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Book on Mavs-Pistons: Titles speak volumes

01:44 AM CST on Tuesday, March 28, 2006

By EDDIE SEFKO / The Dallas Morning News

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. – A lively debate raged Monday in advance of the Mavericks' visit to the team they massacred in November.

On one side, the Detroit Pistons were showing their utter disregard for the regular season, flaunting the fact they've played for the NBA championship the last two seasons, winning it once.

On the other side, the Mavericks were wondering how they can change the galactic perception that they are great regular-season artists but no Rembrandts when it comes to the playoffs.

And do they really owe anybody any apologies for their regular-season greatness the last five seasons?

The Mavericks and Pistons won't have a fire-and-brimstone rivalry unless they someday meet in the Finals. But since the Pistons got whacked by 37 points at American Airlines Center – their first loss this season after starting 8-0 – tonight's months-removed meeting at The Palace of Auburn Hills offers an intriguing story line.

Add the Mavericks' quest for credibility, and it has the chance to be a fun evening.

"Dallas is good," Detroit's Richard Hamilton said. "Their record speaks for itself. But when everybody was telling us we had an opportunity for 70 wins, [I said] if we don't win a championship, that's not a successful season for us.

"Whatever you do in the regular season is easy. You really got to step up in the playoffs. Until you do that, the regular season really doesn't mean anything."

Hard to miss that message if you're the Mavericks, although they would like to think averaging 57 wins the last five seasons means something. And it does, just like being on pace to win 63 games this season is an achievement.

But Rasheed Wallace amplified Hamilton's point.

"They've had good records the last few years," he said, "but weren't able to go far into the playoffs. That's one of the knocks people are saying about them."

Avery Johnson is a firm believer in building one's reputation in the playoffs. Does that mean the regular season is an 82-game piece of gum on their shoe?

No, because you build a championship mentality from October on through June, not just in the playoffs, Johnson said.

"The coach understands it," he said when asked if the Mavericks adhere to the playoff-centric attitude. "That's all that matters. A lot of them [Detroit players] didn't understand it until they won it. They found out when they got here and it all came together."

Jerry Stackhouse was with the Pistons before they became an elite team. He said the mentality has changed in Motown because of the 2004 championship banner.

"Everybody's mentality isn't that way," he said. "Our goal is for a championship. But if we play as well as we can, and it's not in the cards, you can't say it's all for naught.

"Detroit was seven bad minutes away from not even being in the Finals last season. It would have been Miami representing the Eastern Conference. So they're saying that was nothing if they lost that?"

One more game: Josh Howard and Adrian Griffin are closing in on their return, but Wednesday's game at Cleveland is more likely than tonight's in Detroit.

Howard went through most of practice Monday and said his left hamstring was improved. Griffin participated in part of practice.

Different approach: In its last three games, Detroit has held Miami to 73 points, Indiana to 72 and New Jersey to 79.

Coach Flip Saunders doesn't expect such a performance tonight. He said the pressure will be on Detroit's offense.

"There's no question that we're going to have to score more points because Dallas is going to score."

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