Will No. 7's Foul Stench Spoil The Mavericks' Hopes Of Repeating?
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Lamar Odom of the Dallas Mavericks goes for a layup against the Houston Rockets on March 27, 2012 at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas. (credit: Danny Bollinger/NBAE via Getty Images)

Don’t look now but — at least for the time being — Lamar Odom is playing with a headband. And a pulse.

When you’re the NBA’s reigning Sixth Man of the Year joining the defending champs, expectations are high. But when you’re only a week removed from the dreaded DNP-CD, progress is measured in microscopic movements.

Tuesday night against the Houston Rockets, Odom did not suck. And, yes, relatively speaking — considering how bad he’s been and how fans have booed him — it was a sparkling performance.

“I like the way he played tonight, and this is a great step in the right direction,” said Mavs’ head coach Rick Carlisle after watching Odom don a headband from his old days with the Los Angeles Clippers and produce nine points, four rebounds and three assists in 23 seemingly interested minutes. “This is how he plays. I’ve said all along we believe in the guy.”

Raise your hand if you, too, believe in the guy. If so, you also probably believe “Khloe & Lamar” is riveting, entertaining television.

Blocking the shot of Rockets’ rookie Chandler Parsons and playing better than when he produced a stat sheet of “French fries” — 1 point, 1 rebound, 1 assist — in 24 awful minutes against the Lakers is one thing. Tonight, and down the stretch in Dallas’ 15 games, Odom has a chance for complete and total forgiveness.

When the Mavs play the Miami Heat at 7:00 p.m. on TNT, it’ll not only be a reminder of the special 2011. But more so an alarm that 2012 could slip away. The regular season ends one month from today.

“Fifteen games doesn’t sound like a long time, but in this particular case it’s almost a quarter of a season,” says Carlisle. “It’s a long time and there’s a long way to go, but it’s obvious that we need Lamar.”

It’s been 291 days since Sunday night, June 12. Back then the Mavs won Game 6 of the NBA Finals over the Heat. Afterward they drove from American Airlines Arena directly to Club LIV on South Beach for a night of unprecedented partying with the Larry O’Brien trophy and $90,000 champagne bottles as big as Fiats.

“Yeah, it was special, but I don’t want to dwell too much on the past,” said Finals MVP Dirk Nowitzki. “I mean, it felt like we were celebrating all season. With the lockout-shortened season, we didn’t get our rings on time. Then we celebrate the banner, we celebrate the rings and every other day a player came in here getting a ring. So we’ve been celebrating a lot this year. We want to kind of put it behind us and just move forward and hopefully have a good playoff run here. Yeah, it’ll be nice to go back to the scene of the crime, but we’ve got to move on. We’ve got a ballgame to play.”

Since that landmark 105-95 victory, we’ve experienced the departure of Tyson Chandler, the Texas Rangers’ World Series heartbreak, another disappointing Dallas Cowboys’ season, the passing of Joe Paterno, a lockout, a humbling season-opening loss to the Heat and the long, patience-wearing wait for Odom to show up.

At 29-22, the Mavs realistically should set their sights on the 4th seed in the Western Conference since they trail the No. 3 Lakers by a whopping three games in the loss column. If Dallas can leap-frog the No. 4 Clippers and hold off the Memphis Grizzlies, Utah Jazz and Rockets, they’ll get home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. A win in that series would likely pit them against the top-seeded Oklahoma City Thunder and the fun will begin.

But first things first, it won’t be easy. After playing the Heat tonight — in a building where Miami is 20-2 and has won 14 straight — the Mavs travel to Orlando Friday and back to Dallas for a pivotal game against the Clippers Monday night. Nine of Dallas’ final 15 are on the road, with seven of those against playoff-bound teams.

The Mavs, who all season have preached not being perfect in January or March but rather hot and healthy at the end of April, have the West’s best defense. They have Nowitzki, still an elite, clutch superstar. And over the weekend they should benefit from the return of two starters, center Brendan Haywood and shooting guard Delonte West.

Key question is, will Odom be along for the playoff ride?

During his “French fries” game last week — and at a recent appearance at a Dallas Stars game with Khloe — Odom was booed lustily by Mavs’ fans running on tolerance fumes. After the game, former Lakers’ teammate Kobe Bryant hugged him on the court and appeared to deliver a personal pep talk. But the next game in San Antonio, Carlisle spoke the loudest, benching Odom for the first time in his 13th NBA season.

Odom admits the booing was “hurtful” and that it left him “confused.” And when questioned about the benching by reporters, he had the bizarre response of “I’ve buried a baby.”

This is where it gets tricky.

Odom is a multi-millionaire. He’s a two-time champ, a decorated individual player, an Olympian and a celebrity. He’s also extremely sensitive.

When the Lakers attempted to trade him to the New Orleans Hornets, he almost retired. Then he landed in Dallas, where the Mavericks like his skills but love his expiring contract and what it can do to lure free agents such as Deron Williams even more. When he arrived, Odom was depressed. He knew he was likely a one-year rental for the Mavs, void of long-term job security. He was out of shape. He complained about his feet and knee and back… and feelings.

Last summer, Odom’s close cousin died. And while in New York for the funeral, his car was involved in an accident that killed a teenager on a bicycle. Lamar’s mother died when he was young. The grandmother who raised him has since passed. And in 2006, his infant son suddenly died.

At mid-season, he took a 10-day sabbatical to, among other things, attend to his ill father in Los Angeles. There were rumors Odom was attempting to force a buyout from the Mavs to play for the Boston Celtics. And then a video of dad popped up with him saying he had only an “upset stomach” and was having fun chillin’ with Lamar.

But there is more to the story. Much more. Mavericks sources tell me Odom’s father is indeed seriously ill. When I recently asked Mavs’ general manager Donnie Nelson about rumors of Odom’s dad being recently diagnosed with HIV, he responded, “I can’t touch that with a 20-foot pole.”

On one hand it’s been a jolting, traumatic period for Lamar and even more patience is necessary.

On the other hand, Roddy Beaubois’ father passed away unexpectedly last month. He missed five games and returned to play the best basketball of his career.

To get the most of our Lamar Odom long-term, the Mavs merely need to use his salary-cap room shrewdly. But if they hope to repeat as NBA champs, Odom’s Tuesday performance needs to be a launching point.

“I’m finally getting to the point where I get my second wind,” Odom said. “I finally feel like I’m getting my legs under me.”

Better late. Than never.

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