By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com
DALLAS — Even as he’s reshaped his reputation through 80 games playing alongside a legend and for an offensive innovator, Monta Ellis at 7:35 p.m. Central Time on Saturday night still stood 48 minutes away from getting back into the playoffs.
Nearly three hours later, moments after a late collapse in which he missed two free throws in the final 20 seconds was narrowly averted, Ellis, smiling and surrounded by cameras and notepads, said his season-high-tying 37 points on 15-for-23 shooting, plus five assists against the equally desperate Phoenix Suns, was nothing personal.
It was all about the team, he said.
“This is nothing for me personally,” Ellis said. “I do everything for my teammates, I do everything for my organization that I play for and I leave it all on the court. That’s all.”
In an interview back in 2012, Ellis, wanting to emphasize that he is a complete player and not just a flinger, famously said “Monta have it all.” On Saturday night, with his team begging for it, he did it all.
He logged 43 minutes, 28 seconds of the 101-98 victory and every tick of the second half simply because coach Rick Carlisle couldn’t afford to take his headstrong gunner and virtuoso playmaker out of the game. When the NBA’s 10th all-time leading scorer, Dirk Nowitzki, couldn’t find a rhythm early — he scored 21 of his 23 points in the second half — Ellis attacked and never stopped.
He had 14 at halftime, the reason — with center Brandan Wright — why the Suns’ lead wasn’t bigger than 57-46. He scored 11 points in the third quarter, his back-to-back 3-pointers in transition slicing the Suns’ 11-point bulge down five. Then came 12 more in the fourth plus a strip of Channing Frye and a breakaway layup for a 94-89 Dallas lead with 4:03 to go.
“It was tough, man,” said Suns guard Eric Bledsoe, who went toe-to-toe with Ellis for 29 points on 11-for-15 shooting and six assists, but with 19 seconds to go was blocked at the rim by Wright on a potential game-tying drive. “Monta is one of the premiere scorers in this league when he gets it going like that.”
Not personal? Ellis’ teammates weren’t buying it. This entire season has been personal.
“He’s missed the playoffs a whole lot, and I know he wanted it and you could tell he wanted it,” Devin Harris said. “You could tell he was engaged from the start. I’m just happy for him.”
Ellis is going back to the playoffs for just the third time in his career, and Dallas is going back after a one-year hiatus that interrupted a streak of 12 consecutive postseason appearances. For Ellis, this time is different. He’s happy. He’s counted upon.
“At the time we needed him most, he stepped up and played his biggest game of the year,” Carlisle said. “We had to play him the entire second half; we couldn’t get him out.”
Last season with Milwaukee, Ellis was miserable and has said so. So miserable he left $11 million on the table to get out. The Bucks backed into the eighth seed at 38-44 and were a first-round mop job for the Miami Heat. In 2006-07, Ellis was a second-year free-wheeler on a Warriors team that streaked into the playoffs as an eighth seed, upset the No. 1 Mavs in the first round and quickly bowed out to Utah in the second round.
This season Ellis, averaging 19.0 points on just 15.5 shot attempts, has won more games on the 49-32 Mavs than in any previous season. The irony is that in the stiff Western Conference, it will be good for only the seventh or eighth seed and a first-round playoff date against either Oklahoma City or San Antonio. When the Warriors won 48 games in 2007-08, the previous high in Ellis’ career, they failed to make the playoffs.
On Saturday night, it didn’t seem to make much difference to Ellis if Dallas had been locking up the top seed or that he needed to be near-perfect on his home floor just to secure the elusive playoff berth on the penultimate game of the regular season.
Ultimately, the season might still come to an end in short order once the playoffs begin next weekend. Dallas, which relies so heavily on old, but reliable legs — Nowtizki (35), Shawn Marion (35), and Vince Carter (37) — and their 28-year-old former chucker, has lost nine a row to the Spurs. Until taking two from Oklahoma City in the last six weeks, Dallas had lost 11 in a row to the Thunder, including the 2012 first-round sweep.
For now, Ellis was content to soak in this moment, his steely performance and what it meant for a franchise whose fans had practically come to take the postseason as a birthright to be a playoff team again.
“Ah man, it’s lovely,” Ellis said. “We set this goal at the beginning of training camp. Everybody doubted us and for us to come and be here in the playoffs, and then add our goal to get 50 wins, we got one more game to do that and get ready for the playoffs.”