DALLAS – They were walking past the windows of the Old No. 7 Club in the corridor between the home and away locker rooms, the three stragglers shuffling past the postgame bar and grill of Dallas Mavericks fans. Long past midnight now, these people started standing and screaming through the glass, barking at Baron Davis and Don Nelson, clutching his Bud Light, and finally the most hated Warrior in the house, Stephen Jackson.
Davis and Nellie smiled and nodded on the way out of Game 5 on Tuesday night, but Jackson is Jackson and this wild series has brought out the best and worst of him. He wore his Yankees cap sideways along with his diamond studded crucifix, and finally he reached into his pocket, pulled out his money clip and waved a big, fat wad of the Golden State Warriors house money at those cursing him.
They were playing with it all the way into the final, fatal minutes when, within a whisper of one of the greatest upsets in NBA history, the Warriors unraveled in a 118-112 loss at the American Airlines Center.
Golden State made the mistake of letting Dirk Nowitzki get back into this series. All at once, Davis did a double-clutch, off-balance three-pointer with 3:21 left – "A horse shot," Mark Cuban called it – to take a 112-103 lead, until Nowitzki, the embattled Mavericks star, vowed to validate his front-running MVP candidacy with Dallas' championship hopes fading.
With much of basketball calling him a fraudulent superstar for his performance in the series, with his own coach, Avery Johnson, finally demanding that his All-Star's disposition stop drooping and start delivering, Nowitzki dropped 12 of his 30 points in the final three minutes and seven seconds.
This had all the more stunning of a turn of events considering that Nowitzki didn't have a shot – never mind a basket – in the fourth quarter until the season was on the brink and he pulled it back. "Dirk popped the spinach on the sidelines and said, 'I am what I am,' " Cuban marveled.
And so started a blur of 15 straight Dallas points to end Game 5, pulling the Mavericks within 3-2 of the Warriors in the best-of-seven series. Nowitzki's rush of three-pointers and free throws set into motion an unraveling of Golden State in those final minutes that included nine straight missed shots, Jackson getting ejected and Jason Richardson inviting an NBA security probe into a possible pushing incident with a courtside fan late in the game.
Davis, the best player in this series, fouled out, and Jackson, the series' biggest headcase, was tossed for the second time in the series for clapping too vigorously in the direction of an official.
"Life of Stephen Jackson," he grumbled. "That's all I've got to say. Life of Stephen Jackson. That's all I'm saying."
Of course, Jackson can't help himself, and he went on to essentially call himself a target. Yet he still promised that, "We're going to go home and close it out."
Perhaps, but commissioner David Stern may first have to make a decision on Richardson's availability for Game 6. After Richardson's momentum carried him out of bounds late in the game, he found himself in the lap of a Dallas fan. They were briefly entangled, witnesses said, and Mavericks and NBA security interviewed the fan later for his side of the exchange.
What team and league sources were told, according to two high-ranking league officials, was that Richardson said, "Push me again, (expletive), and I'll beat your ass." NBA security's Dwayne Bishop was on the telephone with the fan late Tuesday night in the arena dining room, apparently reaching the man after he had talked to Mavericks security. At the least, Richardson probably bought himself a fine.
"I can't remember (what he said) in the heat of the moment," Richardson said of the fan. "All I know is that I pushed him back, trying to see who he was. But it's over."
Despite the Mavericks' breathless bid in the final minutes to spare themselves a long, shocking summer, the biggest burden is still on Dallas to get out of this series alive. Before the game, Cuban blew off steam on the Stairmaster in the Mavericks' locker room, defending Nowitzki and ripping his ever-growing nemesis, Nelson, the deposed Dallas coach.
"Some people are afraid to lose," Cuban said. "You can't be afraid to lose if you're going to be a winner. You see it in business all the time. No balls, no babies, right? You've got to go for it. I don't think Nellie's got that attitude and that was a conflict between us."
Cuban was trying hard to spin some pressure back on Nelson, who has been living large as the eighth seed against these Mavericks with a championship-or-bust mandate on the season. "… Whatever happens, (this series in the future) changes him from the underdog to the favorite in a lot of respects. And then all of the expectations change," Cuban said. "You just can't be in hiding. It couldn't happen to a better guy. Now the entire (Bay Area) is going to think he's got to win 60 games and contend for a championship every year. It will be fun to watch."
Someday maybe, but for now the Mavericks must find a way to survive Oracle Arena in Oakland, the loudest, most delirious building the NBA has seen in years. They've waited forever for these Warriors to have one of those seasons, one of these runs, and it will reach a crescendo Thursday night when Game 6 comes to the Bay Area.
"Now, there's a lot of pressure on them," Johnson said. "They got 10,000 pounds on their right arms up there in Oakland. A lot of pressure on them."
Nice try, Avery. But the pressure is on the Mavericks until they complete this jagged journey into the second round.
As they were walking down the corridor late Tuesday, Nelson threw an arm around Davis for a moment and told simply, "Hey, we had a shot at the end," and the understanding was unmistakable: The best team in basketball had to play out of its mind to simply get a No. 8 seed back to its building for a game that Stephen Jackson says these Warriors are going to use to close out the Mavericks, close out a wild basketball blood war.
"The bottom line is that we don't like each other," Matt Barnes sniffed. "We don't like them, they don't like us."
With a wrap on his leg for the hamstring he pulled in the first quarter, Barnes, a journeyman, happened to be the relentless, resolved face of this Golden State team in the losing locker room.
He's the Warrior with the word, "Believe," tattooed on the side of his neck.