Terry cloth: Can Mavs cover for their PG's mistake?

Updated: May 19, 2006, 7:49 PM ET
By Marc Stein | ESPN.com

DALLAS -- Jason Terry will be banned from the building, Michael Finley will be Public Enemy No. 4 in his old building and those inevitably will be the first items dissected in the pregame buildup.

We prefer to skip to the truly wild stuff:

Jason Terry
Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty ImagesJason Terry could be going from series hero to series goat.

The reality, namely, that all of us watching this what-next NBA have a better chance of seeing a Mavs versus Cavs matchup in the Finals than a Spurs versus Pistons rematch.

We repeat: Mavs versus Cavs in the NBA Finals.

As of Friday morning, even accounting for Terry's poor judgment, that looked like a legitimately safer bet than another installment of San Antonio versus Detroit.

Freaky Friday, indeed.

Of course, all of this can change by the wee hours of Saturday morning if the Pistons (in Cleveland) and Spurs (in Big D), both coming from 3-2 down, can muster the road wins needed to save their seasons and preserve their imperiled status as season-long title favorites.

Who would bet against that after all the upset specials in this NBA Tournament already?

"This has been a crazy playoffs," said Spurs forward Robert Horry. "But right when you thought Phoenix was dead [in the first round against the Lakers], they rose. Anything can happen."

That's especially true in what Mavericks coach Avery Johnson unreservedly referred to as "the Western Conference finals" in his remarks after Wednesday night's Game 5. No one bothered to correct Johnson, either, after witnessing the third straight game -- and fourth in five -- in which these Interstate 35 rivals were separated by two or fewer points at the regulation buzzer.

You'd believe any ending in this one now, wouldn't you? Seriously.

Mavs in Six.

Spurs in Seven.

Mavs in Seven, too.

Conservatives will presume that Dallas, without Terry's clutch shot making, will have blown their chance to topple the mighty Spurs if they can't close out Game 6 at home.

Kobe Bryant, right, and Raja Bell.
AP Photo/Rick HossmanThe Suns were able to win one without a suspended Raja Bell.

Me?

Remembering the Suns' Game 6 road win in Los Angeles without suspended Raja Bell and knowing Terry's potential replacement in the starting lineup is a matchup nightmare when he's feeling it, I wouldn't be surprised at this point if Marquis Daniels went for 20-something points.

I'd be even less surprised if an amped Dirk Nowitzki, who responded to the news of Terry's one-game ban by rushing back to the Mavs' practice facility for his standard extra round of night shooting, shed the shackles of the Spurs' constant defensive attention to make a run at 40.

Like the rest of his teammates, Nowitzki didn't learn of Terry's punishment for punching Finley in a loose-ball scrum until after Dallas' afternoon practice. When reached Thursday night, Nowitzki said he preferred not to discuss Terry's actions or the league's ruling but didn't hesitate to predict that the Mavs will rally around a suspension their owner, Mark Cuban, has loudly proclaimed to be "not right."

"This is Game 6 for the two best teams in the West," Nowitzki said. "You better bring it ... and we will."

The Spurs, meanwhile, expect that sort of bravado by now, unfamiliar as it sounds coming from the longtime No. 2 in the Texas Power Rankings. One San Antonio starter told me recently that, for years, his team could always sense a lack of belief on the Dallas side. Not this season, though.

Clinching a spot in the actual Western Conference finals without Terry would be the most conclusive proof that this is a new breed of Mav, as the team has maintained all season. Yet Dallas has been pretty convincing already, forcing the defending champs to scramble like never before.

Gregg Popovich has used a different starting lineup in each of the five games and has totally junked San Antonio's traditional alignment -- two 7-footers on the floor at all times -- to surround Tim Duncan with guards and small forwards. "The lineup we're in now seems to be working the best," Duncan says, echoing Pop's contention that it's the only way they can keep up with Dallas' athletic and unorthodox mix of offensive options.

There's only one way, furthermore, to fully reclaim the confidence edge, and that's winning on the Mavs' floor to force a Game 7 on Monday back in San Antonio. The problem? The Spurs easily could have won both their first two visits and still aren't sure how that they didn't win at least one.

Tim Duncan
AP PhotoSo far, the Mavs have been able to withstand Tim Duncan's play.

Holding on to prevail in Wednesday's Game 5 at home was an undeniable spirit lifter -- especially as it was the Spurs' first playoff triumph in the Duncan Era, dating to 1997, when faced with a series deficit of 3-0, 3-1 or 3-2 -- but even the Mavs' first flurry of crunch-time errors since Game 1 didn't allow the survivors to get too giddy. That's because the Spurs, even in the two games they've won, couldn't get any lasting separation from the Mavs.

Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili have combined for 90 and 81 points in the past two games and have one one-point win to show for all that production. Their big worry now is that Dallas, like the Sacramento Kings when they lost Ron Artest to a one-game suspension in Round 1, will play loose and free without Terry and re-energized if his reinstatement coincides with a Game 7.

There's also this: Dallas is 4-0 at home this postseason, compared with a playoff record of 12-12 at American Airlines Center -- and 0-3 against San Antonio -- in the building's first five seasons.

"You can see they've got confidence," Horry said. "Coming in [to this series], they felt very good playing us because they have a coach [who's] been in [San Antonio's] system forever. His confidence is giving their players confidence."

The solace for San Antonio is that Terry, a scoring guard who gradually won Johnson over with steely bursts like the 32-pointer that helped Dallas take Game 4, surely didn't hurt the Spurs' survival chances with his latest playoff gaffe.

It was in last spring's second round, remember, that Terry mistakenly backed off the famous point guard he succeeded -- with the Mavs up three -- to allow Steve Nash to hit a triple that forced overtime in Game 6. Terry's error drew a heated on-court rebuke from Nowitzki and enabled Phoenix to win in OT and advance to the West finals.

Terry says memories of that mistake have motivated him all season, but this one might prove to be more costly and unforgettable. Especially if the Cavs do KO Detroit.

If that happens, the winner of this I-35 series becomes the NBA's favorite to win it all.

If, say, the Cavs advance and the Mavs don't? Finley, whose classy Dallas past has been quickly forgotten, might not be the only hero-turned-outcast around here.

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.

Marc Stein | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com
• Senior NBA writer for ESPN.com
• Began covering the NBA in 1993-94
• Also covered soccer, tennis and the Olympics

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