By Michael Wilbon
Thursday, May 3, 2007
It's the best insomniac theater imaginable, except there's no way to sleep for at least an hour after the final buzzer because of the insanity of it all, the exhilaration, the melodrama, the twists and turns of various subplots that keep your mind racing. Mavericks vs. Warriors starts at 10 or 10:30 p.m. in the East, ends sometime around 1 o'clock in the morning and it's completely riveting, basketball at its thrilling best. The other playoff series -- even Lakers vs. Suns featuring Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash -- is the shrimp cocktail.
Mavericks vs. Warriors is the main course, as must-see as basketball could possibly be. It's Coastal Carolina threatening Duke not just once in single elimination, but throughout a best-of-seven series.
In the NBA, the superior team wins, period. But here we have a team coming off the sixth-best regular season record in NBA history, the Dallas Mavericks, on the brink of elimination, compliments of the rag-tag Golden State Warriors, the weakest playoff team in the Western Conference. The Mavericks, finalists last year, entered the playoffs as the presumptive champs, a team with balance and depth and most everything a basketball team should be. The Warriors, with a bunch of 6-foot-6 shooters who violate everything coaches teach from junior high on, seem to be making it up as they go. It's like the 1965 Celtics playing a team of "And 1" all-stars.
Wrapped around this central conflict is one incestuous subplot after another that has produced the perfect basketball storm. Game 6 is 10:30 tonight, and it's worth grabbing a nap to stay up and watch. A Golden State win eliminates top-seeded Dallas. A Mavericks win sends the whole soap opera back to Dallas for a Saturday Game 7, which might be too much to bear.
You have the Warriors coach, Don Nelson, going against his son, Donn, who runs the basketball operation for the Mavericks and sat at his father's knee for years.
You have Nelson going against Mavericks Coach Avery Johnson, whom Nellie loves like a son. Johnson is the Mavericks' coach because Nellie made it so on his way out the door two years ago.
You have Nelson coaching against a roster he was largely responsible for putting together.
And you have Nelson going against his former boss and friend Mark Cuban in what has become an openly contentious confrontation.
Nellie says Cuban owes him $6.6 million in deferred compensation. Cuban says he doesn't owe Nelson jack because Nellie walked out on the team. And if that isn't enough, Cuban said before Game 5 in Dallas on Tuesday night that Nelson needs to coach an underdog team because he can't handle the pressure of coaching a team with expectations. True enough, Nellie has coached 28 years and been credited widely as being something of a mad genius, but has never led a team to the NBA Finals.
"Some people are afraid to lose," Cuban told reporters. "You can't be afraid to lose if you're going to be a winner. . . . You've got to go for it and I don't think Nellie's got that attitude. . . . That's one of the areas where we didn't get along. That was a conflict. That was a big conflict."
In other words, this stuff is personal.
The Mavericks won 67 games in the regular season but not a single one over the Warriors, who have suddenly become an irresistible story. Nelson came back to coach for one of his former players, Chris Mullin, in what seemed to many like the wrong move. But Nellie could always coach "small ball" and late in the season (the Warriors were 9-1 to close and get into the playoffs) started to get magic from Baron Davis, Jason Richardson, bad boy Stephen Jackson, Al Harrington and a pint-size marvel named Monta Ellis, who was voted the league's most improved player. The most significant player coming off the bench is UCLA product Matt Barnes, who looks like a cross between Mike Tyson and Courtney Love. His fair skin is covered in tattoos, he sometimes has a Mohawk, and five years ago Barnes was Urkel in basketball shoes. Andris Biedrins, a 6-11 kid from Latvia, hits the bottom of the rim routinely on his free throws.
The Warriors make ridiculous turnovers, take bad shots, commit silly fouls, let opposing players walk right in for layups . . . and then they'll have a 10-minute stretch of hitting three-pointers, connecting on those 30-foot, behind-the-back, no-look bounce passes and stealing the other team blind. Suddenly, instead of being up 21, you're down nine and facing elimination, as the Mavericks were in Game 5 in Dallas. The series is the talk of every locker room. It's not possible, players feel, for the Warriors to beat Dallas playing this way -- but it's happening.
It's far from the best basketball we've ever seen, but it's hard to imagine better entertainment.
In the Warriors' Game 2 loss in Dallas, Davis and Jackson were both tossed. In the Game 5 loss, Jackson was tossed again. His own team fined him both times. Cuban sits near courtside looking like a condemned man down to his last meal. And the series has turned into a referendum on Dirk Nowitzki, the probable MVP, who in Golden State's Game 4 victory (to take a 3-1 series lead) looked like he was drowning in the pressure. Nowitzki was making so many excuses his coach, Avery Johnson, essentially told his star to shut up and play. He demanded Nowitzki stop with the whining and Nowitzki, with Dallas down nine and being counted out in Game 5, came up with the two three-pointers and a blocked shot that confirmed his status as a superstar -- for that night.
But now the series moves back to Oakland for Game 6. Warriors fans seem like Raiders fans who've traded their silver and black for yellow-orange and blue. They stand most of the game. Their noise drowns out the announcer and the referees' whistles. They hadn't had NBA playoff games in 13 years, so they have created a pit in which Dallas has appeared completely discombobulated in two losses this series.
Perhaps the Game 5 victory was perfect for the Mavericks' fragile playoff psyche, though the Warriors don't seem to care about anything.
Nellie said publicly, after his team won Game 1 in Dallas, that his team had a better chance of being hit by lightning than winning Game 2. Okay, the Warriors lost Game 2, but won Games 3 and 4 to set up this bizarre drama that has no equal in the NBA, certainly not now and perhaps not ever. If you're going to watch only one game of the interminable NBA playoffs between now and late June, stay up and watch Game 6 from Golden State, because it has taken basketball to a giddy place few imagined.