Remember when mercurial guard Monta Ellis was considered a bad fit for the Dallas Mavericks after signing a three-year, $25 million contract?
He had the label of being a shoot-first lead guard with a selfish mentality, on top of being an inefficient and inconsistent shooter in previous stops in Golden State and Milwaukee.
They called Ellis the difference-maker in a 109-108 victory against the San Antonio Spurs to give the Mavericks a 2-1 series lead in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs.
Vince Carter’s amazing 3-pointer at the buzzer will garner all the headlines and be played on continuous highlights.
But it was Ellis’ coming-of-age performance that was the foundation for the victory.
The eight-year veteran led the way with 29 points on 12-of-22 shooting, including three 3-pointers.
More crucial were Ellis’ 12 points in the fourth quarter on 5-of-5 shooting — highlighted by a driving hook shot over the outstretched arms of Spurs center Tim Duncan to tie the game at 106-106 with 24.2 seconds left.
Manu Ginobli’s layup with 1.7 seconds left set the stage for Carter’s heroics.
It was Ellis who set the table for the Mavericks’ victory all game long.
“Monta has really made everybody look really smart,” Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said before turning facetious. “That was a dumb signing wasn’t it. He was just the worst signing of the summer ... just not efficient in the playoffs ... not efficient in the regular season.”
Cuban continued, “Monta was great. They were taking a lot away from Dirk [Nowitzki] and Monta stepped into a lot of open spaces. He made huge, huge shots. He had the drive to the bucket that tied it. He deserves a ton of credit.”
Ellis said his game hasn’t changed much, just his environment.
“A lot of guys took criticism on this team,” Ellis said. “We put it on our back to prove everybody wrong. We are playing as a team and we are winning. Once you win, everything else goes out the window.
“I don’t make it personal. I just go out there and do what I have been doing my whole career. I’m on a better team. There are a lot of weapons on this team, so I don’t have to score 65 percent of the offense and do everything.”
Ellis has carried a big load the past two games, leading the Mavericks with 21 points in the 113-92 victory in Game 2.
Yet, Ellis has only quieted critics who point to his 4-of-14 shooting in the series opener as evidence of his not able to shine on the big stage of the playoffs for the first time.
He has given the Mavericks a reliable No. 1 option with the perennial All-Star Nowitzki yet to have a breakout performance in the three games against the Spurs.
The Spurs are daring Ellis to beat them, and he is making them pay with a combination of outside jumpers and drives to the basket off the pick and roll.
“He has been great on the attack,” Nowitzki said of Ellis.