Johnson has tried a variety of strategies to prod Dampier. After Game 1 he joined with Nowitzki in challenging the center's manhood, saying, "No one can hide right now. You've got to really put up or shut up." After Game 3's letdown, he vowed to keep Dampier on the court even if he got in early foul trouble. And after Dampier's strong Game 4, Johnson appealed to him for more of the same. Dampier claims he has changed nothing. "I just try to play hard on both ends of the floor all the time," he said, not so convincingly.
In contrast to Dampier's fluctuating play was the sustained brilliance of Nash, whose legend seems to grow with each hair-whipping drive to the basket. Always popular, he seems to have become even more of a folk hero--the little guy made good--after edging O'Neal for the MVP. In Phoenix they showered him with cheers, and in Dallas, his home for six seasons, it was almost as if he'd never left. The arena was dotted with number 13 Suns jerseys; a throng of small boys chanted, We want Nash! during pregame warmups; and his signed Mavericks jersey was still available at the American Airlines Center fan shop (at the low, low price of $799).
In fact, it's hard to find anyone who doesn't like Nash, either for his entertaining style of play or his all-around dudeness. His teammates profess to love him: "He does as much coaching as the coaches," says backup center Steven Hunter. Canadians all but deify him: Forward Quentin Richardson calls him Wolverine, after the X-Men hero, because of his nationality, his furriness, his effect on the ladies and the way he "slices and dices the defense." And D'Antoni gushes, "It's impossible not to have a great relationship because he's exactly what a coach wants and needs and dreams of." Even his tendency to tuck his hair behind his ears has caught on; players in rec leagues as far away as New York City have been spotted licking their fingers and rearranging their locks a la Nash. Told of this phenomenon, Nash cracks up. "That's pretty stupid," he says. "I wish I didn't do it, to be honest. But in the game you'll do anything to win. If my hands are dry, I'll lick my fingers, no matter how stupid I look. And if my hair's in my face and my girlfriend won't let me cut it, I'll brush it out of my face, no matter how stupid I look doing that as well."
No matter which side of the hair divide you come down on, one thing seems clear: Nash & Co. are making the playoffs exciting again. And on Sunday one question remained: Can the Wolverine kill the Mavs, or will he merely wound them?