DALLAS -- Five days before Christmas, Kobe Bryant had 62 points in three quarters for the Dallas Mavericks.
SPECIAL MIDWEEK EDITION Dozen matter: Mavs rising
After Tuesday's night's rematch, Bryant had only advice for the Mavs.
"Screw 'em," Kobe said.
"If I'm Dirk or Avery," he continued, "I don't even listen to that stuff."
That stuff is the annual skepticism, derision and punking that specifically greeted these Mavs, this term, as soon as Bryant uncorked those 62 points on Dec. 20.
Yet when he isn't going for 62 or 81 or whatever his offensive ceiling is, Bryant is a bit of an expert at tuning out negativity. So maybe that's why Kobe -- even though dissing Dallas is a virtual Laker tradition with Phil Jackson in charge -- felt compelled to offer a rare bit of encouragement to his conquerors after a gamelong Mavericks swarm forced the ball out of his hands, gradually sapped the energy from his legs and played an undeniable role in a 5-for-22 shooting struggle that left No. 8 with just 24 points in the Los Angeles Lakers' 102-87 defeat.
It turned out to be a pretty rich Tuesday for Mark Cuban and his Mavericks. They got off the floor with Bryant scoring four points fewer than Brian Cook, after first finding out during the halftime break that Detroit had dropped even closer to the NBA surface with its third loss in five games -- in Atlanta! -- to make that Power Rankings guy look pretty foolish.
Chances are there won't be a national rush of praise for the Mavericks even after they reasonably smothered Bryant and stretched the longest win streak in the league to 12, especially since the hosts blew an early 20-point lead and actually had to win the game twice. Yet Bryant's counsel is to ignore the reaction regardless. Negative or even positive.
"Who cares?" Kobe said. "This team, you can tell, makes a much more concerted effort to play defense, and I think that starts with [coach] Avery Johnson. It's clear they have a strategy that everybody's in tune with. That's the big difference from the [Dallas] teams in the past. Until the playoffs, they shouldn't be wasting time even thinking about [national perception]."
Truth is, they aren't. Even as the Mavericks rack up numbers this franchise has never seen -- holding all 12 foes during this unbeaten run under 100 points to establish a club record -- they're obsessed down here with doing these things in the playoffs for once. They don't want bouquets in February. Not even on Valentine's Day and not even from Bryant.
The Mavericks were obviously motivated here to respond to their December humiliation, but they won't dwell on it because Johnson won't let them. After every big win, he's the first to remind them that they've achieved nothing. Johnson also knows that, for all his commitment to defensive improvement on the practice court and in the film room, Dallas has actually been able to establish its own 65-win pace because of its offense.
Better shot selection selection, crisper ball movement and a higher shooting percentage have reduced the number of possessions opponents get. The Mavs, under Don Nelson, were instructed to take the first open shot they could find, leaving their defense on the field far too often (for those of you who like you American football analogies). These Mavs still score 100, but without opening themselves up for so much punishment. It also doesn't hurt that their best athletes (Josh Howard, Devin Harris and Marquis Daniels) have seized bigger roles to supplement some serious bench firepower (Jerry Stackhouse and Keith Van Horn) and the surprise newcomers (DeSagana Diop and Adrian Griffin) who provide dirty work and defensive quality.
These Mavericks also have a coach who mentions "hard fouls" so often in his media sessions that you'd think it was a separate category in the box score. You still don't know some nights if Johnson's players are capable of doling them out -- like, say, five nights before Christmas -- but perhaps Bryant isn't only one in this league in the midst of a transformation.
Kobe's popularity has rebounded dramatically in the weeks since Sixty-Two and especially Eighty-One, to the point that even he admitted surprise during his Dallas stop with how high his All-Star vote totals were. But maybe it's time to look at the other side. The Mavericks, after all, haven't exactly folded since their Dec. 20 surrender.
"You can't change your reputation in the regular season," said Dirk Nowitzki, unmoved by Dallas' own gaudy numbers, as in 38-10.
"It just doesn't happen. We could win the next 40 games or whatever's left [in the regular season] and our reputation probably still wouldn't change. We know we have to do this in the playoffs."
AP Photo/Gregory Smith
Long before hitting the game-winning shot, Joe Johnson (29 points) operates on Carlos Arroyo in the third quarter. The lowly Hawks (15-32) beat the team with the best record, Detroit, 99-98.
1. The Clippers are getting plenty of low-post production from Elton Brand and Chris Kaman and thus have targeted Minnesota's Eddie Griffin -- a big man who prefers the perimeter -- as an ideal catch before the Feb. 23 trading deadline. L.A. is offering Chris Wilcox, according to NBA front-office sources, but the Wolves have resisted, even though Griffin is in and out of coach Dwane Casey's rotation.
2. It's probably a bit early for such proclamations, given that only one team (Denver) in the whole league has played its 50th game . . . but why wait?
I hereby declare that the top eight teams in the East will not change between now and the end of the season. The seeding order is far from set, of course, but the eight teams in the playoffs as of today will be the eight we see in late April.
Seriously. Chicago and Orlando could always make a trade to reverse their current slides and get them back in contention, and injuries can change the landscape instantly, but who else outside of the current top eight appears remotely capable of making a push?
The way it looks now, it'll take some serious sliding from Washington, Philadelphia, Indiana or Milwaukee to change the East's playoff field.
3. You might have heard that the 2007 All-Star Game will be held in Las Vegas . . . with New Orleans given first option to host the 2008 edition even if the Hornets have not yet returned to Louisiana.
The significance? If it wasn't already clear, a city clearly doesn't have to have an NBA team to win the right to be chosen as the league's All-Star city.
That's not all. It's becoming increasingly apparent that we're not far away from our first All-Star Weekend in an overseas location like, say, Paris.
Commissioner David Stern has acknowledged that the complexities involved in putting 2-4 teams in Europe full-time, as he has longed hoped, have forced the league to "temper our aspirations" when it comes to full-fledged European expansion. Yet that hasn't stopped the NBA from continually raising its Old World profile, as seen by the commitment to send teams to Italy, Spain, France and Russia for training camps in October and the growing possibility of a European division of the D-League.
When the commitment to Vegas was made for '07, Stern acknowledged that "we'll listen to everyone now." No promises have been made, true, but an All-Star Game in a city of worldwide prestige like Paris or Frankfurt looks inevitable from here.
Readers respond to the latest edition of the ESPN.com NBA Power Rankings:
Mark F. (Detroit): As a regular reader of your Power Rankings, I've been pleased with your respect for Motown right from the start this season. You picked the Pistons as an elite team early on when few in your profession did, but I have to tell you -- this week you blew it. The Pistons had a bad week in losing two games to teams barely over .500 and looked shabby in a seven-point win over the Sixers without AI. This was their worst week of the season and they clearly deserved a demotion . . . probably to third behind Dallas and San Antonio.
Jeff (Burbank): Could you PLEASE downgrade Detroit? They need the underdog thing to keep them motivated. They are starting to lose a bit of energy and the bumps and bruises are starting to affect their play. Maybe a little media criticism and second-guessing would get that machine rolling again.
Brandon (College Station): Detroit is the best team from a terrible conference. This doesn't make them a great team. While everyone else is ready to throw a parade for them because they're on a 70-win pace, 65 wins for any Western Conference team would be a far better accomplishment. Of the bottom eight teams in your rankings, six are from the East.
Paul (Dallas): I know you are the all-powerful overlord of the Power rankings, but it is just disgusting that the Mavericks are not No. 1 this week. Are these the "Pistons have to lose all of their games in a week to not be No. 1 rankings?" I am very, very disappointed. I understand that Detroit has something special going, but it ain't that special yet. And they looked pretty ordinary this week. Unlike the Mavs.
Liam (San Antonio): I still think the Spurs should be No. 2 behind Detroit and ahead of Dallas, because everyone knows they'll go farther than the Mavs. But you're the expert and what you say goes.
(Ed's note: Lots of reaction, obviously, to my wrestling with whether to keep Detroit at No. 1 for a 13th consecutive week . . . but at least we can all agree on Liam's last point.)
Kobe Bryant played in the fourth quarter this time. The Mavericks won their 12th straight game, beating the Lakers, 102-87.
Mavs shut down Lakers
Glenn James/Getty Images
After averaging 52.5 points against Dallas in two previous games, Kobe Bryant hoists a long shot. He finished with 24 points.
Quote of the Day
-- A certain Michael Jordan, reacting publicly to Kobe Bryant's 81-point game for the first time at a New York press conference for his Jordan All-American Classic for high schoolers.
Readers respond to Marc Stein's All-Star reserve selections:
Josh August (Williamstown): Leaving Paul Pierce off your All-Star team is a joke. He's in the top 10 in scoring, shooting 47 percent from the field and averages 7.3 boards and 4.5 assists a game playing small forward. He is having the best season of his career. It's not his fault that three of the five best players on his team should be in college.
Jason (Brooklyn): Your blind spot for lefty gunners always hurts your All-Star and All-NBA ballots. Michael Redd is a great shooter. Great. He gets it off quickly, hits it a lot and plays on a winning team. He doesn't do anything else. His bigs do all the board work. His point guards get the ball to him. He's not running guys out of the gym or killing them at the buzzer like Reggie. Pierce on the other hand is a one-man gang on a really bad gang. Arenas has the same unlimited range and he can create his owns. Prince and Rasheed are both amazing defenders who can score from anywhere at any time. I completely agree with every other pick you made in both conferences, but man, that lefty bias leaves you looking rather . . . sinister.
Mike (DC): What about getting 'Melo in there at guard for the West? He's a three, which is close enough to the two spot, so I think he should get that last guard spot over Paul. I realize Gilbert Arenas is a tough call, but he's got to make it, too. He's that whole team. Aside from Gil, that Wiz roster is weak. If you took the top player off every single team and then had the teams play their schedules, the Wiz would finish dead last. Look it up. Every other team has better players 2-10.
Don (Hartford): Chris Paul being left off of the All-Star roster can't be an injustice. Sure, he's deserving, but is he more deserving than say, Carmelo Anthony, who led the Nuggets to the playoffs as a rookie? Or LeBron James, who was arguably the best rookie in a decade? Sure he's a great point guard, but he's young and should have to wait his turn just as other great young players have had to. He's not exempt. Choose a star veteran instead who has consistently performed at a high level.
Jason (Dallas): I think the All-Star game is the ONE time that individual talent should supersede team performance. The Pistons are a super team, but the sum outweighs the individual parts. Rip Hamilton is solid, but not an All-Star. I would replace him with Pierce, Vince Carter or Arenas -- all are simply better players. If you want to reward the Pistons, I would select Rasheed ahead of Hamilton anyway. I think Wallace is more crucial to Detroit's success.
Joseph (Colorado Springs, CO): Hey Marc! You mentioned in your Power Rankings that Steve Francis playing in Denver doesn't appeal to you. Why is that? Wouldn't Stevie Franchise be a good fit at shooting guard? That's a big position of need for the Nuggets.
Marc Stein: There are already rumblings in Denver that the PGs they have are shooting too much. So I can't see how a guy like Francis, who HAS to have the ball in his hands, would be a good match with 'Melo. I can't imagine a much more unappealing match, actually. But Furious George loves talent. I'm told he's the one pushing for this and I know he thinks he can make anything work if you give him the talent.
On this one especially, I respectfully disagree with my former ESPN colleague. I'd say Denver is better off if this possibility stays dead, as it looks for the moment . . . although I certainly would not be surprised to see Nene moved before the Feb. 23 trading deadline because the Nuggets know the big Brazilian is going to get multiple offers (as a restricted free agent) that will be expensive to match. If they don't think they can afford to keep him, they'll undoubtedly try to get something for now.
A look at the most active movers, upward and downward, in ESPN.com's weekly NBA Power Rankings:
Highest Rise: No. 16 Houston Rockets
Steepest Fall: No. 27 Boston Celtics