DALLAS -- If they were giving up 116 points every game, as in Game 1, that would actually be easier. If they were losing because of all the Kings' layups.
If they were losing because of their usual warts, then the Dallas Mavericks could probably rationalize a first-round exit.
The Mavs sit one defeat away from the likely coaching shakeup they avoided last spring because they're throwing away a handsome gift, unlike last spring when they seized every opportunity that presented itself and came within two games of the NBA Finals.
Those Mavericks were ready to pounce when Scottie Pippen couldn't play, and when Chris Webber crumpled to the floor. These Mavericks, awarded with the most favorable path possible to get back to the conference finals -- when the freefalling Kings slipped to No. 4 in the West on the final day of the season -- have blown their chance to be the team with the 3-1 lead because their offense, suddenly and inexplicably, is worse than their defense.
"We're beating ourselves right now," said Mavericks guard Steve Nash, looking and sounding as glum as he ever gets.
"Just as much as we love this (victory), it may not be (the same team) next year," Webber countered, crediting fear of the Kings' own shakeup for Sacramento's resilience. "You never know. We need to take full advantage of today."
Full advantage. Nice concept. The Mavericks certainly had the same take-advantage intentions when, with seemingly no way to avoid a first-round series with the dreaded Lakers, Dallas was somehow bracketed with a familiar foe that wouldn't resist a fast pace. As a bonus, Sacramento showed up hobbled and demoralized, with only four wins in the season's final 12 games, with Bobby Jackson unavailable and with only three of their top seven players reasonably healthy.
All the Mavericks needed was one victory at Arco Arena to keep the Kings reeling. Instead they failed to pull away in Game 2 when Sacramento went almost a quarter without a basket, holding the Kings to 83 points and losing anyway.
Three healthy Kings then became two when Mike Bibby suffered a hip strain before Game 3. Peja Stojakovic added to the Sacramento angst by taking just one shot in the second half of Game 3, and missing 10 consecutive shots in the first half of Game 4. The Mavericks, at worst, were going to uphold the league's best home-court advantage, a tidy 36-5 in the regular season, and go back to Sacto at 2-2.
In what now looks like their home finale, the Mavericks staged a night of countless giveaways. The team that made 49 straight free throws in Game 1 of the 2003 conference finals in San Antonio missed 13 of 33 free throws in their biggest game of 2004. The Mavs clanked 17 of 21 attempts from 3-point range, to make it 9-for-50 on their signature shot since Game 1. Nash, the free agent-to-be, failed to top 13 points for the fourth successive game, which doesn't exactly amount to a contract drive. On top of all Dallas' other concerns -- Michael Finley
's quiet series, iron man Antawn Jamison's suddenly tight hamstrings and the roller-coaster reality of relying on rookies Marquis Daniels and Josh Howard -- the hosts couldn't even count on Dirk Nowitzki.
The big German was appropriately aggressive, but repeatedly struggled to convert. After shooting 5-for-22 from the field and missing a few late free throws of his own, Nowitzki greeted every consoling voice in the locker room with the same sentiment.
"This was probably the worst game of my life," Nowitzki said.
The Kings, meanwhile, looked more like the resilient crew that churned out a 43-15 start without an injured Webber. Bibby is beating Nash in their now-annual springtime showdown, to avenge Nash's triumph last May, which avenged Bibby's success the year before. Only this time, Bibby is doing it without Jackson as a sidekick.
Stojakovic and Doug Christie -- the only healthy guys left in the top seven -- showed some moxie with bounce-back games Monday, and there was a soft touch of irony as well to go with the 68-55 pounding Sacramento inflicted on the boards.
That irony? Webber admitted afterward that the threat of these Kings being broken up -- with coach Rick Adelman sure to be endangered if he were to lose this matchup with the under-fire Don Nelson -- really is what's getting them through a series where they're clearly undermanned.
"In all honesty ... yes," Webber said. "... I get emotional talking about playing with these guys. ... It's very easy for there not to be a tomorrow. If you look at our team in terms of being together ... NBA years are kind of like dog years, and we've been together a long time."
They've held it together for one more round, with trainer's tape and their underrated grit and the Mavericks' help. You couldn't be totally shocked if Dallas, which figures to be a lot looser in a what-the-heck Game 5, springs an upset Thursday night and finds a way to drag this thing to seven. Yet you also wouldn't be surprised if the Mavericks go meekly in Game 5 ... and you'll be flat-out stunned if Dallas could string three straight wins together to overturn its 3-1 deficit. The Kings aren't going to let this one slip.
Beating the Kings, even in Sacramento's current state, has simply been harder than Dallas thought. Which means that it's Mavericks owner Mark Cuban on the brink of deciding whether to divorce or re-commit to Don Nelson, how to re-sign Nash and Daniels, determining if there's still room for an Antoine (Walker) and an Antawn, and starting over in the quest to finally find the right pieces to put around The Big Three.
The really tough stuff.
Male of the Night
Peja Stojakovic. It takes some moxie to go into halftime having missed 10 straight shots -- after two bad games -- and then mark your return to the floor by hitting the next five shots. It also doesn't hurt the résumé to cap the evening with another game-saving defensive stand. Twice in four games, Dallas has attacked Stojakovic in the final seconds needing just two points to force overtime. Michael Finley didn't get a shot off against Peja at the end of Game 2 in that situation, and Steve Nash's heave barely drew iron at the buzzer in Game 4 when Stojakovic switched aggressively on a pick-and-roll to deny Nash an open look.
E-Mail of the Night
I was wondering how Andrei Kirilenko did not make the All-Defensive Team's first team. If a player ranks third in blocks per game and fourth in steals, what else does he have to do to gain some respect? I also think you have to look at the impact a player has on his team. Would the Spurs still be a good team without Bruce Bowen? Of course. Does the same hold true with Kirilenko and the Jazz?
Salt Lake City
STEIN: You'll have to blame the coaches this time. They're the ones who handle the All-Defensive Team voting. I'm pretty much president of the Bristol chapter of AK-47's fan club -- I had him on my ballot for Most Improved Player, Defensive Player of the Year and All-NBA honors. I saw what you saw.
Speak of the Night
"We all wanted the rock."
— Detroit's Rasheed Wallace, describing the Pistons' mood on a rare 109-point night ... and making a rare appearance on the quoteboard.
Stat of the Night
That's how many free throws Dallas missed in the first three games of the Sacramento series.
Stat of the Fright
That's how many free throws Dallas missed in a two-point loss in Game 4.