DALLAS -- Finally on the playoff stage with a team that has a fighting chance, Monta Ellis is making the most of the opportunity after all those miserable years.
But Ellis, a man who has admitted that the waves of criticism of his game fueled his fire, wasn’t about to boast after by far his best playoff performance. He didn’t see his career playoff-high 29-point performance in the Dallas Mavericks' sensational 109-108 Game 3 victory over the San Antonio Spurs on Saturday as the time for told-you-so talk.
His billionaire boss sure did.
"Boy, Monta has really made everybody look smart that said it was a dumb signing," Mavs owner Mark Cuban said, sarcasm dripping with the beads of sweat after the wild celebration at the American Airlines Center set off by Vince Carter’s game-winning buzzer-beater. "He was just the worst signing of the summer. You know, he’s just not efficient in the playoffs, not efficient in the regular season.
"Monta was great."
There’s no doubt that Ellis -- whose three-year, $25 million deal looks like a better bargain by the week -- was spectacular Saturday afternoon, when he was 12-of-22 from the floor and saved his best for crunch time. He scored 12 points on 5-of-5 scoring in the fourth quarter, with five of those buckets coming in the final 6 minutes, 35 seconds.
"The thing was he stayed aggressive, but he had great patience as well," coach Rick Carlisle said. "We really needed him to step up at the end. Those were all huge plays."
Every one of those late buckets was clutch, each one a little bit bigger than the one that preceded it.
Ellis’ crunch-time scoring spree started with a 3-pointer with 6:35 remaining to give the Mavs a one-point lead. He bumped that lead to three with a 19-foot pull-up the next possession. With the Spurs up three, Ellis knocked down another long 2 with 1:37 to go. He followed that with an and-1 driving floater, tying the game with the free throw. He finished the flurry with a driving hook shot to tie the score again with 24.9 seconds remaining, setting up the crazy finish with sixth men Manu Ginobili and Carter trading go-ahead buckets in the final two ticks.
"Man, I just go out there and play basketball like I’ve been doing the whole season," said Ellis, who led the Mavs with 21 points in Wednesday's Game 2 win. "I’ve got a great group of guys who believe in me, who’s been backing me. We’re all tied into this thing. With the points, it may look like it’s me, but it was a total team effort."
Ellis is playing with the poise of a playoff veteran, not a guy who entered the series with a grand total of 15 games of postseason experience entering this series. These are the kind of moments he craved when he decided to leave millions on the table to escape Milwaukee last summer, when he declined an $11 million player option in his deal and turned down a three-year, $36 million deal from the Bucks.
Ellis was just a pup during the only playoff series win of his nine-year career, a 21-year-old role player on the "We Believe" Golden State Warriors, who pulled off the 8-over-1 upset against the 67-win Mavs. He didn’t get another taste of the postseason again until last season, and that was about as bitter as could be, with the sub-.500 Bucks getting swept in the first round.
A man mocked for his inefficiency toward the end of his Golden State tenure, and especially during his season-and-a-half stint in Milwaukee, Ellis took great pride in proving he could be a winning piece with the Mavs, establishing himself as an electrifying scoring sidekick for Dirk Nowitzki.
Ellis averaged 19.0 points on 45.1 percent shooting and 5.7 assists this season, playing a crucial role in getting the Mavs back in the playoffs after a one-year hiatus. That hushed most of his critics, but the vast majority of NBA observers still doubted Dallas had a chance in this series against the team with the league's best record.
Now, the Mavs have a 2-1 lead over the West’s top seed, in large part because of Ellis rising to the moment, much as he did on many occasions throughout the regular season.
Never mind vengeance. Ellis is too focused on victories.
“A lot of guys took a lot of criticism with this team, so I think we put it on our back to prove everybody wrong," Ellis said. "Now, we’re on this stage. We’re all on the same page. We’re playing as a team, and we’re winning. Once you win, everything else goes out the window."