OAKLAND -- Just a thought: When was the last time the NBA MVP had to fly back from vacation to receive his award?
Dirk rocks but Baron rolls
That prospect now looms, if Dirk Nowitzki is, as expected, this year's Most Valuable Player. That's because on Sunday the Golden State Warriors put the Dallas Mavericks one loss away from joining their 2006 Finals adversaries, the Miami Heat, on the playoff sidelines.
Just another thought: How many voters would put Warriors point guard Baron Davis on their MVP ballot now after watching him out-MVP the likely MVP four games running?
That prospect is worth considering with Davis threatening to lead his team where it appears ballot staples Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady and Dirk may not go -- into the second round.
But it's not just where Davis has the Warriors going. It's how.
All 33 of his points in Sunday night's 103-99 win were of the gut-check, momentum-switching variety, turning an initially subdued Oracle Arena crowd into something like an Ozzy Osbourne family reunion. Half of his points also came, seemingly, either answering a big shot by Nowitzki or blowing by him.
The game went to the wire but the mano-a-mano battle occurred with 3:20 left when, with the Mavs leading by four, Nowitzki grabbed the rebound of a missed 3-pointer by Jerry Stackhouse. The smart play would've been to burn time off the clock before taking another shot. The gutsy play would've been to go right back up with it. Dirk was gutsy. He just wasn't successful.
"That really changed the momentum," Nowitzki admitted, and if he's as unforgiving about his self-analysis as our colleague Marc Stein says he is, Dirk will be replaying his short jumper skidding off the rim until, oh, about 2012.
Davis -- who else? -- grabbed the rebound, quickly set up Stephen Jackson for a 3-ball and seven seconds later the lead was down to one. On the Warriors' next possession, Baron then went by Dirk for a breakaway layup and a one-point lead the Warriors never relinquished.
It was a development Davis could foresee. "I felt I could carry the load," he said. "I was just waiting and waiting for opportunities. Once I saw an angle or a lane, I tried to use it."
And when he didn't see one, he created it.
"We tried to trap him five times and he got through our traps five times," said Mavs coach Avery Johnson, who managed to speak clearly after the game even while his jaw muscles were popping like strobe lights. "That's not a good sign."
It looked, initially, as if Davis couldn't possibly do enough to match the efforts of Josh Howard, much less Nowitzki. Howard had 20 first-half points on 9-of-12 shooting, including a page from Baron's book with a circus shot while being fouled by Andris Biedrins.
The first sign, though, that the Mavs had escaped whatever San Francisco fog enveloped them in Game 3? Nowitzki breaking out his air guitar courtside.
The Warriors, trying to keep the raucous pregame vibe going, played AC/DC's "Thunderstruck," as the players waited for someone in the TNT truck to radio the game ops director to notify the referees to motion the players out to midcourt. (Overproduction, thy name is NBA playoffs.)
Nowitzki, who can rock the real six-string deal, folded down his socks and then abruptly struck an imaginary chord with a force that would've made Pete Townshend proud. The same morose German who unnecessarily painted his team into a corner by declaring Game 4 akin to "a Game 7," was, for a moment, as loose as Jack Black.
(Here's my point on the do-or-die reference: you can play as if it is, you just don't say it -- because, if you're the No. 1 seed playing No. 8, you should believe you can still come back from 3-1 down, as Phoenix did last year.)
Nowitzki's animation didn't end there. He was as MVP-like as I've seen him. When he drove and dished the ball to where he expected Jason Terry to be and saw the ball sail into the Mavs' bench instead, he visibly cursed at Terry for being in the wrong place. Walking his talk, he then buried a turnaround jumper at the left elbow and harassed Jason Richardson with energetic ballhawking (!) into a turnover.
But for all the crisp passes and feathery jumpers Dallas made to throttle down the pace and keep the Warriors' crowd subdued for long stretches, they never pushed their lead into double digits. A combination of Davis doing his best Kobe imitation and a burst of 10 points in nine minutes from Mickael Pietrus kept Golden State in the game.
Oracle Arena had the air of a crowded cafeteria -- noisy but distracted -- until Pietrus stuffed a putback dunk and followed by soaring waayyyy above the rim to spike a breakaway layup attempt by an unsuspecting Terry. Only then did the roar from the stands approach the feral level of Game 3's blowout.
Davis, meanwhile, gave a primer of what was to come. Every time Dallas threatened to make their lead formidable, Davis slowed their roll. Even after Dirk scrapped for the rebound of a Terry miss and put it back while being fouled with 1.1 seconds left for a three-point lead, Davis launched a half-court halftime buzzer-beater that caromed off the glass and in the bucket for a 49-49 tie.
All of which makes the result all the more disturbing for Dallas. They had "fire in their eyes," as Johnson put it, controlling the tempo and forcing the outcome to be decided by fourth-quarter half-court execution, not exactly the Warriors' strong suit. And yet it didn't matter.
It didn't, because Baron wouldn't let it.
"I see some of these other great players who are just ball movers and just try to do the right thing for their team and turn it on at the end of games," said Warriors coach Don Nelson. "We can't function that way. We need Baron to be dominant."
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AP Photo/John Raoux
Jason Kidd (17-13-8), Toronto nemesis Vince Carter (27-7-7), Richard Jefferson (23-2-3) and the rest of the Nets conspired to put the Raptors in a 3-1 hole with a 102-81 rout on Sunday.
AP Photo/John Raoux
Steve Nash got the last chuckle on Sunday, kicking Kobe Bryant (literally) on a drive and kicking L.A. butt, too, with a career-high 23 dimes on the way to a 113-100 Phoenix win. See Marc Stein's story on why Suns-Lakers Game 4 was so different this year.
Chris Sheridan looks ahead to the East semifinals:
Chicago's opponent in the next round is going to be a heck of a lot more formidable, the Pistons bringing a lot more quickness and many more scoring options than the old, slow and injured Heat could summon. I asked Shaquille O'Neal for a prediction, but all he would say was he expected the series to go six or seven games.
One of the biggest threats to the Bulls will be their own sense of satisfaction, whether they feel they've already accomplished something of significance or whether they're still hungry. They've already shown how coolly efficient they can be, as seen in some of the key numbers from this four-game series:
• Luol Deng shot 58 percent from the field without once hoisting up a 3-point shot, leading the Bulls with a 26.3 average.
• Ben Gordon chipped in 25.5 points while shooting 40 percent from 3-point range and handing out a team-high 22 assists.
• Andres Nocioni shot only 37 percent overall but was 9-for-19 from 3-point range.
• Ben Wallace, who shot 27 percent from the line in last year's playoffs, went 7-for-8 Sunday to finish the series at a very respectable -- at least for him -- 61 percent.
• As a team, the Bulls shot 81 percent from the line and outrebounded the Heat by more than six per game.
"This series, we played as a team," Deng said. "We played together and we always played the same way. No matter what they did, we never really changed what we did. It was good for us to come out and show our maturity as a team."
That they did, and they'll have a day or two to feel good about it. Then, it'll be a matter of being satisfied with their recent accomplishment (ask the Heat how sound a strategy that is) or turning it into something bigger.
As Miami coach Pat Riley told Chicago's Scott Skiles at center court, they have a team that's capable of doing something great.
But are they ready for greatness? We're all about to find out.
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images
Last year's playoff hero, Dwyane Wade of the Heat, gave postgame props to Luol Deng and the Bulls: "They were the better team. There are no ifs, ands or buts about it."
Quote of the Day:
-- Royce Webb
The Bulls completed a four-game sweep of the Heat with a convincing 92-79 clincher in Miami.
Only six teams have ever been swept in any round of the playoffs in defense of an NBA title, and three of them have been coached by Pat Riley: the Lakers in both 1983 (vs. Philadelphia) and 1989 (vs. Detroit), and this year's Heat.
The other defending champions to be swept in a playoff series were the 1957 Philadelphia Warriors (two games vs. the Syracuse Nationals), 1991 Pistons (four games vs. Chicago) and 1996 Rockets (four games vs. Seattle).
Shaquille O'Neal has been on the short end of six playoff series sweeps during his NBA career: three with the Magic (1994, 1995 and 1996), two with the Lakers (1998 and 1999) and now one with the Heat.
The only other player to be swept out of the NBA playoffs six times was Darwin Cook, with New Jersey (1982, 1983, 1985 and 1986), Detroit (1987) and Denver (1989).
Steve Nash had 23 assists, one shy of the NBA playoff record, as the Suns downed the Lakers 113-100.
Magic Johnson and John Stockton (each of whom had separate 23- and 24-assist games) are the only players to hand out as many as 23 assists in a postseason game.
Nash assisted on 56.1 percent of the Suns' 41 field goals on Sunday, the fourth-highest percentage in NBA playoff history, behind Stockton (60.5 percent and 57.1 percent in the previously mentioned performances) and Mark Jackson, who had assists on 17 of 30 (56.7 percent) field goals for the Pacers in a loss at Cleveland in 1998.
-- Elias Sports Bureau | More from Elias
Chris Broussard on the demise of the Heat:
Last year, they made me look like a genius. This year, they made me look like a fool.
What can I say about the Miami Heat other than R.I.P.?
I've talked with more than a few folks around the league about the demise of the Heat, and let's just say no one's shedding any tears for the former champs.
In fact, some people are downright giddy to see Pat Riley, Shaq and Co. fall so hard. Detroit isn't celebrating, though.
If the Warriors complete a first-round upset of the Mavericks, this would be the first time since 1957 in which both returning NBA finalists lost in their first series.
In 1956, the Philadelphia Warriors beat the Fort Wayne Pistons 4-1 in the NBA Finals.
The following year, in 1957, the Warriors got swept by the Syracuse Nationals in the Eastern Division semifinals.
In 1957, the Pistons got swept by the Minneapolis Lakers in the Western Division semifinals.
Note: In 1957, only eight teams made the playoffs, so the "division semifinals" were the first playoff series for all teams.
-- ESPN Research