“I try not to think about those things,” coach Rick Carlisle said with a wry smile after the Mavs managed to pull out a heart-pounding 114-111 win Wednesday night. “Which one are you talking about?”
Well, there was a familiar face wearing a funny, crooked headband and a blue No. 5 jersey who fit the bill.
Jason Kidd can call it just another game all he wants, but there’s no doubt he came to play in his return to the American Airlines Center, where his name hangs on a championship banner and the No. 2 he wore during his second stint in Dallas will too one day if Mark Cuban can get past the hurt feelings from the future Hall of Famer’s change-of-heart departure this summer.
Kidd mustered remarkable energy for a 39-year-old playing the butt end of a back-to-back, stuffing the box score with 17 points, six rebounds, five assists and five steals in 36 minutes. He willed the 8-2 Knicks to have a chance to win if Carmelo Anthony’s jumper with Shawn Marion in his face fell with seconds remaining.
“Tonight’s more proof of it: He’s one of the all-time greats,” Carlisle said. “Never underestimate greatness at any age.”
Yep, the remodeled Mavs sure could use a leader like that as their young guns try to learn to win, especially while Dirk Nowitzki rehabs from a knee scope expected to sideline him until mid-December. Having said that, Kidd’s exit was in the best interests of himself and both franchises impacted by his double-clutch free agency decision.
Kidd added a critical element to a team that appears to be a legitimate contender. The Mavs got one heck of a consolation prize that could possibly be a major part of the franchise’s future: O.J. Mayo.
The Mavs used their last bit of cap space -- room that wouldn’t have been available if Kidd returned, as Cuban says the Mavs still would have traded for point guard Darren Collison -- to sign Mayo to a one-year, $4 million deal with a player option for next season.
That contract has been one of the NBA’s best bargains so far this season, with Mayo the main reason the 7-6 Mavs are above water despite the absence of their only proven superstar. Mayo is performing like an All-Star, ranking sixth in the league in scoring at 22.9 points per game after his efficient 27-point performance helped key the Mavs’ victory over New York.
“I don’t want to talk him up too much because I don’t want him to opt out next year,” Cuban kidded before the game, a comment that made Mayo laugh heartily when it was relayed to him later.
At the moment, the only reason for Mavs fans not to fall in love with Mayo is the fear that he’ll be another one-and-done heartbreaker in Dallas, much like big man Tyson Chandler, who put up 21 points and 13 rebounds for the Knicks on Wednesday night.
The difference is that Cuban feared locking into an aging core after the Mavs made their miraculous 2011 title run and the new, more restrictive collective bargaining agreement was written, while he’s hoping 25-year-olds Mayo and Collison prove themselves worthy of being paid this summer to stay in Dallas.
But that’s a discussion for several months from now.
All Mayo, a former No. 3 overall pick who arrived in Dallas humbled and hungry after a disappointing tenure in Memphis, is focused on at the moment is maximizing the chance the Mavs have given him to ignite his career.
“Even when I was on the bench, I was still grinding, hoping for an opportunity one day,” said Mayo, who was demoted by the Grizzlies to sixth man the last two seasons. “Hey, it’s here.”
The buzz before the game was all about Kidd being here.
The Mavs didn’t do anything special such as a tribute video to acknowledge Kidd’s return. (But maybe, just maybe the pregame song playlist that featured Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know,” Taylor Swift’s “We Are Never, Ever Getting Back Together” and Fun’s “We Are Young” might have been intended for his ears.)
The sellout crowd did give Kidd a nice ovation when his name was announced with the Knicks’ starting lineup, although he’d already made his way to middle of the team huddle and didn’t acknowledge the applause until after the game.
“I love Dallas,” Kidd said. “What we accomplished as a team will always be special to me, but now I’m in New York trying to accomplish that again. That’s to win another championship.”
Realistically, Kidd’s return wouldn’t have made the Mavs a title contender. They’re a long shot with Mayo, too, but at least there’s hope that the new kid can be part of the franchise’s foundation for years to come.