DALLAS -- Playoff theory holds that the Dallas Mavericks, until they fully finish off the mighty champs from San Antonio, can't know how it feels to ice a series this big and this tense.
Tables turn in Mavs' favor
Let's just say, then, that they've got a pretty good inkling.
After all . . .
The Mavs just won the kind of game that the Spurs, with 20 championship rings among them, always seem to win.
The defending champs can see it, too, from 3-1 down and the brink of elimination.
"Everyone on that team is playing great," said Spurs forward Robert Horry. "You can't point to one player that ain't."
Not on this night, certainly. Not when Dirk Nowitzki, holding up so nicely on a heavily taped ankle, gets the kind of big-play support he did in Dallas' 123-118 overtime triumph in Game 4. Killer shots from Jason Terry, who had his first 30-point game since January. Supplementary offense from Jerry Stackhouse and Devin Harris. Some determined defense, too, from two bigs -- the unproven DeSagana Diop and much-maligned backup Erick Dampier -- who made Tim Duncan work for every bit of his sparkling stat line: 31 points, 13 boards, six assists.
"Fortunately we had a little bit more in the tank in overtime," said Mavs coach Avery Johnson.
That was evident immediately in the extra period, when Harris countered the Spurs' first miss of OT by zooming downcourt for an uncontested layup before anyone in black and silver could react.
The Spurs actually started far sharper Monday night than they did in Saturday's 104-103 disappointment. They rediscovered Tony Parker, who finally shook off his twin thigh bruises to go back at Harris and register a slump-busting 33 points, his career playoff high. They even seemed poised to survive Manu Ginobili's sixth foul with 2:28 to play and a string of questionable whistles that enraged both teams at various points. Yet when Duncan couldn't convert with a jump hook over Dampier at the regulation buzzer, you could sense that the Spurs -- increasingly looking more creaky than experienced -- wouldn't be able to keep up for five more minutes.
Not when the Mavs have turned this into a small-ball series overflowing with extra possessions. Not with the Mavs playing just enough defense to make this the sort of high-scoring Texas shootout Spurs coach Gregg Popovich dreaded.
The Mavs' ability to control tempo since making Harris a starter in Game 2 put Horry -- a starter as recently as Game 3 -- on the bench for most of the evening. So concerned about keeping up with Dallas' relentless pace, Pop has gone away from every big man on his roster not named Duncan. Horry played nine minutes in this one. Rasho Nesterovic, Nazr Mohammed and Fabricio Oberto combined to play one second.
The most discouraging part for San Antonio, though, is that it was right there twice in spite of these issues and couldn't win the close one it normally wins.
"The bottom line [is] we could have come away here with two wins," Popovich said, clearly stunned that the Spurs didn't get at least one.
On top of all that, Nowitzki hushed any doubts about his sprained right ankle . . . not that he or the Mavericks really had any. It's an injury he has played through dozens of times, to the point that Nowitzki says: "I know you can play and nothing too bad is really going to happen."
Nowitzki's history against the Spurs, furthermore, guaranteed that he'd shoulder a workload that ultimately amounted to 47 minutes. He told me recently that he does occasionally hearken back to the 2003 West finals, when a knee injury Nowitzki suffered in a Game 3 home defeat to San Antonio -- as opposed to the ankle rolls he knows so well -- put him in street clothes for the rest of the series.
"Obviously I've never been back to the Western Conference finals, so that's a very sensitive spot for me," Nowitzki said. "It was kind of tough spot because I never had a knee injury before, so I didn't really know how bad it was. What I was really scared of was if I would play and something else would happen and I blow my knee out. I was still so young that we didn't want to risk it.
"Maybe I could have played [in Game 6]. I don't even know if I would have helped the team or not. . . . Looking back, it was probably the best thing that I sat out."
One more victory should help soothe any lingering regrets.
One more victory for Nowitzki's Mavs, with zero rings among them, and it'll be Duncan's Spurs knowing how it feels to be the No. 2 team in Texas.
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Pistons coach Flip Saunders and the oath-making Rasheed Wallace have a word or two during the Game 4 loss to the Cavs. The "G" word might not be a warm and fuzzy topic in Auburn Hills.
Turns out a "Gilbert-tee" trumps a "Guaran-Sheed."
Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert quietly promised his team would win hours before Game 4 with the Detroit Pistons Monday, an indirect response to one of Rasheed Wallace's loud promises of Pistons' victory.
Gilbert's family nicknamed the proclamations after the first four came true during the regular season. He remained perfect as the Cavs yet again beat the Pistons at their own game, 74-72.
Now the series that once looked like a formality has been quickly evened 2-2 as the Cavs successfully protected their home court.
Gilbert is no soothsayer and at this juncture really has no effect on outcomes, but he does know his team. Like the Washington Wizards before them, the Pistons are learning about them, too.
For various and constantly changing reasons, the primary being LeBron James, the Cavs just win close games. Against the Wizards they won three one-point games by playing great offense. They've outlasted the Pistons in the last two games by playing great defense.
They've now won 17 of their last 19 games decided by four points or less. Most of them have come at home, where the Cavs went 31-10 in the regular season and have taken 14 of the last 15 overall.
Usually the Pistons kill such streaks, their rugged style and togetherness overcoming all. That hasn't been the case in this series for quite some time now, dating back to Game 2 at the Palace of Auburn Hills when the Cavs tightened their defense in the second half to turn a blowout into close game.
Justin (Miami): Marc, we all know where you have stood in regard to your opinions of the Miami Heat this season. My question is, has your opinion of this team changed after watching them play this weekend? In other words, can they beat Detroit?
Marc Stein: Not ready to say they can topple the Pistons because they beat the Nets in three straight. But definitely impressed with how they've responded to Game 1. At 2-1 up, based on Miami has approached the whole season, no one would have been surprised if they came out flat in Game 4, figuring that the job -- regaining HC advantage -- was done. But they've been a different team ever since the Wade-Payton tiff in Chicago.
A lot of folks saw that animated discussion as a sign of real doom. Not me. I think you'll recall that even I, foremost among the nation's many Heat Skeptics, saw that as the first sign of fight from this group all season. They've played with passion ever since, which means they're going to bring confidence into the Detroit series that they didn't have a week ago. Which means we should be able to count on a good series good news for anyone worried that the later rounds of the playoffs won't live up to these killer early rounds.
Jordan (Phoenix, AZ): There are rumors of an injury bothering Steve Nash. You know anything about that?
Marc Stein: It's the same back/hamstring stuff Nash always has. In other words, that's not his problem. Nash's problem is that the Clips are running two long defenders at him every game and basically double-teaming a point guard, which you pretty much never see. Phoenix overcame it in Game 3; now we'll see if the Suns pay for failing to do so in Game 4. You have to give the Clips serious credit for last night's efforts because they used smaller (for them) lineups that seemingly favored Phoenix.
Ed: I'll make my preference known. I prefer the Kings hire Stan Van Gundy instead of Larry Brown. What are the chances of Stan coaching in Sacramento? What is his stance on his precious family time?
Marc Stein: Couldn't agree more. I hope the Kings, for their sake, don't rush out and throw a ton of money at Larry after the NY debacle. I'm guessing Stan would have some interest -- I believe the Van Gundys have some Northern California roots as well -- but I don't know that Miami would let Stan coach elsewhere. He's still under contract with the Heat.
Jason Terry made a litany of big shots as Dallas moved one win away ousting the defending champion Spurs.
Mavs Move Ahead, 3-1
AP Photo/Eric Gay
Tony Parker and Spurs coach Gregg Popovich can't easily talk their way out of this predicament. The defending champs are one game from elimination.
Quote of the Day
-- Andrew Ayres
It's not often that NBA commissioner David Stern hears criticism of his referees during a playoff game.
But it happened Monday night.
From both teams.
Stern occupied a mid-court seat just behind the floor-level press section for Game 4 in Dallas.
That made him easy to spot for Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, who shouted his displeasure in Stern's direction during a run of questionable whistles in the third quarter. Stern did not appear to acknowledge the complaints.
Something similar happened late in the fourth quarter, when San Antonio's Bruce Bowen was called for a foul on Dirk Nowitzki with 8.5 seconds left in regulation and the Mavericks trailing by two.
As Nowitzki set about sinking his two game-tying free throws, an incredulous Bowen faced Stern's section and could be heard shouting: "This is terrible."
The Spurs were fuming coming in after the call that fouled out Tim Duncan in Game 3. Their frustration only rose after a ragged Game 4 in which Manu Ginobili fouled out, prompting Charles Barkley to blast the refs on San Antonio's behalf from the TNT set.
Stern's seat, incidentally, was in a section typically reserved for Eva Longoria when the Spurs are at American Airlines Center.
Tony Parker's girlfriend was moved to higher-up seats on the opposite side of the floor to accomodate Stern and new NBA deputy commissioner Adam Silver.
-- Marc Stein in Dallas
Carl (NJ): What player from the remaining playoff teams needs to step his game up the most in order for his team to advance?
John Hollinger: Pretty clearly Shawn Marion. This is his second straight disappointing series (notwithstanding that monster Game 3), which is one reason Phoenix hasn't been able to get its offense in gear the past three games. I don't think the Suns can win without a couple 25-10 type nights from Marion in these final three games.
Ty (Lewisburg, PA): Was switching Jason Kidd onto Dwyane Wade the dumbest move Lawrence Frank has done this playoffs (besides not confiscating the 'illegal substance' from Clifford Robinson )? Wade is too strong and fast for Kidd at this point and is torching him.
John Hollinger: Actually the Nets switched Kidd onto opposing shooting guards -- including Wade -- in several fourth quarters this season and had great success with it, which is one reason Kidd was named first-team all-defense. The Nets' problem is just that Wade is really, really good and their own offense hasn't kept up in the fourth quarters.
Random (Seattle): You have Gary Payton with a 7 out of 10 on your top point guards list (I can't argue with your top 3). However, he is above Cousy, Kidd, even Isiah. You consider him to be that good? I wouldn't even put him in the top 10. Explanation, please.
John Hollinger: One thing that really surprised me, when I went through all the point guards' career accomplishments, was how much better Payton was than I thought. If you really sit down and compare him to Kidd, Isiah and Nash, you have to conclude that a) he was a better offensive player, and b) he was a better defensive player. Which makes it tough to rank him lower than fifth. I should note that choosing between Payton and Cousy was impossible -- Cousy was the hardest player to rank because of the era issues and the fact I'm way too young to have ever seen him play. But against those other guys? I thought Payton was obviously superior, and was shocked I was the only one to see it that way.
This is the way things work when the New York Knicks get rid of you: They make it known they don't want you around, and eventually they exile you from Madison Square Garden with a nice, big severance check in hand.
Larry Brown is learning that as he reportedly recuperates from bladder surgery. The end, in James Dolan's universe, begins with unnamed sources bashing you behind your back while blindsiding you with public disclosure of their displeasure.