"Now, we haven't won the championship," Dallas Mavericks coach Avery Johnson said after his team stunned the San Antonio Spurs with a 119-111 overtime win in Game 7 Monday night. "But how about those Mavs?"
How about those Mavs? They won a Game 7 thriller on the road, something that had only been done 17 times in 94 tries in the history of the NBA. It would be 18 for 96 by the end of the evening as the Phoenix Suns throttled the Los Angeles Clippers 127-107 in the other Western Conference Game 7 in Phoenix.
And how about the Mavs doing it against their nemeses and in-state rivals, the Spurs, the defending champions and about the last team in the league you'd expect to join that select list of Game 7 home losers.
And how about the guy who almost single-handedly willed the Mavs to victory when it looked like they would let another huge playoff game slip away: Dirk Nowitzki.
The guy I keep saying I don't want on my team when the chips are down in the playoffs. Well, on Monday night, the chips were down. They were way down. They were so down it looked like up. They were subterranean. They were praying to a cobalt bomb, telling Jimmy Hoffa to shove over.
And Nowitzki, who was brilliant all night, finishing with 37 points on 11-of-20 shooting and 15-of-16 from the line, plus 15 rebounds, was the man.
The Spurs had slowly overcome a lead that at one point grew to 20 points. It was a fool's-gold lead, built on white-hot shooting, but it was still a 20-point lead.
San Antonio tied the game for the first time with 1:07 left in the fourth quarter and took its first lead with 32 seconds left when Manu Ginobili hit a three-pointer following a Nowitzki miss of his favorite shot, from the right elbow, with Bruce Bowen all over him.
With the Spurs outscoring them 26-17 in the fourth quarter and the crowd going crazy, it looked like the Mavs were on their way to another crushing playoff defeat.
That's when Nowitzki took over.
After a timeout, Nowitzki drove hard to the rim against Bowen, a fierce defender. He didn't settle for a contested jumper, as he had the previous trip down the floor. He didn't launch a crazy, brain-cramp shot in defiance of better options, as he had at the end of Game 6.
He put his head down and drove hard. He fought through Bowen, ignored a foul by Ginobili sweeping past and trying to block the shot from behind -- a boneheaded move that would leave Spurs coach Gregg Popovich shaking his head with a sad smile on his face in an already oft-repeated clip from the postgame press conference -- and dunked with 21 seconds left.
And one. A monster of a play. The play of the season so far. Nowitzki hit the free throw for 104-104 and the Spurs called timeout.
The Mavs' problem: How would they stop Duncan, Ginobili and Tony Parker on the last possession? With Erick Dampier fouled out, they seemed to have no one who could guard Duncan, though DeSagana Diop could at least put a big body on him. Johnson had been reluctant to use Diop, but he was in there now.
Parker, however, was not. An odd call by Popovich, to put his shooters in with Duncan and sit Parker, as effective as any guard in the league at getting inside and scoring. The shooters were Ginobili, Robert Horry, Michael Finley and Brent Barry.
Aside from his wildly inflated postseason reputation, how Horry, 1-for-2 on the night, 4-for-16 in the series and 38.4 percent on the year, was a shooter escaped me, but it turned out he was in there to set screens. The play was for Ginobili to dribble the clock down and drive the lane.
I don't mean to second-guess Popovich, a great coach, twice on one play. And hardly anyone not named Charles Barkley enjoys watching Ginobili -- when he's not flopping -- more than I do. But leaving Parker aside: Hello? Tim Duncan? Yeah, he's a lousy free-throw shooter if they foul him, but he'd been shooting them well, and he really only needed to make one.
Ginobili dribbled the clock down and drove the lane. He missed. Duncan got the rebound and tried to put it back for the win but it was blocked from behind.
By Nowitzki. Play of the season, the sequel.
The Mavs won in overtime with Diop playing solid defense on Duncan, including forcing a travel when he pulled the chair in the low post, stepping away as Duncan leaned back on him, causing Duncan to stumble with the ball. Jason Terry and Jerry Stackhouse also made big plays.
Nowitzki found a cutting Josh Howard for the Mavs' first bucket, then later drove the baseline to start a series of swing passes that ended up with a Stackhouse jumper, and he got a big rebound on a Duncan miss with 48 seconds left and Dallas up by four.
This is the guy I've said many times that a team couldn't win a championship with as their go-to guy. He certainly looked like a championship guy Monday night, but he's often looked like a championship guy in this game or that one, even in playoff games, though Dallas hasn't played a playoff game quite this big.
He's a hell of a player.
But Avery Johnson said it best. The Mavs haven't won a championship yet. They pulled off a huge victory, but it's only a second-round victory. The Suns, winners of the anticlimactic nightcap and a dangerous team with an even higher-octane approach than Dallas', await in the conference finals. And then the Detroit Pistons or Miami Heat after that.
The wins get harder to come by as the days get longer, and while Nowitzki's making me munch on a few words, he's a long way from proving me wrong. But if he keeps playing like he did Monday, he'll prove me wrong, you bet.
If he does he'll join a club that's no less distinguished for being overcrowded. I'll welcome him to it.
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He's so great he ... never mind [PERMALINK]
I'm not the only one. In a funny moment Monday, TNT analyst Steve Kerr had to eat his words before he even finished getting them out of his mouth. He was talking about veteran Dallas guard Darrell Armstrong, who had checked into the game and was guarding Tony Parker of the Spurs.
"I like the fact that Avery Johnson is playing Darrell Armstrong here tonight," Kerr told partner Marv Albert. "It's a Game 7, you want veteran guys out there, and he's a terrific defender -- as Parker goes right by him!
"Nice timing," Albert deadpanned as the Mavericks took the ball out of the net.
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What's the score, TNT?! [PERMALINK]
ESPN and ABC have the Miami-Detroit series, but the Western Conference finals between Dallas and Phoenix are on TNT, meaning the network has at most seven games to fix something important before returning to nonstop reruns of "Law & Order" and "Charmed."
Whenever someone scores, it takes four seconds for the score bug in the lower right corner of the screen to register the change. When the Suns are playing, this often means the ensuing possession is already in the frontcourt.
Why should this take so long? Ball goes through the rim, hit the button.
In the time it takes for the viewer's eye to travel from the rim to the score bug, the score should already have changed. Otherwise, it's confusing. Your eye darts over: OK, it's 48-44. Then you watch Steve Nash race upcourt with the ball and something catches your eye back in the score bug. Wait, it's 48-46.
Annoying. Fix that, TNT.
Previous column: Pistons hammer Cavs
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