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Eisley fills niche with Mavs

Former Jazz guard highly regarded but not in No. 1 spot with improved Dallas

He is a reserve point guard who plays some at shooting guard but hasn't really held any high-profile position on his own.

If you're thinking this sounds suspiciously like a guard from last season's Jazz, you're absolutely correct, Inspector.

It is former Jazz guard Howard Eisley.

Yet it is also Howard Eisley of this season's Dallas Mavericks, who acquired John Stockton's ex-backup with high hopes last August.

So far — with just more than a dozen games remaining in the 2000-2001 regular season for both the 47-21 Jazz and the 44-25 Mavericks, who meet in a critical Western Conference matchup Monday night at the Delta Center — Eisley seems to have produced with mixed results in Dallas.

He is evidently both liked and appreciated by teammates there but hasn't exactly played the leading role the Mavericks apparently anticipated when they agreed to a six-year, $33.5 million sign-and-trade contract.

Eisley has, however, found his niche on a club that, with the recent addition of power forward Juwan Howard, looks drastically different from the one the Jazz last played in November.

"He hasn't been the starting point guard like many people thought and hasn't taken the role that I think, at least, a lot of people had the opinion he would take," said Steve Nash, the man who is Dallas' acknowledged starter at the point. "But don't forget that he has been a starter (in 40 of 69 Mav games this season), he's played a very big role for us at both ends of the floor, and, with me missing games, . . . he's stepped right in and done great.

"So I think that, regardless of perhaps what the critics are proposing, he's been great for us," added Nash, who was enthusiastic in his defense of Eisley when he spoke during last month's NBA All-Star Weekend. "He's been a very important and integral part of our team."

Eisley has had almost more roles, though, than colorful Mavericks owner Mark Cubans has had fines to pay this season.

(And there have been plenty of those.)

Eisley signed with Dallas in large part to escape the shadow of all-time NBA assists and steals leader Stockton, but also, presumably, to earn a regular starting job of his own.

He has started some at the point, albeit primarily when Nash — who is feeling the wear-and-tear of a long year that includes playing for his native Canada in the 2000 Summer Olympics — has been unable to go.

He has played at the point behind Nash and at shooting guard alongside him, both in the same games, and went through a stretch as Dallas' starter at the 2, a position he never expressed a fondness for while playing in Utah.

And, now that Dallas acquired Howard from Washington — allowing the Mavericks to start him and Dirk Nowitzki at the forward spots, and Michael Finley at shooting guard — Eisley is employed almost exclusively as Nash's backup.

It's a versatility that the Mavs seem to like.

"He can play the 2 when Steve's in there; he can play the 1 when Steve is out," Nowitzki. "He can do it all."

What Eisley hasn't been able to do with any sort of consistency this season, however, is shoot.

He has hit some key baskets, even a game-winner, and is averaging a career-high 9.9 points per game. But Eisley, who went 1-of-7 with 2 points during 17 reserve minutes in Dallas' Saturday victory over Charlotte, is hitting only 39.1 percent from the field, lower than in any of his five .418-or-better seasons with the Jazz.

Even with his woes, though, the Mavericks — aided in large part by the presence of Howard, a bona fide power forward who only makes them better — are one of the NBA's hotter teams.

At 7-3 in its past 10, Dallas is even pushing for a top-four finish in the West — and homecourt advantage in a first-round playoff series.

"They're a great team. They've been playing really well. There are a lot of matchup things that we have to be aware of," said Karl Malone of the Jazz, who themselves are busy trying to overcome the 1-game advantage that NBA-leader San Antonio holds. "They have great talent, 1-5. Any guy they get out there can score 30 or 40 points on you, so we have to be ready to play."

Malone, it can be only be assumed, does not count Eisley among that aforementioned group.

Earlier this season, the Mailman took a backhanded slap at his ex-teammate: In the course of praising current Stockton backup Jacque Vaughn, he suggested the Jazz do not exactly miss Eisley.

The Mavs, however, seem happy to have him.

"I'm a Howard supporter," Nash said. "He's a veteran player, and he's played in big games, and he's made really big shots for us this year.

"We have a relatively young team," Nash added, "and everyone gets along really well and has a lot of fun, and Howard's fit right in."

Wherever Dallas needs him. Except the 1 spot where he did not start in Utah, either.