Agony and ecstasy

OAKLAND, Calif. – He eventually just folded himself into a chair at the end of the bench, three or four standing teammates shielding Dirk Nowitzki from the carnage on the court, from the final minutes of this humiliation. With the season up in smoke, Mr. Would-Be MVP sat on a 2-for-13 shooting night, a nothing effort in a game that meant everything.

The relentless thunderclaps of noise were raining down like Stephen Jackson three-pointers, lifting these Golden State Warriors to new heights, new territory, just as they were burying the Dallas Mavericks into an incomprehensibly early grave.

It would be a celebration for most of the second half, the game no longer in doubt, what with Nowitzki seemingly incapable of throwing the ball into San Francisco Bay.

It was a forever night for this franchise, these fans. Thirteen long, miserable years of waiting for something like this: a 111-86 playoff victory to give the Warriors the series, 4-2, and give them perhaps the greatest upset in NBA history.

So the largest crowd in state history (20,677) would wave flags and dance in aisles and scream into the California night with each Jason Richardson slam, each Baron Davis drive, each Jackson bomb that ran these 67-win Mavericks right back to Texas.

No matter where Nowitzki sat on that bench, the focus of this collapse would fall on him. There was nowhere to hide, nowhere to go, now. This is the burden of being MVP, of putting yourself up there with Michael and Magic; Russell and Bird.

He's been questioned before about whether he is the kind of superstar that can carry a team in the loneliest of moments, in front of the loudest of road crowds. It was Dwyane Wade who took shots at him for allowing the Miami Heat to storm back from 0-2 in the Finals last year. Now the questions will grow louder and linger longer.

Just eight points. Just two made field goals. Just three shots taken in a second half he all but conceded to the Warriors. He didn't even go down fighting; he just gave up. His most memorable moment was getting posterized on a dunk by Matt Barnes of all people.

"I had some great looks, especially in the first half," Nowitzki said. "I got open. I just don't know. I just couldn't find my rhythm today."

He paused for a second.

"Obviously, (it's) very, very frustrating."

Fair or not, Nowitzki isn't living this one down until he wins a championship some day. No amount of 50-point regular-season efforts can cure his rep as a sunshine patriot, a summer soldier.

"I didn't give my teammates anything in a deciding game like this," he said. "It's tough."

He was left having his teammates, coach and owner defend him. They've built this Mavericks team to believe in Nowitzki, to have this 7-foot, jump-shooting German take them to the title, and to a man, they say they haven't wavered in their faith.

"No, not at all," Mavs owner Mark Cuban said. "Not even a little bit. Anyone who says otherwise is a moron. And you can quote me on that."

By the end all of Dallas' players had thrown up their hands. It wasn't just Nowitzki. They ran into a buzz saw here, the best team in the NBA in the season's final two months, a now healthy, now together group of young athletes just crazy enough to look at a No. 1 seed and feel good about their chances.

"Our confidence was always there," said Davis.

It was everyone else who looked at the historic implications of the seeds, looked at the Mavericks' gaudy record and didn't believe in Don Nelson's small-ball Warriors. Eventually, on a big screen TV, they showed TNT's Charles Barkley, who'd been heckling Golden State the entire series, in a big, yellow "We Believe" T-shirt.

"Ha," cackled Nelson in between slugs of celebratory Bud Light. "The Chuckster."

They were laughing last and laughing best here, partying with the fans in the stands, crashing the postgame scene at the Courtside Club, exchanging hugs and handshakes while fully cognizant of what they just had done.

So many cast-off parts, so many second-round picks, suddenly special with this long-stumbling franchise.

Here was Jackson, who before the season was more likely to shoot up a strip club than outshoot Nowitzki, starting 7-for-7 from behind the arc, finishing with 33 game-breaking points and picking up the slack for Davis, who was hobbled by injury.

The scary thing is the Warriors aren't done. They aren't just in the second round. They are in this whole thing – in it, if you can believe, to win it.

And it's going to take a ferocious effort to kill off these guys because this was no fluke. This was a tenacious and talented team hitting its stride.

"They were the better basketball team," said Dallas' Jason Terry.

Especially here, in front of their collegiate style crowd that feeds each wave of defensive pressure, crashed offensive glass and high-light reel dunk. Whoever has to deal with this, be it Houston or Utah, be it San Antonio or Phoenix, had better bring a near-perfect game or that team is going to get rolled up.

Yes, here in Oakland. Yes, here with these Warriors.

The shell-shocked MVP at the end of the bench, back behind his teammates, season and reputation suddenly shot, said as much.