- Chris Palmer, ESPN the Magazine
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SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Well, they had the chance.
The Dallas Mavericks could have put the Sacramento Kings out of the running for a championship with a knockout blow in Game 6. The Mavs could have ended their best-of-seven series here on Thursday night.
But before we even look at how the Mavericks let it slip away, answer this question: If before the game, you would have known that Nick Van Exel would score 35 points, Michael Finley would score 21, Dirk Nowitzki would score 21, Steve Nash would score 15 and Raef LaFrentz would score 15 -- combined with a four-point, three-assist night from Mike Bibby -- would you have made travel arrangements to Dallas for Game 7 in advance? Of course, you wouldn't have. But that's exactly what happened.
Back to the missed opportunities.
The Kings missed their first eight shots of the game, giving the Mavs ample opportunity to step on the Kings' throats early. Problem was, Dallas only managed two points of its own in the game's first five minutes.
A 15- or 17-point cushion early on would have taken the life out of Arco Arena and made the Kings believe that this really isn't their year, the injury to Chris Webber aside. But Peja Stojakovic very quietly scored on runners in the lane and backdoor cuts while Bobby Jackson knocked in momentum-killing 3-pointers.
The next chance for the Mavs came with Bibby being mysteriously ineffective. One of my keys to victory for Sacramento was that they needed a standout performance from Bibby, who has been clearly outplayed by Nash in this series. An effort like the kind Bibby delivered last postseason, when he averaged 21.8 points and shot 54 percent from the field, would all but guarantee a Game 7. But for the entire fourth quarter, Bibby was kept on the bench in favor of Jim Jackson. Joe and Gavin Maloof, who paid $80 million for Bibby's services in the offseason, didn't seem to mind as they both danced in the aisles during the late stages. Both brothers were wearing Mike Bibby jerseys.
Normally, Bobby and Bibby would finish up the game by feeding off each other. But with Bibby playing so poorly, Rick Adelman made the coaching move of the series and stayed with JJ.
When Jim Jackson left Dallas on bad terms back in 1997, Don Nelson called him a baby. Jackson has long felt that Nelson's public opinion of him has prevented him from finding a team to call home for many years. He paid the coach back in part by being the most important King on the floor in the second half.
Jackson finished with 12 points and 10 rebounds, seven of those boards coming on the offensive end late in the shot clock. That means, in a close game, the Kings had offensive possessions of 40 to 45 seconds, which limited the Mavericks' chances to score.
"Our mindset coming into this game wasn't one of desperation," Jackson said. "We had a job and we did it. After withstanding their early push we controlled the tempo of the game."
The Mavericks did not play poorly. In fact, they played just the opposite. "Aside from the fact that we lost, I thought it was a very well-played game," Mavericks head coach Don Nelson said. "We did what we came to do except we just didn't close them out."
Dallas showed the steely resolve of a team full of playoff vets. The Mavs were unaffected by the notoriously loud Arco-nauts and kept their composure each time the Kings made a run, especially when they trailed by nine points with under three minutes to play.
They got their final chance when Walt Williams launched a potential game-winning three with 13 seconds left that would have capped a marvelous comeback. When Williams' shot rimmed out and the ever-present Bobby Jackson ran down the loose ball, the Kings earned the only thing in these playoffs that meant anything to them.
One more chance.
Chris Palmer is a senior reporter for ESPN The Magazine.
Don Nelson's Mavericks swung and whiffed on their chance to knock out the Kings at Arco.