By Art Garcia, NBA.com
Posted May 10 2009 2:01PM
DALLAS -- Whistles blew freely Saturday afternoon during Game 3 of the Western Conference semifinals. Sixty-one times, in fact.
The Mavericks were left wondering why they didn't hear No. 62 until two hours after the final horn.
All they heard when it mattered was silence, as Dallas swingman Antoine Wright attempted to foul Denver star Carmelo Anthony in the final few frantic seconds of regulation. Nothing happened ... except for Melo drilling a 3-pointer with one second left.
More silence, the deathly kind, followed at American Airlines Center. Down for most of the fourth quarter, the Nuggets made the loudest statement of the series and moved to the brink of the Western Conference finals after the 106-105 final that left the Mavericks plenty mad.
"I'm upset like everyone else in this locker room and I feel like we have the right to be upset," Wright said. "The series is not over."
Not officially. The Nuggets can take care of that Monday night back on the Mavericks' home floor.
"I smelled blood coming in the building," Kenyon Martin boasted. "Not just because we're up three. We were up 2-0, so we wanted to come down here and just keep our poise and play hard and it went our way."
Dallas players, coaches and front-office types were fuming because they know the reality of a 3-0 deficit. They also know what they saw at the end. Team officials asked the league to review the final sequence, freely acknowledging nothing would change and unsure any ruling would come out of New York.
The league responded at 8:52 p.m. CT -- the game ended at about 7 -- and that had to burn even more. NBA executive Joel Litvin issued this statement: "At the end of the Dallas-Denver game this evening, the officials missed an intentional foul committed by Antoine Wright on Carmelo Anthony, just prior to Anthony's 3-point basket."
The succinct response from Dallas owner Mark Cuban after Litvin's statement: "[Stuff] happens."
Second-guessing the game officials offers little solace for Dallas in the series that could have become interesting. After a pair of fourth-quarter blowouts in Denver, the Mavericks finally found themselves in a close game down the stretch and appeared in control, up 105-101 going into the final 30 seconds.
Denver's only postseason loss had been a close affair in Game 3 at New Orleans in the first round. Maybe the Nuggets, their dominance in their first six wins at record levels, were actually vulnerable in those nip-and-tuck contests that normally make the Playoffs.
"We respect that the Playoffs are tough," Denver coach George Karl said.
There's not much tougher, at least from the Dallas perch, than the disputed ending. It began with the Mavericks clinging to a two-point lead (105-103) and with a foul to give with 6.5 seconds left. Martin inbounded at the Dallas end to Melo, who bobbled the ball outside the arc and was facing away from the basket. Wright bodied up to Anthony and appeared to commit the foul. Wright then pulled back, lifting his arms to avoid further contact.
Regaining control of the ball, Melo continued through with the play and rose for a 3-pointer that put the exclamation point on a 31-point effort. Mavs players appeared to ease up, perhaps sensing a foul was to be called with less than three seconds left. NBA official Mark Wunderlich was the closest to the action, and Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle referenced him afterward.
"I'm almost as disappointed for Mark as I am for us," Carlisle sad. "It's a call he makes 100 percent of the time."
Not quite. Wunderlich was also on the floor during the controversial end of Game 4 between the Spurs and Lakers in the West finals last year. An apparent foul by Lakers guard Derek Fisher when Spurs guard Brent Barry was trying to set up for a game-winning 3 -pointer wasn't called. The league indicated the next day that a foul should have been called.
Wright could have wrapped up Melo, making sure to sell the foul and take judgment out of the equation. Wright said he didn't want to make any extra contact in case Anthony was about to shoot, which would have led to three foul shots.
"What do you want me to do? Do you want me to Derek Fisher him, just take him out and then I get a flagrant foul late in the game," Wright fumed. "I can't blatantly run through the guy. I have to try to make a play on the ball and that's what I felt like I did. I didn't want to jeopardize my team in any way by making a foolish foul."
Wright was still certain a whistle was coming, especially since the whistles were blowing all game. The teams combined for 89 free throws, with the Mavericks taking 49. Though they made 40, three of Dallas' best at the line -- Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Terry and Josh Howard -- missed one each in the last five minutes.
Howard didn't hide his disgust with the outcome and the referees after the game. He had to be restrained by Dallas equipment manager Al Whitley and assistant coach Darrell Armstrong while yelling at Wunderlich. Another official, Bennett Salvatore, was also involved in the postgame chaos. The Mavericks have a long history with Salvatore, which hit its painful zenith during the loss to Miami in the 2006 Finals.
Nowitzki's strong showing ended in frustration. He misfired on his last five shots, including a fade-away at the foul line that would have clinched it with eight seconds left and desperation 3-pointer at the buzzer. The loss stung Nowitzki as deeply as any he's felt over his 11-year career after several days of off-the-court turmoil involving his personal life.
"It was a tough week for me and my family, but I stayed with it," an emotionally spent Nowitzki said after scoring 33 and grabbing 16 boards. "If you're going through tough times in your life, basketball is always an escape."
Even if that escape is leading to a dead end.
If you have a question or comment for Art Garcia, send him an email.
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