OAKLAND, Calif. -- Maybe the hole high up in the wall across from the visitors locker room at Oracle Arena gives the Dallas Mavericks a little hope.
If nothing else, it's a painful reminder for long-time members of the Mavs' organization that a historic regular season provides no guarantee of playoff success.
That hole was created by Dirk Nowitzki flinging a trash can while venting his frustration after the 67-win Mavs were eliminated by the eighth-seeded Golden State Warriors in the first round of the 2007 playoffs. Years later, Nowitzki signed the piece of plexiglass that covers the hole, which has a bright yellow "We Believe" Warriors T-shirt hung right above it.
"They did it to us, so hey, you never know," said Mavs guard J.J. Barea, a rookie towel-waver on that 2006-07 Dallas team who scored 21 points as a fill-in starter in Friday's 128-120 loss to the Warriors. "We could do it to them."
If the playoffs started now, the Mavs would have the opportunity to trump the "We Believe" bunch for the biggest postseason upset in NBA history.
The short-handed Mavs put up a fight Friday night, but they fell two games below .500 at 35-37, even with the Utah Jazz for eighth in the West standings. The Warriors (65-7) extended their home winning streak to an NBA-record 52 games and took another step toward the all-time mark for wins in a season despite a defensive effort that caused some grumbling in the Golden State locker room.
Those Warriors in '07 had good reason to believe they could beat the Mavs. Golden State swept the season series, including a blowout in the final week when coach Avery Johnson foolishly rested his stars instead of attempting to prevent the Warriors from making the playoffs. It also helped that Golden State had Don Nelson, who knew all the deep secrets about Dirk's game, scheming to stop his former prodigy.
These Mavs, who have a coach in Rick Carlisle whose schematic sorcery pushed the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs to seven games in the first round a couple of seasons ago, can convince themselves that they can compete with the best team in basketball. Dallas players point to their Dec. 30 rout of the Warriors without focusing too much on the minor detail that reigning MVP Stephen Curry sat out that game. And the Mavs' two meetings with the Warriors this month were close well into the fourth quarter.
"We've definitely proven we can play with them," guard Raymond Felton said after scoring 17 points. "We've proven we can beat them. ... If that happens that we play them in the first round, it's going to be a battle, that's for sure."
There's no such thing as a moral victory for a team that's fighting for its playoff life. However, the Mavs hopped on their bus for the drive to Sacramento with their heads held high after somehow making it a one-possession game with a few minutes remaining despite Nowitzki and Deron Williams wearing warmups and watching from the bench, and Chandler Parsons viewing from home hours after undergoing season-ending knee surgery.
"If we're at full strength, I think we have the firepower to put up a fight," said center/forward David Lee, sporting the championship ring he received in a pregame ceremony before putting up 12 points, 9 rebounds and 6 assists in his Bay Area return. "They would obviously be the heavy favorites, and they'll be the heavy favorites against anybody they play not named the San Antonio Spurs."
One minor problem for the Mavs: They'd have to figure out a way to stop the Splash Brothers, who have combined to average 71.5 points in the Warriors' two wins over Dallas in the last week.
Thompson had a terrible performance in Golden State's December loss in Dallas. Since then, he has torched the Mavs for three of his highest-scoring games of the season, putting up 45, 40 and 39 points.
Curry was a triple-double threat in the last two meetings with the Mavs, following up a 31-9-10 line with a 33-8-8 night.
And the best-shooting backcourt in league history was the primary reason the Warriors, who broke the NBA record for most 3-pointers made in a season, swished a total of 43 treys in those two wins.
No wonder Carlisle would much rather focus on the task at hand than worrying about how the Mavs might fare against the Warriors in the first round.
"You don't think about who you're gonna play," Carlisle said. "You've got to get to the playoffs. It's important to get to the playoffs. We've got to work to get there, and once we get there, we'll prepare for whoever it is. We've shown that we can compete with everybody in the league. The important thing now is getting there."
If the Mavs make it, their reward very well could be a chance to repay the Warriors, as slim as their odds would be.