Warriors rip Mavericks at home, lead 2-1

4-28-07 -- Lucky is the name of Don Nelson's charming pound puppy -- and not the reason his Golden State Warriors have the Dallas Mavericks in the playoff doghouse.

The brown-and-white pooch is usually at his master's heels at the Warriors' practices, including Saturday's headache-free workout at their downtown training complex following the party of the season in Oakland.

But there was no luck involved in Golden State's 109-91 victory Friday night to take a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series. On both ends of the court, in nearly every quarter of the first three games, the Warriors simply have been better than the 67-win Mavericks, whose championship hopes could be made or broken in Game 4 Sunday night.

"We can definitely play with them," said Baron Davis, whose playmaking and leadership pushed the Warriors to comfortable leads in both victories. "I can admit we're confident, but everybody can still play better in Game 4. Game 3 was an energy game, an emotional game for us. We just have to ride that emotion the rest of the way."

With Lucky sitting obediently at his feet, Nelson refused to change his underdog stance even after watching the Warriors dismantle Dallas in Golden State's first home playoff game since 1994 -- although Nelson grinningly acknowledges he has fibbed about such things before.

"We're not the best team in this series," Nelson said. "To have a chance, we've got to play over our heads. ... It's not a philosophy. It's true. We're the underdog. I don't have to prove it."

But as anybody in the deafening crowd at Oracle Arena on Friday night could attest, the Warriors have been a better team than the Mavericks for all but a few minutes in this stunning first-round playoff series.

Golden State is playing aggressive, carefree basketball, with Davis and fellow starters Jason Richardson, Stephen Jackson and Monta Ellis taking turns dissecting Dallas' defense with ball movement and drives to the hoop. Though the Warriors depended on proficient 3-point shooting during the regular season, they're struggling behind the line (20-for-73) -- and even those misses haven't mattered.

The Mavericks were considerably more subdued during a workout at the Warriors' arena. With probable league MVP Dirk Nowitzki struggling to wreak his usual offensive havoc, Dallas seems disoriented and reactionary against the Warriors' free-flowing offensive attack.

Just a week ago, this matchup with former coach Nelson was an intriguing detour on their expected path back to the NBA finals. It has become a nightmare -- and a big test of the Mavs' playoff toughness and leadership early in the two-month postseason.

"(Game 4) is a must-win for us as we look at it," said Jerry Stackhouse, who had 10 points on 3-of-9 shooting Friday night. "Because either we go back home and protect home, or come back here with the chance of possibly dropping the series with this type of crowd and atmosphere that they have here."

Stackhouse, Jason Terry and Devin Harris were a combined 11-for-31 from the field in Game 3, and nobody on the Mavericks' roster made more than 50 percent of his shots. But Dallas has sometimes survived such struggles thanks to Nowitzki, whose unorthodox offensive brilliance is the center of Dallas' game plan.

But the Warriors have marginalized and frustrated the German star, usually with Jackson leading a pesky defensive effort. And when Nowitzki got frustrated as the Mavs fell behind in Game 3, he took just four shots in the second half -- a surefire recipe for disaster in Big D.

"I'm just making him work, putting my body against him," Jackson said. "You can't stop him, but you've got to make him work. And it's not just me, it's a bunch of guys. We're not doing anything that everybody else hasn't done, but we're just having some success."

Nowitzki's subdued manner after Game 3 reflected the pressure sitting squarely on his shoulders. He knows anything less than a championship will be a huge disappointment in Dallas after the best regular season in franchise history.

Citing the Mavericks' poor starts in both losses and their decided lack of resilience late in the games, coach Avery Johnson is wondering about his team's mental state when faced with such a surprising challenge so early in the playoff schedule.

"I graduated in psychology, and I had this professor named Dr. Kessler, and she really stretched me mentally," Johnson said. "Let's think about that. If you get to the finals and you lose, then what are you supposed to do coming into next season?

"I don't know what other approach we should have taken in terms of coming back and talking about doing all the detail and the little things and giving ourselves a chance. ... This last game, we got off to a poor start, and we didn't have a good anything the rest of the game. We weren't looking internally to see what's wrong with our team."