DALLAS – Another draft had come and gone, and the night was beginning to give way to morning as San Antonio Spurs general manager R.C. Buford finally emerged from the team's conference room.
Buford and the Spurs had targeted French swingman Boris Diaw only to see the Atlanta Hawks take him ahead of them. So, hoping to preserve as much salary-cap room as possible for their free-agent pursuit of Jason Kidd, they traded their pick.
On his way out the door, someone asked Buford if he was pleased with how the draft had played out, given that Diaw was unavailable. He nodded, then laughed.
"But if Josh Howard ever becomes a player," Buford said, "Pop is going to kill me."
Nearly six years later, Buford is still breathing. His Spurs, however, have flatlined, and credit for that goes to the same Josh Howard. Once again, the Spurs had no answer for him as he scored 19 of his 28 points in the second half to push the Dallas Mavericks to a 99-90 victory Saturday and a 3-1 series lead.
It's been a rough few days for the Spurs. They scored their fewest points ever in a playoff game when the Mavs embarrassed them on Thursday. On Friday, they watched as Luis Scola, whose draft rights they traded a couple summers ago to save money, powered the Houston Rockets past the Portland Trail Blazers. Then came Saturday afternoon and Howard.
That's the curse of these Spurs. Buford and Gregg Popovich helped build them into the NBA's greatest franchise over the past decade, and now people ask what happened to championships No. 5 and 6. Buford likes to joke that his tombstone will one day feature the names of both Howard and Scola. Never mind he's also the same GM who discovered Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.
Ginobili has spent these playoffs in a sports jacket, and both teams likely would agree the series would be different if he were healthy enough to play. Parker went for 43 points, the third most ever in a playoff game for the Spurs, then took his place at the podium and admitted the obvious: "They have a lot more weapons."
Howard has often detonated against the Spurs, and the fallout from passing on him continues to hang in the air some six years later. He helped beat them in the teams' epic seven-game, second-round series in 2006, and now he's close to doing it again, despite playing on only one good ankle.
About the only thing that figures to save the Spurs now is if Howard skips Tuesday's Game 5 to hold his 29th birthday party. After losing Game 4 of last season's first-round series with the New Orleans Hornets to fall behind 3-1, the Mavericks walked into the locker room to find fliers advertising a party that night, which also happened to be Howard's birthday.
Howard has since denied the party was his, but this much is true: He and a couple other teammates attended it – after then-coach Avery Johnson ordered the team to curb most forms of nightlife. This also came one game after Howard went on Michael Irvin's radio show and defended his fondness for weed.
The Mavericks went on to lose in five games, Johnson was fired and Howard's summer got worse from there. He was arrested for drag racing and made national headlines when a YouTube video surfaced of him declaring he doesn't celebrate the national anthem because he's black.
Mavericks owner Mark Cuban publicly defended Howard. Privately, Cuban made it clear to Howard that he had tired of the negative publicity he was drawing to the team.
"He let his mental judgment go a little bit," former Mavs guard Devin Harris told Yahoo! Sports earlier this season. " … Josh is a free spirit. He's going to do what Josh wants. You just try to give him the best advice you can and hopefully he listens."
Howard wasn't thrilled when the Mavs traded Harris, his closest friend on the team, to the New Jersey Nets for Kidd. And while he chaffed under Johnson, Howard also hasn't been a big supporter of new coach Rick Carlisle.
More than a few other Mavs aren't fans of Carlisle, either, but when Howard's attitude began to affect his play this season, he angered teammates and coaches alike. One reason the Mavs made Darrell Armstrong a midseason addition to their coaching staff was because he had a good relationship with Howard from his days as a player.
Howard's biggest struggle this season, however, was not with Carlisle, but his own body. He missed 30 games because of injuries to his left wrist and left ankle. The ankle continues to bother him – he was hurting even during Saturday's performance – and he'll need surgery in the offseason, he said, "to get all that junk out of there from college."
"For me to do what I did this year on a hurt ankle or a bad wrist," Howard said, "all I can say is I wish I was healthy."
Howard's goal is to "get back to the same old Josh again," which means elevating his game to the level that made him an All-Star two seasons ago. He's made strides in that direction during these playoffs, scoring 25 points during the Mavericks' Game 1 victory, then sparking their Game 3 rout with his baseline-to-baseline hustle in the opening quarter.
"What he brings to our team is irreplaceable," Carlisle said.
The time Howard spent on the bench nursing his injuries this season allowed him to better assess what his team needed from him. He's delivered all that and more since returning at the start of the month. On Saturday, the Spurs limited Dirk Nowitzki to 12 points and Jason Terry to 10, yet they still lost.
That's because Howard, Parker said, "once again had a big game against us."
The Spurs have been searching for an athletic swingman ever since Stephen Jackson left following the 2003 championship. That's the same summer Howard dropped to the 28th pick in the draft, where the Mavericks took him, one pick after the Spurs passed. The Spurs had their reasons: Re-signing Jackson was still a possibility, albeit a slight one, and Howard's attitude and character issues also created some concern.
On the night of the draft, Popovich suggested Howard as an option – he went to Wake Forest, Duncan's alma mater, after all – but he obviously didn't make a big push, in part, because he was on board with the decision to pursue Kidd.
Redo the 2003 draft today, and Howard might go as high as No. 6.
"I thought I was going to go higher than I did," he said. "I still don't understand why I didn't. But that's all in the past. Look at me now."
Skipping over Howard didn't exactly implode the Spurs. After failing to land Kidd, they went on to win two more championships over the next four seasons. But it's also clear that Howard, like Scola, would have likely fit well among these Spurs. As for any character concerns: They won a title while starting Jackson, the self-described "Anti-Spur."
Now, the Spurs stand one loss from going out in the first round for the first time ever with Duncan in uniform, and their issues run deeper than Ginobili's bad ankle and Duncan's sore knees. On Saturday, the team went a staggering 28 minutes and 39 seconds of game time with no one other than Parker or Duncan making a shot. The Spurs' best performer off the bench was rookie guard George Hill, who threw in a couple of pressure-packed 3-pointers after Popovich had been reluctant to use him.
"This playoff probably isn't for him," Popovich said of Hill before the series began.
Howard, meanwhile, has done more than help. He's starred. On Saturday, he joked about being "old," and it's clear he's had to do some growing up.
"Just being a better person," he said. "Just being a better person."
He'll turn 29 on Tuesday, the same day the Mavs will try to close out the Spurs. Is a party in the works?
"No, no, no, no!" he said. "You remember what happened last year?"
Everyone remembers, but as Howard said: Look at him now.
They only wish they had seen then what they see today.