the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference.

Dallas' 82-77 loss Thursday night at Chicago Bulls dropped it a season-high nine games behind the 36-6 San Antonio Spurs, who can extend the lead to 9 1/2 with a win tonight against the New York Knicks. That's a daunting number of games to make up with 42 remaining. Less than a month ago when Dirk Nowitzki went down with a sprained knee on Dec. 27, the Mavs were 2 1/2 games back of the Spurs and had already won in San Antonio.

Remarkably, the Mavs are the closest second-place team among the four division races that are essentially over -- barring injuy or other mishaps -- before the Los Angeles Lakers have even started to care.

L.A. in the Pacific, Chicago in the Central and Boston in the Atlantic all hold 10-game leads over their nearest divisional foe. Only the Southeast Division in the Eastern Conference and the Northwest Division in the Western Conference have compelling races going on. Each division has three teams packed within 2 1/2 games, yet only the Miami Heat among that group of six hold national appeal, even if polarizing.

The shame of the Mavs' freefall which stands at 10 losses in 13 games is that the division was shaping up to go down to the wire as it did in 2005-06, when both teams reached 60 wins with the Spurs nudging ahead to 63 wins to take the division by 3 1/2 games.

That race served as a prelude to a tremendous semifinal round playoff series in which the Mavs lost a 3-1 lead only to take down the then-defending champions in Game 7 on their home floor, paving the Mavs' path to their first NBA Finals.

Oh well, there's always the race for playoff seeding. Set your snooze for March.