DALLAS – There was silence for a moment on the cell call Wednesday, and Jeff Bower, perfect gentleman of a general manager for the New Orleans Hornets, pushed past the polite praise for his old point guard, past the nostalgia of the Orlando series five years ago, and stopped short of rewinding into the wreckage.
All that acrimony, all the anger, all that inspired the Hornets to dump Baron Davis to the Golden State Warriors for spare parts Speedy Claxton and Dale Davis told Bower that it was best to leave unspoken his memories of those turbulent times.
"That's the best thing for him, and the best thing for us," Bower said. "We've all moved on from his time with us."
Bower stole Chris Paul in the 2005 draft, and they never had to look back on Davis. Always, the next big thing has come along in basketball, pushing Davis deeper and deeper into the shadows, and only now he has pushed himself back into the brightest lights of these NBA playoffs. His will, his nerve and his undiminished talents have the eighth-seeded Warriors on the brink of history against the Dallas Mavericks with a 3-2 lead going into Thursday's Game 6 at Oracle Arena.
"For me," Davis said Wednesday, "this has been an opportunity to show people that I can still play a little."
Out of sight with the Hornets and Warriors these past seasons, Davis has been out of mind in the sport. He had come into Charlotte as a one-year UCLA wonder in 1999, a teenager declared the heir to Jason Kidd as basketball's best point guard. Still, he was run out of New Orleans with a beaten-up body and a tattered image two years ago. He had behaved like a franchise fool, a head case short on leadership and long on complaints. He clashed with his coaches, created chasms within locker rooms, and his reputation unraveled as his career untracked.
And then, after a season in Golden State under the overmatched Mike Montgomery, his cell phone rang one day last summer. Don Nelson was calling. He told Davis that the point guard would love playing for him, that he was perfect running his small-ball system.
"He told me that he needed me to be a leader," Davis said.
He's been the most valuable player in this opening round of the playoffs, – "The best player," teammate Matt Barnes said – and on Thursday, Davis goes a long way toward transforming his flawed legacy. In this series, in this improbable Warriors run, Davis hasn't been as much a peerless point guard as he's been a force of nature. He plays like something has been bottled up a long time, unleashed with his 26 points, 5.6 assists and 5.4 assists and two steals a game against Dallas. He's popping threes, beating everyone on the dribble and running roughshod on the Mavs.
"All I needed were the right players around me, the right team," he said.
Who would've believed that this roster of misfits and rejects and unknowns would turn out to be the right team at the right time for Davis? Nelson has made him the centerpiece of his revival in the Bay Area, where two thirds of the original Run TMC – Chris Mullin and Mitch Richmond – are the Golden State front office.
Davis is the oldest 28-year-old in the sport, with two knee injuries in his past, with basketball scars covering body and soul. "I've been to rock bottom," he said.
He had surgery on his knee in February and just stayed out seven games, understanding that he had to play to get these Warriors to the playoffs. They won nine of 10 to close the regular season, and now Nelson worries that he's playing Davis far too much for a body forever battered. But the Warriors don't have a shot without him on the floor. All the matchup problems for the Mavericks always come back to Davis, whom no one can keep out of the lane, out of harm's way, against Dallas.
Nelson calls him as talented of a player as he's ever coached, which is something considering the names Mullin and Hardaway, Moncrief and Nowitzki, Lanier and Richmond. Everyone has re-discovered Davis again in these playoffs, but maybe most of all, he's found himself. Yes, there were times running those lousy teams for Byron Scott and Montgomery when he wondered whether he'd ever get this shot again, this stage, to remind the world that, when right, he runs with Steve Nash and Kidd as the best playmakers on the globe.
So, yes, it'll be Baron's ball, Baron's gym, on Thursday night. "Playing in primetime, getting an opportunity to get the national spotlight, it's been fun again," Davis said. "This series has taught us a lot about (our team), about where we're headed in the future."
Finally, Baron Davis has a future again. But mostly, he has this Game 6 in Oakland where Davis gets to lord over the biggest Bay Area basketball night in over a decade. As much as anyone, he knows there are no promises about tomorrow with Golden State, and maybe that's the reason why he has the Mavericks so frightened today. It'll be his gym and his chance to close out Dallas and close a chapter in his career when it was too hard to see the greatness of Baron Davis.
- Baron Davis
- Jeff Bower
- Golden State