On May 17, 2003, the Dallas Mavericks were about to host the Sacramento Kings in Game 7 of the NBA's Western Conference Semifinals. In their American Airlines Center locker room, assistant coach Charlie Parker had littered two giant grease boards with key strategy ("Make Peja [Stojakovic] go left"), stats ("[Mike] Bibby shooting 92% FTs") and a number of Xs-and-Os offensive and defensive plays. But 15 minutes before tip-off, the boards got edited. One of the Mavs walked up to the boards, took an eraser and wiped it clean. In giant letters, he simply wrote one word: HEART. "Game 7s aren't about strategy," Avery Johnson explained at the time, "they're about soul."
Now head coach instead of backup guard, Johnson leads the Mavs into one of the most important Game 7s in franchise history tonight against the San Antonio Spurs at the AT&T Center at 7. At stake: Win, and the Mavs will be favored to win the NBA title; lose, and they'll be left to a long summer trying to fathom how they blew a 3-1 series lead. After Johnson's motivational editing in '03, the Mavs--led by current Spurs Nick Van Exel and Michael Finley--torched the Kings by 13 points.
Tonight, heart will certainly be a contributing factor. But us sports writers, we like to dig a little deeper. Or perhaps a little more shallow: Home teams in NBA Game 7s are an astounding 78-17 all-time, including Detroit's 18-point win over Cleveland on Sunday. So history says Dallas has only a 17% of winning. The Mavs, however, can win tonight--if they push the game into their pace. Most important thing is the tempo. The Spurs are 3-13 when allowing 100 points or more. In the three Mavs win in this series they've scored 113, 104 and 123. In the three losses, only 85, 97 and 86. Spot a trend? In the last two games Dallas hasn't been as pedal-to-the-metal aggressive, and it's showed-on the scoreboard, and at the free-throw line. The Spurs have made more free throws than the Mavs have attempted in the last two games. In the last six quarters the Mavs are averaging only 21 points. In other words, for the Mavs it's high-paced + high-risk = high reward. Play a safe, slow-down game, and they'll be golfing by Wednesday. It's really pretty simple. Not as simple as "HEART," but still. --Richie Whitt