But on the floor, it's hard to tell who the real underdogs are.
As the 67-win Mavs fight for survival, we're taking the temperature of a series that's hotter than Warriors fan Jessica Alba. Well, maybe not, but, anyway, it's good basketball and we have some questions
1. Can the Mavericks still win this series?
Henry Abbott, TrueHoop: Yes! Dallas damn near won that last one on the road (Baron Davis doesn't make that half-court 3 ...). They looked very good much of the game, with Josh Howard and Jerry Stackhouse in attack mode. Do we really assume that there's just nothing Dirk Nowitzki can do to get hot against Stephen Jackson? It could happen. But it likely won't, simply because the math dictates they can't have any more bad games.
Greg Anthony, ESPN.com: Yes. Ask Phoenix, which came back from a 3-1 deficit to beat the Lakers last year. The difference then was Steve Nash, who was his ordinarily brilliant MVP self. The difference this year will have to be the odds-on favorite MVP, Dirk Nowitzki, who has just been ordinary. The Mavs have to figure out a way to contain Baron Davis, who has been the best player in the postseason. PERIOD!
Chris Broussard, ESPN Mag: Can? Yes. Will? No. The Mavs are mentally deflated and, strategically, they have no answers for the Warriors.
Ric Bucher, ESPN Mag: Absolutely. They demonstrated in Game 4 that they can control the tempo. On the Warriors' home floor, no less. The key is taking an early lead, though, because the Warriors don't play their best style -- loose and fast -- when they're behind.
Marc Stein, ESPN.com: Yes. But I'm not sure they believe it any more. Dallas' collective confidence couldn't be lower. Common sense says a wild team like the Warriors is less than automatic when it comes to closing out a team this experienced. The Mavs' problem is that common sense hasn't applied to this series whatsoever.
2. Who do you blame most for the Mavs' predicament?
Anthony: Blame has to be shared between Avery and Dirk, as much as I love Avery and marvel at his coaching ability. Avery because the decision to go small in Game 1 set the tone for this series and the Mavericks have yet to recover. Dirk because the truly great players are judged only by how they perform on the biggest stage -- the playoffs. He has not been able to deliver when his team has needed him most.
Broussard: I don't blame anyone in particular because the Mavs just ran into a bad matchup, but Dirk has to shoulder whatever blame there is. He has not played like an MVP candidate and hasn't shown the necessary leadership or the fight.
Bucher: Potential collapses of this proportion take more than one person to create. Avery Johnson has tried too hard to demonstrate he can go toe-to-toe with Don Nelson in the psyche and matchup departments. Dirk, once again, seems content to concede to an opponent's plan to marginalize him.
Stein: Every single Mav is culpable. Golden State is a ridiculously hot team benefiting from some favorable matchups, but that doesn't excuse the body language and borderline surrender we've seen at times from a 67-win team. It's the inexperienced Warriors who've been fearless and physical.
Abbott: Umm, Baron Davis? Honestly, I don't blame anyone. The Mavericks are a very well put together team, they are very well coached, they have a very supportive owner, and they have great players. You don't have to do anything wrong to not win the championship. They just happened to run up against a team that overperforms against them, and whose kinetic energy is off the charts at the moment.
3. Who gets the most credit for Golden State's success thus far?
Broussard: Nellie gets the most credit for his tremendous coaching, and Baron gets the most credit of the players because he's playing like an MVP.
Bucher: As brilliantly vicious as Nelson has been in exploiting Dirk's D, and as quick as he was to bench Al Harrington, none of it matters if Baron Davis isn't a man on a mission, repeatedly breaking down the Mavs' D and making circus shots.
Stein: I'm going with Nellie because he's getting more out of Baron than any coach ever has, allows Stephen Jackson to be an emotional leader when most coaches want no part of him, and has the Warriors so calm and confident that now they're doing stuff we've never seen from them. Clampdown D? Can't-miss shooting from the outside?
Abbott: Somebody made the Warriors really committed defenders, and I guess that's Don Nelson. But otherwise it's all about Baron Davis. Plenty contribute, but if Davis for some reason could not play, Dallas would win the next three easily. It's weird to praise Davis too much, though, because the story quickly becomes that he was always this good, or close. Which begs the question: Well, what the hell has he been doing all this time? Yes, he has been injured, but there's also a lot of evidence he has been unmotivated. If he had always had this mentality, none of this would be shocking.
Anthony: Obviously Don Nelson's style of ball is a huge plus. The trade for both Jackson and Harrington was a perfect blend of toughness and experience (people forget that Jackson has won a championship as a starter). However the catalyst is Baron -- he has as much ability as any guard in the league and has grown into a leader. He told me before Game 1 that he really became a leader this year. He's the reason why the Warriors are on the verge of the greatest upset in first-round history.
4. How would a first-round exit change your view of Nowitzki?
Bucher: It wouldn't. I've always thought of him as a great talent without the requisite gamer gene that turns a scorer into a leader. Talents: T-Mac, VC, Dirk, KG. Gamers: Kobe, Kidd, Nash, Baron.
Stein: He said it himself before the playoffs began: Dirk knows the Mavs will be branded big-game failures with "no leadership" if they don't win it all. He's going to get more blame than I think he deserves, but there's no way around it when you're getting the MVP trophy. Unprecedented criticism awaits and his lack of aggressiveness and fire in response to the Warriors' physicality only makes it worse.
Abbott: I love the guy. Whatever failings he has, he's welcome to ply them on my team. But, I never thought he was a reliable clutch performer, and he has always been slow. In some situations, those things will kill you -- unless you figure out some other way to make the team work around him. Which is doable. I refuse to believe he's a player who can't succeed.
Anthony: Tremendously, regardless of how great he was in the regular season. You are judged by your postseason success/failure. The questions that have persisted over his entire career will continue to get louder and taint him in the eyes of the game.
Broussard: Dirk would play the rest of his career having to prove he has the heart of a champion. Only a title will erase this nasty stain from his otherwise formidable career.
5. What would Cuban do if the Mavs, after a 67-win season, lose in Round 1 to his nemesis Don Nelson?
Stein: I highly doubt he sells after a first-round exit. Just can't see Mark Cuban leaving the NBA on that note. But a roster shakeup? A must, I'd say. The mental scars from the Finals collapse and then a first-round flameout outweigh the notion that these Mavs were too successful over 82 games to make major alterations.
Abbott: Losing? With a great roster and coach? I almost wonder if that would be keep Cuban around and hungry, with something left to prove. And I doubt they blow up this roster. Maybe just some tinkering in the name of speed and killer instinct, and more playing time for Devin Harris, DeSagana Diop, Maurice Ager and the like.
Anthony: He'd be depressed until Game 1 of next season. Mark Cuban is one of the smartest people I've ever encountered. Yes he'd be a train wreck for about two months, but once the emotions subsided he'd realize they still have a great coach and nucleus. Tweaking would be in order but not a total overhaul.
Broussard: Make major changes to roster, which would be a mistake. Minor tweaks are all the Mavs need.
Bucher: Thanks for inspiring me to see millions of would-be tech billionaires wearing W.W.C.D. wristbands. Cuban will do what he did last summer -- he'll change a few pieces but no major overhaul. This ain't Miami.