Before Friday’s playoff game between the Dallas Mavericks and Los Angeles Clippers, Dallas mayor Eric Johnson discussed how difficult the past 14 months have been on everyone because of the coronavirus pandemic.

He also expressed the joy he has because the Mavs have brought playoff basketball back to Dallas. But nothing got Johnson more excited than the free Johnson & Johnson vaccines he and the Mavericks were able to give out Friday night on Victory Plaza to anyone who wanted one.

“I’m excited about the Mavericks and about the Mavericks doing well,” Johnson said. “It’s great to see them playing so well, playing together, playing unselfishly. But what I’m really excited about is that we’re starting to get back to normal.”

Johnson looked around and saw legions of people preparing to file inside American Airlines Center. To him, it was almost like a step back in time when life was so simple.

“This feels like life as we used to know it,” Johnson said. “We’re getting together in a big group like this with our friends and cheering on our team and just being able to get back out.

“The weather’s great. It’s just great to see people. But that’s what the vaccine will allow us to do, and more of it and faster, so that’s why I’m encouraging everyone to get vaccinated.”

Mavs CEO Cynt Marshall also is encouraging everyone to get vaccinated. But she wasn’t sure how many folks were vaccinated on Victory Plaza on Friday.

“But I know two people who got vaccinated — my oldest son and his fiancé,” Marshall said. “Most of us in our family are vaccinated, but they live in Houston and they came up for the game and so they said we’re going get the vaccine because it’s just the right thing to do.”

And not only are the Mavs – in conjunction with the city of Dallas – offering free vaccinations prior to Games 3 and 4 of the Mavs-Clippers series. The Mavs are also offering fans  chance to  upgrade their Mavs’ gear at a very low, low price.

Several tables will be set up at the Mavs’ headquarters at 1333 North Stemmons Freeway from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. on Saturday with everyone having an opportunity to purchase numerous Mavs merchandise at an outlandishly low discount.

“We have vaccinations being administered, so we’re helping to keep people safe, and they don’t even have to go to the game to get a vaccine, and it’s free,” Marshall said. “We’re going to do the same thing Sunday.

“And then (Saturday) we’re having a big merchandise sale, where we’re going to take a lot of our inventory and deeply, deeply, deeply discount it over in our headquarters and have people come over there and we’re going to do vaccines again.”

Marshall said owner Mark Cuban came up with the idea of offering Mavs merchandise at a very steep discount.

“He said, ‘We’ve got all this merchandise,’ “ Marshall said. “ ‘Let the fans come and have these deep discounts and just kind of upgrade their Mavs wardrobe and it won’t cost them hardly a thing.’

“It’s just our way to say thank you. It’s fan appreciation, and we’re out here to appreciate the fans.”

Over 17,000 folks made their way inside American Airlines Center for Friday’s game. It was the largest crowd to attend an NBA game since the league shut down on March 11, 2020 due to COVID-19 after the Mavs finished plying the Denver Nuggets.

Johnson, meanwhile, is holding out hope that the Mavs can go ahead and eliminate the Clippers and advance to the second round of the playoffs for the first time since they won the 2011 NBA championship.

“I’m hoping that they’ll just keep it going, and it gives the city a lot to be excited about,” Johnson said. “I haven’t been to a game in a while, but I’m out here tonight, I want to cheer them on and I want our city to know that we’re coming back. But we need everybody to get vaccinated.

“We’re going to wear a mask inside during the game, we’re going to continue to be smart about this. But what folks really need to focus on is if you aren’t vaccinated, get fully vaccinated. And when it comes to the Johnson and Johnson vaccine, it’s just one shot and we’ll be able to do stuff like this more often and we’ll be able to do it without even a mask to do it if we can get everybody vaccinated.”

The season and mental health: With the games coming so fast and furious during this truncated 72-game season, there’s a tendency to forget about the importance of the player’s mental health.

Especially since they weren’t even allowed to visit family or friends on road rips because of the fear of contracting the coronavirus.

“We have a very strong mental health staff, and we have additional resources available,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “We make sure our guys know they’re available on a confidential basis. I believe most teams in the league have these kinds of resources.”

Don Kalkstein is the Mavs’ director of sports psychology and is the person the players go to for guidance, for a sounding board, or just to talk out their feelings or frustrations. And in a season where confusion can reign supreme because of the ramifications of COVID-19, the Mavs know it’s always good for a team to have a person like Kalkstein available.

“This season has been different,” Carlisle said. “In some ways more difficult, in some ways a lot better than the bubble. You’re able to be home for longer stretches. Conversely, you probably get a little longer on the road.

“It’s 72 games instead of 82, so that probably means a positive. I believe both situations have been very challenging to manage on so many levels, starting with family. On the other side, it’s been an amazing job by the league to get through the re-start last summer and get through the 72 games…and now the playoffs.”

Abdul-Jabbar Award: In honor of the NBA’s all-time leading scorer — Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — and the tireless work he does as an advocate of social justice, earlier this month the NBA created the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Social Justice Champion.

The winner of the award will be announced during the playoffs and will receive $100,000 from the NBA for him to donate to an organization of his liking. An additional four finalists will receive $25,000 apiece.

So who would coach Rick Carlisle nominate from the Mavs’ roster for this inaugural award?

“On our team I would probably say Dwight Powell would be the guy that comes to mind because of his activism,” Carlisle said. “He’s been very socially active. He’s a guy who’s pretty high up in the leadership of the players association. He’s very aware of situations. He worked with myself, (assistant coaches) Jamahl Mosley, Stephen Silas last year for coaches for social justice.

“He was involved with meetings with the mayor and city manager and police chief here in Dallas that helped us upgrade some policing protocols. He’s a guy that’s always there, not only willing, but very willing and enthusiastic in doing anything he can possibly do with not just social justice, but fundraising and helping out within the community. I would say our whole team has taken a strong interest, particularly since the experience in the bubble. But if I had to choose one guy, he would be the guy that stands out.”

Twitter: @DwainPrice

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