SAN ANTONIO -- Before this series started, Dallas Mavericks general manager Donnie Nelson felt so confident in Jason Kidd's rejuvenated play over the last two months of the regular season, he joked that the team's championship window would be open for another eight years.
At least it was assumed he was joking.
But his point was clear: The franchise trusted that the aging but wily point guard could run a team that dismissed play calling as unnecessary and ventured full-bore into a postseason bound to defy the traditional axiom that playoff games are won in the meat grinder of half-court basketball.
And that's exactly where another Mavericks postseason is dying. Sunday's demoralizing 92-89 loss to the San Antonio Spurs that included an epic 11-point third-quarter meltdown pounded that message home again. Management and the core players can talk of exemplary depth and experience and talent, but the head of this snake -- as Spurs point guard Tony Parker called Kidd after Game 2 -- is being squeezed out of relevance in this series.
This is not about laying the sole blame for a 3-1 first-round series deficit and three consecutive losses at Kidd's feet. The list of inadequacies is long. Caron Butler, acquired to replace Josh Howard and inject toughness into a finesse team, has provided little more than low-percentage volume shooting and shaky defense.
Butler, Shawn Marion and Jason Terry entered Game 4 with shooting percentages below 40 percent. Coach Rick Carlisle's rotation, or lack of one, leaves this team with role players without roles. And as Sunday's tragic 12 minutes after halftime displayed, the Mavs remain a team easily rattled in the heat of battle.
"If you told me before the game that we would hold the Big Three to the numbers they had in the game, I would have said we win the game," said Dirk Nowitzki, double-teamed so effectively Sunday that he scrambled just to get off 10 shots and score 17 points. "We couldn't generate any offense. We are doing decent on defense, but we just can't generate scoring and offense."
And that's the problem.
Kidd is a sure-fire Hall of Famer indeed. But on this team of jump-shooters -- and not very good ones, with the exception of Nowitzki -- Kidd is drowning under heavy minutes and the Spurs' relentless pressure defense. His shooting is erratic, his assists are drying up and he's producing only concentrated bursts of persistent, up-tempo play that affords this team its only real chance to attack the rim.
In the third quarter, in which the Mavs coughed up an 11-point lead and likely cost themselves any chance of recovering in this series, Dallas' offense went scoreless for more than six minutes. The lead became a three-point deficit. Kidd, whose 3-of-10 shooting (2-of-7 on 3-pointers) negligibly improved his 28.0 percent mark coming in, directed 11 consecutive futile possessions.
"In the third quarter when we had an 11-point lead, we just didn't score," said Kidd, who finished with only five assists in each of the past two losses. "We knew they would make a run, they did, but the main thing is down the stretch we had our opportunities to get back in the game and we just couldn't make a shot."
But unlike the Spurs' trio of guards and other point guards on Western Conference playoff teams, Kidd is no longer capable of creating his own shot. His first step no longer gets him past his defender, and when times he does it's painful to watch him try to finish with so little elevation left in his legs.
When he does get into the lane and kicks it out, potential assists are doomed by a bombardment of ill-fated jumpers. And with his own 3-point shot failing him, Kidd' effectiveness is further blunted.
If something health-wise is bothering him, it certainly isn't evident in his burdensome workload, and he isn't saying otherwise.
"I feel great. It's just the ball's not going in for me behind the arc," said Kidd, who is in the first year of a three-year, $25 million deal. "The big thing is that I can do something different to help the team win. That's maybe making plays and getting the ball in the paint."
Since the 100-88 victory in Game 1, the Mavs have scored 88, 90 and 89 points.
They've produced only five more fast-break points than the Spurs in the four games.
In Game 4, the Mavs put up 31 and 30 points in the second and fourth quarters, yet inexplicably combined for 28 in the first and third.
"It just gets stagnant and we don't make plays," said Terry, who was scoreless through three quarters before heating up for 13 points. "At home we push the ball a lot better, so that's going to be a motto and a theme for the rest of this series. Score 100, you got a good chance of winning on these boys."
The Mavs haven't come close in three games.
"Well, we're not making shots, which takes away from the assists," Kidd said. "The big thing is that we got great looks. We got to keep positive and knock down those shots when they present themselves on Tuesday and try to get back here on Thursday."