SAN ANTONIO -- Shaq and Dwight Howard can quibble over being called Superman, but right now Superman suits up for the Dallas Mavericks. That's right, Dirk Nowitzki is Superman and not by choice, but by sheer necessity.
We all know Superman flies solo, no masked sidekick to pack a wallop and, heck, not even a masked canine to stand by his side. But, let's leave the dog references to San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich.
Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle has his own issues now with a team that talked afterward of sticking together, yet the Western Conference's No. 2 seed has the appearance of a club fraying under the pressure as yet another promising postseason begins to slip away.
With Jason Kidd slumping, Caron Butler benched for the entire second half and Shawn Marion the majority of it, the battling-but-scoring-deficient Mavericks fell in Friday's Game 3, 94-90, to trail the San Antonio Spurs, 2-1, in the best-of-7, first-round series.
It seemed Nowitzki, who took a pummeling in piling up a game-high 35 points that more than doubled the production of his four starting teammates, would have had a better chance of bending steel than having put the Mavs in position to win in the final minutes.
Yet, there they were -- spurred by a 17-0 run in the third quarter and a three-guard lineup that saw spunky, strong-willed J.J. Barea play the entire second half and score 14 massive points -- taking an 81-80 lead with 3:13 to play. But, it was the steady Spurs backcourt of Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and George Hill that made the crunch-time plays, scoring San Antonio's final 14 points and 26 of 28 in the fourth quarter to seal the victory.
Butler, who never removed his sweats after halftime and then left the postgame locker room without uttering a word, Marion, who played just five minutes in the second half, and Kidd combined to make five of their 18 shots.
"It was a coach's decision," Carlisle said of the benching. "I was going with a group that was going good. We needed penetration and that was it."
Kidd finished with seven points, five assists and seven rebounds in 45 minutes. He's 2-of-13 from the field in the last two games, both losses, after putting up 13 points and 11 assists in the Game 1 win. Jason Terry tried to lift the scoring burden off Nowitzki with 17 points, but he went stone cold again in the fourth quarter, missing 6-of-8 shots.
"We're not shooting the ball extremely well, but we gave ourselves a chance to win on the road and that's all you can ask for," Kidd said. "That's the game of basketball."
The question now is what state will the Mavs be in when they return to practice in preparation for pivotal Game 4 that will either even the series going back to Dallas or put the Mavs in a serious hole. While the main theme emanating from the locker room was of sticking together, Marion also voiced confusion and frustration at his deteriorating playing time.
He logged 21 minutes in Game 2 and was frustrated in Game 3 with his second-half benching after limiting Manu Ginobili to two points in the first half. Ginobili, even after getting pounded on the bridge of the nose, erupted for 15 second-half points.
"How can I be effective being pulled in and out like a rag doll," Marion said. "I'm going to go out and play hard when I step on the floor and that's all I can control. Go ask coach, you can't ask us. When I lace my shoes up I'm ready to go. I was told to stay on Ginobili. He didn't score that first half, you know what I'm saying? I had him on clamps. I was on him, but I can't control that.
"I'm going to do what I got to do. I want to play, definitely, I don't want to sit on the damn bench, but what can I do? I'm not making the substitutions. We're still confident. We've got to help each other the best way we can."
Brendan Haywood, who joined the Mavs with Butler in the All-Star break trade, said his longtime teammate in Washington and the rest of his new teammates are still together and still focused on making this a long series.
"Why wouldn't they be? It's the playoffs," Haywood said. "Everybody wants to play; everybody can't play. Right about now it's not about yourself, it's about the team, so I don't have any doubt in my mind everybody's ready to play, whether you play one minute or you play 41 minutes."
Nowitzki might have some doubts. The Mavs got off to another slow start and spent the entire game fighting from behind.
Throughout the regular season, he was asked if it's too much for him to have to carry the scoring load night-in and night-out. The trade was supposed to help.
Kidd's increased scoring in the second half of the season was supposed to help.
But here they are, dependent once again on Superman.
"We need to have four or five guys playing at a really high level, offensively," Carlisle said. "Our whole game has to be such that we strike the right balance that Dirk and Jet don't have to carry too big a load and we can spread the responsibility out."
It better start on Sunday.