SAN ANTONIO -- The coach had nine healthy players, only eight of which he really used. He had Walt Williams or Eduardo Najera playing center for long stretches. He also had no clean shirt and tie, no socks and no fresh underwear, because he forgot to pack all that in the scramble to hold his team together on the brink of elimination.
"At least I had the pair I wore down here," Don Nelson said, referring not to his socks.
"I just turned them inside out."
Nelson wasn't referring to the Western Conference finals, either, but the statement applied to everything Tuesday night. A series destined to be finished off in Game 5, when the San Antonio Spurs seized a 19-point lead, has U-turned spectacularly, after what Nelson and the Dallas Mavericks did without the injured Dirk Nowitzki, who sat out again with a medial retinacular knee sprain.
Basically, the softies did it again. The softies staved off elimination and gave Nowitzki an opportunity -- bet big on him to play Thursday -- to make his own heroic comeback in Game 6. In the sort of grinding playoff setting where they supposedly don't belong, this team of allegedly lightweight jump-shooters -- this time minus their best player -- wiped out the big deficit, held the Spurs to 10 fourth-quarter points, finished with more rebounds than the longer, stronger hosts and hiked the series back to Dallas.
"It's hilarious," said Mavericks guard Steve Nash, chuckling at the idea of hushing naysayers yet again in these playoffs. "What can I say? We're a tough team to beat."
The hilarity would not have been possible, of course, if the Spurs didn't author one of their trademark collapses. San Antonio lost two games in the Phoenix series this way, nearly blew a 25-point lead over the Lakers in Game 5 at home and sank even lower here, one half away from a berth in the NBA Finals. The Spurs blew all of their big lead, missed 14 free throws to zero misses for Dallas and couldn't even outscore Nick Van Exel in the fourth quarter.
Yet it wasn't strictly a choke job. The Mavericks' role in turning this game inside out can't be dismissed, because they did it with defense more than their offense for once. Dallas' fast-collapsing zone limited Tim Duncan to two shots in the fourth quarter, while his teammates were a finishing kick of 2-for-15.
"That'd be unfortunate if it's only going to be written that they choked, because we did some really good things out there," said Dallas swingman Raja Bell.
Said Van Exel: "I see Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith on TV, and it's all right to have your opinion and say we don't play any defense, but say something about the some of the good things we do. We do do some good things."
Finding a way to win, on this night, ranks with anything they've achieved, including the Mavericks' Game 7 victories over Portland and Sacramento. At halftime, Dallas was shooting 34 percent from the field to San Antonio's 61 percent. Yet somehow San Antonio's 19-point lead got sliced to 11, when Nelson said "we should have been down 25."
Michael Finley's 15-point third quarter kept the Mavericks from slipping further back and then came the second Dallas road rally in this series, this one with only seven free throws in the fourth quarter compared to 20 in Game 1. In Nelson's best move -- of greater impact that the intentional fouling of Bruce Bowen late in the first half to break the Spurs' rhythm -- he managed to come up with lineups that kept Dallas in the game while also getting Finley and Nash some quality rest time before the stretch run.
At the finish, Dallas suddenly looked a bit like Phoenix in the first round, blanketing Duncan with multiple defenders and rotating out quickly to the open shooters. Nelson had suggested before the game that the Mavericks couldn't match the Suns' defensive effectiveness against Duncan because the Suns were accustomed to that strategy and because the Mavericks had been forced into it on the fly with Nowitzki out.
The softies learn fast, apparently.
"They've labeled us all soft," Bell said. "This is the perfect stage for us to really show some of those people they're mistaken. Yeah, we shoot a lot of jump shots, but we got to the cup a lot today. A lot of the things people say we couldn't do helped us win the ballgame."
Working through considerable fatigue was another. Van Exel didn't celebrate a single point in the fourth quarter with his usual chest-pounding, mainly because he was too tired. At one stage, after a huge basket in the 18-4 run that clinched the victory, Van Exel trudged back to the bench with his left hand resting on his aching side.
Nowitzki's likely return, and the adrenaline from their new life, should give the Mavericks the juice to get through Game 6. You expect them to force a seventh game now, mainly because you expect them to win at least one home game this series.
After two comebacks in Alamo Country?
After this declaration of manhood?
"I think our best win," Van Exel said, "is still yet to come."