By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com
DALLAS – Jermaine O’Neal will always be remembered most for his days as an Indiana Pacer. But now the 18-year veteran seeking one last shot at glory plays for the Golden State Warriors, a team that’s fought through injury and adversity, and down the pressure-packed stretch run just might be the antithesis of O’Neal’s fraying former club.
Starting at center once again Tuesday night for the injured Andrew Bogut in a game magnified by playoff implications for both the Warriors and Mavericks, O’Neal ripped Dallas for 20 points, eight rebounds and one massive, game-altering blocked shot. Late in the fourth quarter, Mavs guard Monta Ellis dunked over O’Neal to give Dallas a 102-97 lead and a wave of momentum in an arena buzzing with playoff-style excitement. This time, as Ellis tried to turn the corner, O’Neal made his move. He snared Ellis’ baseline fallaway with his right hand with 11.6 seconds to go in overtime, and in one motion brought it down and fed it out to Draymond Green, who got it to Stephen Curry, who ended it with a tough, contested jumper over Jose Calderon from the left wing with 0.1 seconds showing on the clock.
As time expired, the Warriors, rallying late in the fourth and again in overtime, celebrated the 122-120 victory as furious Mavs owner Mark Cuban, befuddled that no goaltending was called on O’Neal, engaged in an animated discussion with the referees.
“When he dunked it, I was a second slow, almost the same identical play,” O’Neal said. “This time, I’m understanding where I need to be and Klay [Thompson] did a great job on making him pick up his dribble and really it was just perfect timing. It was like a second away from goaltending, if you’re too late, and I was on top of it. I blocked it, grabbed it and outlet it. There’s no way they could have called that [goaltending].”
The victory, achieved in front of Warriors owner Joe Lacob — who is taking in the road trip — dulled the pain of Sunday’s home loss to the New York Knicks. That defeat came on the heels of another dramatic victory, this time against a Memphis team that, like Dallas, is trying to not just make the playoffs but had the sixth-seeded (and David Lee-less) Warriors within their sights.
The margin for error in Tuesday’s game was as razor thin as the separation in the standings. A Dallas win would have moved them one-half game behind Golden State, who now head to San Antonio to grapple with the Spurs’ 18-game win streak. Instead, it’s the Mavs who slipped from seventh to out of the playoff picture in ninth, one-half game behind Memphis and Phoenix.
This one carried tremendous importance for the Mavs. They were just 4-3 heading into their final game of a franchise-long eight-game homestand. All three losses came down to the wire, two in overtime. This was one they simply had to have, but couldn’t get against a team that came in lacking frontcourt starters Lee and Bogut.
“Heartbreaker,” said Dirk Nowitzki, who did all he could with 33 points and 11 rebounds.
The Warriors, feeding off a belief that many see them as down and out, found a different interpretation of a wild 53 minutes in Big D.
“This is late in the year and I have seen teams say how easy it is to let go of the rope,” Warriors coach Mark Jackson said. “This is a team that’s not going to do it. Contrary to anything, we’re not going to do it. This is a quality win against a team that had everything going their way and I’m proud of these guys. They deserve the credit.”
Jackson called his bunch a “tied-together team,” and emphasized, “I don’t think you need more evidence.”
Sharpshooter Klay Thompson, who had 27 points, including the game-tying 3-pointer with 1:01 to go in regulation, played up the Warriors’ unbreakable mindset.
“People think we’re down and out, it just proves we have a lot of basketball in us,” Thompson said. “We never hang our heads. We might have done that in the past, but this is a changed team. When we get those guys [Lee and Bogut] back, we’ll be even better.”
Said Curry on the heels of his second last-second game-winner against Dallas this season: “We understand that we lost some games that we should have won, but we don’t listen to any noise outside our locker room. For us, we understand we still control our own destiny. If we take care of our business we’ll be fine. So if we shut out all that noise, it’ll be the best situation for us.”
As the Warriors cleared out of the cramped visiting locker room, O’Neal, 35, hadn’t finished saying his piece, hadn’t finished putting this season, expected to be his final one, in perspective for himself, his team and everybody who follows it.
“So many people around us are trying to tear us apart,” O’Neal said. “I’ve never seen, even in your own town, so much adversity and so much negativity around a team that’s really striving to do special things. It baffles you a little bit, but it says a lot about our head coach, our staff, an organization that really supports us and keeps us in open arms. And it says a lot about these guys in this locker room who aren’t willing to let negativity tear us apart.
“We’re going to continue to try to learn and be a better team, continue to learn from our mistakes and I think tonight showed that we have a lot of character on this team. We don’t have a lot of extended playoff experience, but we’re learning and we’re learning on the fly, and we’re fighting.
“We’re fighting for ourselves, we’re fighting for our coach, we’re fighting for our city, we’re fighting for our organization.”