1. Spurs Advance, Leaving Mavs To Ponder
SAN ANTONIO -- The realization hit Dirk Nowitzki in midsentence late Thursday night. It hit him just as he was explaining again that he hasn't deeply pondered his future, doesn't yet know whether he wants to become a free agent on July 1 and isn't any clearer about the possibility of hashing out a contract extension before he even gets to free agency.
"I guess I've got some time now to think about some stuff," Nowitzki lamented.
Dirk and his Dallas Mavericks have more unwanted time to think than they ever imagined. The team that made the splashiest trade of the season has crashed out of the playoffs, ushered to an early vacation by the surging San Antonio Spurs in the very first round.
With a considerable edge in continuity, stifling team D that coerced Dallas into its worst start in a series of slow starts, and more clutchness from the fast-emerging George Hill, San Antonio inflicted another dose of springtime suffering on the long-tortured Mavs. The Spurs jumped to a stunningly lopsided lead in Game 6 Thursday night, squandered it all, and then still had plenty left to pull away for a 97-87 triumph to eliminate the West's No. 2-seeded Mavs, giving Tim Duncan three full days of rest before a second-round reunion with Phoenix.
The unexplained forces that consistently lift Spurs versus Mavs to the highest grade of basketball theatre were at work again at the AT&T Center, rescuing this clincher after San Antonio surged to an embarrassing 22-8 lead in the first quarter that eventually ballooned to 22 points later in the first half. The best Dallas could ultimately say, though, is that it didn't roll all the way over against a group unforgettably slammed by Gregg Popovich for playing "like dogs" in Game 1.
Despite briefly snatching the lead in the third quarter and getting as close as 80-78 in the fourth, Nowitzki's Mavericks have been ousted for the fifth time in seven playoff series since winning an epic Game 7 in overtime on this same floor in 2006. It's also the third first-round exit in that span, which isn't going to be any easier to stomach no matter how many times someone points out that San Antonio isn't your basic No. 7 seed -- with its nearly $80 million payroll and the increasingly clutch Hill (who scored 10 of his 21 points in the fourth quarter) giving new life to the title-tested trio of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.
Mavs owner Mark Cuban didn't trade for Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood in February, taking on millions in extra salary and luxury tax in the process, to make such a swift return to the early playoff misery inflicted by Golden State in 2007. Dallas became the first No. 1 seed in league history to lose a best-of-seven series in the first round that year ... and just became the first No. 2 to lose in Round 1 since the NBA went to a best-of-seven format in 2003.
"We're a failure," Mavericks guard Jason Terry said. "We failed. There's no other word but failure. That's how we feel right now."
Cuban himself acknowledged after the Mavs' Game 1 triumph that the F word -- yes, failure -- was going to be the reaction all over town and all over the league "if we don't win a championship." He went on to insist that no decisions, about the future of Mavs coach Rick Carlisle or further changes to the roster, would be "based off this series," but the decisions don't solely rest with Cuban this offseason.
Nowitzki has until the end of June to choose whether to sample the open market and unexpectedly join the most anticipated free-agent class in league history. Most rival teams haven't even considered the possibility that the 31-year-old could be part of that class -- since Nowitzki has stated repeatedly that he wants to retire in Dallas and that winning a championship anywhere else wouldn't mean nearly as much -- but there was no new Mav-for-life talk after this latest playoff disappointment.
"I wanted to obviously have a long playoff run and go for my [championship] dream again," Nowitzki said after overcoming four first-half fouls -- two of which he picked up on foolish swipes out of frustration at Hill -- to pump in 25 of his 33 points in the second half.
"Now it's obviously too shocking and too disappointing. I haven't really thought about anything about my future yet. We'll just have to wait and see. Like I said, everything is too fresh now."
The Mavericks' hope, according to team sources, has always been signing Nowitzki to an extension before the start of free agency and then making a sign-and-trade run at top free agents. Sources say that list, improbable as it seems, starts with Cleveland's LeBron James, based on the idea that a locked-up Nowitzki would be among the major selling points to lure a big name, along with Cuban's free-spending history and -- in James' case -- the promise of playing a few regular-season games in the Dallas Cowboys' palatial new stadium that hosted the NBA's All-Star Game in February.
Convincing any marquee free agent to push for a sign-and-trade to Dallas, however, would seemingly depend on Nowitzki's presence as a sidekick. Yet it remains to be seen how Nowitzki, who comfortably ranked as the best player in this series, copes with another postseason ending that is sure to bring him unjustified criticism, even after he averaged 26.7 points on 54.7 percent shooting.
All franchise players get the blame when their teams fall short of expectations, but it's likewise true that even franchise players need consistent top-flight help, as Kobe Bryant quickly discovered until Pau Gasol arrived in Hollywood. It's easy to single out Nowitzki as the one on-court constant in the Mavericks' run of 10 consecutive 50-win seasons -- and their status as the only franchise of the four to achieve that feat that hasn't won multiple championships -- but the Spurs couldn't have been more relieved that Nowitzki's supporting cast, even post-trade, is still lacking.
"He's ... amazing," one Spur said. "Dirk doesn't deserve the crap he gets."
Said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, after Nowitzki passed Amare Stoudemire (five) and Bryant (four) with his sixth 30-point playoff game in this building, more than any other visiting player: "I hope we never have to play those guys again. I don't even want to play them in the regular season."
Butler (25 points) and rookie fan favorite Rodrigue Beaubois (16) offered some meaningful Game 6 support, with Beaubois keying Dallas' improbable rally from 22 down when he finally got a chance to play. But San Antonio's team schemes and control of the tempo consistently neutralized Jason Terry and Jason Kidd all series, while also shutting down the Mavericks' running game apart from Tuesday's Game 5.
"We've got a great base," Cuban said. "We'll have a chance to work with each other [in training camp before next season]. You could see some of the uneasiness because we haven't had a full season to play together, and that showed a few times, but we'll pull all the pieces together and we'll go at 'em again next year."
Sources with knowledge of the team's thinking told ESPN.com after Dallas fell into a 3-1 hole that a first-round exit would not put coach Rick Carlisle job in jeopardy. Cuban himself insisted before the Mavericks' emphatic victory at home in Game 5 that Carlisle's job wouldn't come under the threat. But dissatisfaction with Carlisle's offense and substitution patterns -- inside and outside the organization -- is only bound to rise after Butler sat out more than half of the fourth quarter and Beaubois watched almost all of it.
Yet it's also true that the Mavs, even after all their wheeling and dealing, starting with the acquisition of Kidd at the trading deadline in 2008, still have holes that would need filling no matter who was coaching. Convinced that the arrivals of Butler and Haywood made them tougher, deeper and capable of playing a variety of styles, Cuban's crew too often found out otherwise against the Spurs, straining to keep up with their old rivals because they had two or three non-scorers on the floor. Which is precisely what happened in Thursday's crunch time to the NBA's oldest team, when Carlisle opted for Terry's veteran savvy over Beaubois' unpredictable youth, only for San Antonio to lock in on Nowitzki with Terry ineffective (two points on 1-for-7 shooting) and Beaubois and Butler on the bench.
"I think he'll come back," Carlisle said of Nowitzki. "I do.
"Dirk was special again. ... He's an amazing player, one of the all-time greats. As much as I'm disappointed for the team and for Mark [Cuban] and for myself, I'm even more disappointed for Dirk, because a lot of this was about trying to get him to a point where he could realize the dream. The window is still open, but this is a tough blow."
2. Can We Really Call Jazz Underdogs?
By Kevin Arnovitz
SALT LAKE CITY -- Where can you find Deron Williams? The Jazz point guard is in the far corner of the gym, slouched on a training table leaning back against the wall. That's his spot, away from the busy flow of the gym. Williams had a reputation of being truculent with the media during his first couple of seasons but now, in his fifth year, he greets the spotlight with a fairly polite tolerance, though he's still a somewhat reluctant participant. More than anything, he's still -- legs stretched out in front of him, head tilted back, a dozen voice recorders in his face. As he's peppered with questions, Williams barely moves from that position.
On the court, it's an entirely different story. Williams never stops moving. He's not hyperkinetic like Steve Nash or Chris Paul. It's a more orderly velocity, a good kind of reactive. Williams rarely lets the defense dictate where he's going, but he uses every piece of information to make snap decisions with an impressive change of speed. Where are the other nine guys on the floor? What does the system demand of my talents at this instant? Can I counter-program and get to the hole off the dribble?
The answer to each of these questions usually produces a foray into the paint, where the Jazz are getting anything they want against Denver thanks to Williams' orchestration of the offense. Williams is averaging 28.2 points and 11.6 assists in the series with a player efficiency rating (PER) of 28.19. He's the first player in NBA history to have five consecutive 20-point, 10-assist games within a single postseason series.
To read the entire column, click here
3. Daily Dime Live Recap
ESPN.com writers and TrueHoop Network bloggers chatted with fans and gave their in-game opinions throughout Thursday's games -- all in Daily Dime Live.
4. Extreme Behavior
Jason Richardson, Suns
J-Rich's 28 points, including five 3-pointers, keyed a 99-90 Game 6 victory over the Blazers. Next up: the Spurs, who sent the last two Suns playoff entries packing.
Jason Terry, Mavs
The JET was in crop-duster mode, scoring two points on 1-for-7 shooting en route to the Mavs' elimination by the Spurs. Worse yet, he took minutes Rodrigue Beaubois could have used.
QUOTE OF THE NIGHT
"As of right now, this season is a failure."
-- Mavs guard Jason Terry (see above)
5. NBA Video Channel
6. Rich Environment
7. The LeBron Watch
Special to ESPN.com
INDEPENDENCE, Ohio -- This summer, LeBron James will go into production on his first feature film, a buddy comedy set in Las Vegas. Even though he's playing himself, he may be brushing up on his acting a tad in preparation.
There's no doubt that James is hurting right now. He's got a bit of a cranky right elbow and that is a rather important joint for a right-handed shooter when it comes to scoring. As for potential doomsday scenarios that are getting cooked up in the wake of his bizarre finish to Game 5 against the Chicago Bulls and Saturday's Game 1 against the rival Boston Celtics, well, that may be a bit scripted.
James played the part on Thursday, making sure to do just light and mostly left-handed shooting in front of the numerous television cameras at Cavs practice. He didn't take part in all of the workout under doctor's orders after an exam Wednesday night diagnosed James with a strain and bone bruise in his elbow.
The team says he'll be ready to play on Saturday.
To read the entire column, click here
8. Chatting With Hollinger
Lawrence (Milwaukee ): What are the chances that the Bucks close out the series at home Friday?
John Hollinger: A little less than 3-in-4 historically; while everyone trots out the 86 percent figure for teams that win Game 5, that's skewed toward the team with home-court advantage; when it's the road team that wins Game 5, they win the series 74 percent of the time. (Late edit: And 63 percent of the time they do it by winning Game 6).
For the full Hollinger chat, click here
9. Celtics At the Crossroads
Special to ESPNBoston.com
When the Boston Celtics take the floor for Game 1 of their Eastern Conference semifinal matchup with the Cleveland Cavaliers, they will be doing so (A) as consensus underdogs for the first time in three years and (B) without home-court advantage for the first time in three years.Which begs the following: Will this also be the last time we see the new Big Three together? Regardless of what happens in the series, the times they are indeed a-changin' in Celtic Nation. Ray Allen will become a free agent. Coach Doc Rivers may decide he's had enough. Paul Pierce could become a free agent if he opts out of his current deal. Tony Allen, Nate Robinson and Marquis Daniels also will be free agents, along with Brian Scalabrine, Michael Finley and Shelden Williams. Daniels and Robinson were supposed to be key reserves, but Rivers clearly has lost faith in both of them and their futures in Boston look dim.
To read the rest of May's story, click here
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