DALLAS -- Is this series seriously headed back to San Antonio for a Game 7?
Didn’t believe the Mavs could make this a competitive series, huh? Hey, no hard feelings.
“Well, I can’t really blame any of the so-called experts, you know?” Mavs star Dirk Nowitzki said after scoring 22 points in the Game 6 win that extended Dallas’ season at least two days and pushed San Antonio to the brink of becoming the first franchise to be eliminated twice in the first round as a top seed. “We looked terrible against them the last couple of years, and they had our number. Who would have thought that’s going to change in the playoffs?”
Believe it or not, the Dallas Mavericks indeed have positioned themselves to pull off arguably the biggest playoff upset in NBA history.
Sure, there have been 8-over-1 upsets with much more lopsided regular-season victory margins between the teams, leading with the “We Believe” Golden State Warriors knocking off the 67-win Mavs in 2007. But the Warriors gave the Mavs fits in that regular season. The 1994 Denver Nuggets at least split their series with the Seattle SuperSonics. The 2011 San Antonio Spurs and 2012 Chicago Bulls had wounded stars when they were top seeds to exit in the first round. And the 1999 New York Knicks-Miami Heat series might as well have an asterisk, considering it came after a wacky 50-game lockout campaign.
But these Mavs beating a healthy Spurs squad that cruised to the best record in the NBA? Only those on Mark Cuban’s payroll or those who bleed Mavs blue could have possibly imagined this coming.
After all, it felt silly to still call this an Interstate 35 rivalry, considering how routinely the Spurs routed the Mavs during the nine-game winning streak San Antonio had over Dallas entering the series.
However, that feels like ancient history now. It’s irrelevant after the Mavs rallied to beat the best closing team in basketball Friday night, pulling off a 113-111 victory at the American Airlines Center after a Monta Ellis-fueled comeback in the fourth quarter.
The Mavs provided some pretty strong hints about the drama to come in this series by splitting the first two games of the series in San Antonio, blowing a double-digit lead late in Game 1 and bouncing back to blow out the Spurs in Game 2. The Mavs made it clear that this series was going to at least be competitive by pulling off a miraculous Game 3 win when sixth man Vince Carter hit a buzzer-beating 3 from the corner.
After the Spurs responded by winning the next two games, nobody would have looked down on the Mavs if they bowed out Friday night. They’d put up a more than respectable fight against the team with the NBA’s best record.
It seemed almost certain that Dallas’ season was destined to end when the Spurs took a five-point lead into the fourth quarter and stretched it to seven just seconds later. The Spurs had gone 55-1 in games they led entering the final frame this season.
Make that 55-2. And get ready for Game 7 on Sunday in San Antonio, a contest the Mavs are confident they can win.
“Why not us?” Mavs owner Cuban said, repeating the mantra Carter hollered in the locker room after the emotional win. “Why not us?”
The Mavs have too much pride to be proud about just pushing the mighty Spurs to seven games.
“We’ve always made this about winning the series,” said coach Rick Carlisle, who has resorted to all sorts of unconventional defensive schemes to deal with all the mismatches the Spurs present the Mavs. “Look, we don’t give in to lower standards. That’s just not how I’m put together and that’s not how our organization is. Guys have competed well, but we’re not there yet.”
Nowitzki and Shawn Marion might be the only players remaining from the 2011 title roster, but the rest of the Mavs’ veterans came to Dallas because they believed this franchise could contend for another title.
That didn’t change because the Mavs had to fight to get to 49 wins and claim the West’s final playoff spot. The Mavs have convinced themselves that battle for a berth has given them an edge, giving them weeks of experience in high-stakes games.
No doubt that it’s a heck of a lot better than getting a mid-April vacation, as the Mavs did last season when their temp-filled team snapped Dallas’ dozen-year postseason streak.
“You could say, ‘Who wants to go in the playoffs as an eighth seed?’” Nowitzki said. “But you’re one of 16 teams that’s got a shot at it. That’s how you have to look at it when you’re trying to get in. And it’s fun to be on the big stage against the best team in the regular season. It’s the competition we’ve got to embrace.”
The Mavs have earned the right to be part of the “the ultimate competition,” as Nowitzki calls Game 7s.
The Mavs gave themselves that opportunity by having Ellis explode for 12 of his 29 points in the final five minutes Friday night. Dallas did it by having third-string center DeJuan Blair come roaring back from his Game 5 suspension with a 10-point, 14-rebound, four-steal, hair-on-fire kind of effort.
They did it by playing some of their best defense of the season in this series. They did it by having their top eight players take turns playing a starring role at some point in a series that will last three games longer than a lot of those so-called experts anticipated.
And the Mavs aren’t done yet.
“Let’s go out there and shock the world,” Carter said. “Let’s go out there and show that we can compete with the best team.”
Nobody can question whether the Mavs can compete with the Spurs. Satisfaction won’t come unless they win Game 7.
At this point, would that stun anybody?