DALLAS -- They were trying to win one game without Jason Terry. Not exactly an impossible dream.
Sans puncher, chance missed
Missing all those things -- many of them taken away by the Spurs, to be fair -- Dallas could not prevent the seventh game it's been dreading since San Antonio won the regular-season marathon between these 60-win titans.
"Definitely a bad loss for us," Mavs coach Avery Johnson said, quickly computing all that was lost with it.
As recently as Wednesday morning, San Antonio couldn't claim a single victory in the Tim Duncan era (1997-present) after facing a playoff deficit of 3-0, 3-1 or 3-2. Now? The Spurs suddenly have two such wins after packing the paint, diffusing the crowd that had vowed to make up for the suspended Terry with its noise and vitriol and wiping away the last remnants of Dallas' 3-1 lead with Friday's 91-86 triumph in Game 6.
When it was over, Johnson struggled to conceal his anger with the free-throw disparity: San Antonio was awarded 34 trips to the line to Dallas' 20 and the Spurs uncharacteristically converted 29 times, 15-for-15 in the second half. Deep down, though, Johnson has to know his Mavs simply weren't good enough when presented with the ultimate opportunity to prove just how tough they are compared to the oft-doubted Mavs of yore.
That includes Dirk Nowitzki, who had 26 points and a whopping 21 boards but didn't attack the rim with the needed aggression in crunch time when it was clear he was the hosts' only hope. Nowitzki and Terry are the Mavericks' only dependable shooters, no matter what their leaguewide reputation suggests. The Mavs around them are streaky slashers who, in the biggest game of their lives, couldn't hike Dallas' success rate from the field above 38.6 percent.
"[Terry] stretches the floor for us," Nowitzki reminded.
Winning without Terry and sending mighty San Antonio into the summer would have added up to the greatest night in franchise history ... or at least an achievement to rival the Ro Blackman-Mark Aguirre-Derek Harper crew that took the Showtime Lakers to seven games in the 1988 West finals. Yet you could see from the start that these Mavs were going to have trouble closing the deal, close as the score stayed throughout.
Minus Terry, Harris couldn't push the pace as he has throughout the series and found a packed paint awaiting his every drive. The result: Harris shot 3-for-14.
With substitute starter Jerry Stackhouse (4-for-15) misfiring, too, Dallas didn't have any perimeter threat to free Nowitzki at his high-post perch or draw the Spurs away from the rim.
"It always seems like they play better defense in those situations," Johnson said, referring specifically to Michael Finley's blanket coverage on his old friend Nowitzki in the corner, with Dallas down 89-86 and Nowitzki's triple falling well short.
Logging more than 40 minutes for the third successive game after averaging just 26.5 minutes during the regular season, Finley seems reborn as a defender now that he's wearing silver and black. He actually came out of college with a stopper's reputation, which didn't last long in the pros, but his contribution to the Nowitzki coverage was crucial with Bruce Bowen and Duncan saddled by foul trouble. (An aside: Now we know why Spurs coach Gregg Popovich never lets Duncan guard Nowitzki; all three of Duncan's first-half fouls came on rare interactions with the big German.)
"I'm just riding their coattails right now," Finley said, downplaying his D and his crucial late 3-pointer in comparison to the contributions from Duncan and Ginobili.
He needn't be so humble. Finley took less money than he could have earned in Miami to join San Antonio after the Mavs released him last summer, believing he could help the Spurs do what they've never done.
Follow a championship with another championship.
By winning on a foreign floor ringed by nearly 200 front-row customers wearing Terry jerseys -- Cowboys legend Emmitt Smith included -- San Antonio's dream still lives. Finley's, too.
This sort of comeback wasn't looking all that feasible, either, when the Spurs were staring at a 3-1 hole. But they've quickly racked up a few reasons to feel better than Terry must after his ill-advised jab left the Mavs looking so sluggish and punchless.
It's the Spurs who've rallied to win three of the five games in this series decided by five points or less. It's the Spurs who'll probably benefit more from the forthcoming two days of rest. It's Finley and Spurs who'll have the rowdy support Monday night, with Terry cast as Public Enemy No. 31, when this seven-game drama is finally decided.
• Talk back to The Daily Dime gang
David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images
Cavs forward LeBron James is challenged by Pistons center Ben Wallace in Detroit's Game 6 win, foreshadowing their clash in the final moments of the game.
If you were watching closely enough, you saw LeBron James frown when the officials sent him to the foul line with 1.4 seconds left.
And if you saw his postgame interview, after Cleveland's 84-82 loss Friday night in Game 6 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series, you heard James credit the Pistons for committing a "smart foul" -- one that would only give the Cavs a chance for two points instead of the three they needed.
What you didn't see was how Ben Wallace reacted when that comment was relayed to him, since there were no cameras around when I chased him down the hallway an hour after the game (like a Piston going after an offensive rebound) to tell Wallace what James had just said.
Before answering, Wallace's eyes nearly bulged out of his head.
"No, that wasn't no conscious decision," Wallace said incredulously. "Was it a foul? It wasn't no foul. I didn't think I was a foul, but if it was a foul, it gave them two shots and he had to miss the second one and get a tip, and they almost got it."
Indeed the Cavs almost did, but Zydrunas Ilgauskas' tip-in attempt hit high off the backboard and bounced heavily on the rim before falling away.
It was a heck of a game, one that left a raucous building in stunned silence when it ended. The Pistons again showed their resilience, just as they've done in the past two years when pushed to the brink, but they were far from perfect when they had chances to ice the game, and Wallace' sour grapes over the foul call was just their latest episode of griping a little too much and pointing the finger at someone other than themselves.
Because say what you want about that final foul that sent James to the line. If Rasheed Wallace or Chauncey Billups hadn't hiccupped from the line in the final minute when they had chances to ice it, nobody would even care about whether James was best served by getting the call that sent him to the line with 1.4 seconds left.
Everything that went down in the final minute was a topic for review afterward, everyone first wanting to know why the Cavaliers didn't call their final timeout after Billups missed the second of two free throws and James rebounded with 10.1 seconds left.
Avery Johnson likes to describe his team as "strong-minded."
It is a great term and descriptive of not only his team but many of the teams and players that are still battling it out for NBA supremacy.
Strong-mindedness sums up people such as Dirk Nowitzki, who along with Johnson made the decision some time in the past 12 months that the Mavericks' franchise was going to pay whatever price it took to get tougher.
The term also applies to the whole Spurs' franchise. It decided a long time ago that any people who were going to be connected to them had to have the mental makeup that could pass the Tim Duncan mental litmus test. You know, the "speak softly but carry a big stick" type of thing.
The beauty of this particular series is not only the clash between two groups that will not give an inch, but their respect for one another. Maybe I am missing something, but it seems they go about their business in a way that would make your first grade teacher proud -- only say something about someone that you would want them to say about you.
Plus, why say something that will make the strong-minded take their game to a higher level?
The Pistons won the battle of tipped balls late, capturing Game 6 against the Cavs.
Pistons Force Game 7
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
Spurs swingman Michael Finley dunks past Mavs center Erick Dampier for two of his 16 points, his high for the series. Dallas owner Mark Cuban, in the blue shirt behind Finley, is still paying the former Mavs star $51 million.
Quote of the Day
-- Andrew Ayres
LeBron James can sign a five-year contract extension worth about $75 million this summer, and all signs indicate he'll do so once the Cavaliers present one to him on or after July 1. "I'm really happy right now with what's going on," he said. "I love my teammates and the coaching staff. We'll see what happens."
• James received his All-Star game MVP trophy on Thursday. It was damaged during shipping in February and had to be repaired. ... Rasheed Wallace, who sprained his right ankle in the Game 4 he "Guaran-Sheed," rode a stationary bike in the tunnel during the first quarter to try and stay loose.
• The Cavaliers are 2-0 in Game 7s, winning the 1992 conference semifinals over Boston and the 1976 semifinals over Washington, a series dubbed "The Miracle of Richfield." ... It was the third straight game decided by two points, and the Cavaliers had won five in a row during the postseason by two points or less.
-- The Associated Press
1. Home teams have won 81.7 percent (76 of 93) of Game 7s in NBA history. They were 2-2 in last year's playoffs, and they are 1-0 this season.
2. In Game 7 of their first-round series this season, the Suns defeated the Lakers 121-90. The first two Game 7s in last year's playoffs resulted in two of the biggest Game 7 routs in NBA history. The Pacers beat the Celtics by 27 and the Mavericks beat the Rockets by 40 (both in the first round).
3. Sam Cassell is the only Clipper with Game 7 experience (six prior games).
Most Wins All-Time in Game 7s
Most Game 7s (Active Players)
-- ESPN Research
Greg (Los Angeles): Who do you see with the advantage going into Game 7 of the Suns-Clippers series? I know the Suns have home court but the Clippers have played the Suns very tough at their house. Who do you ultimately think will win?
Chris Sheridan: I'm rooting a little for Suns in 7, since that's the only one of my second-round picks that has a chance of being correct. But if the game comes down to one last shot and Sam Cassell takes it, it's going in the Clippers are going to the conference finals. Should be a great game. That series has been interesting to watch, although the Spurs-Mavericks is an instant classic.
Travis (MI): Don't you think we are all being force-fed the whole "King James" idea? He is an amazing player no doubt, but it seems like the NBA is taking it too far. Jordan (or his team) never got the calls that LBJ and Co. are getting in these playoffs. It seems that "the powers that be" are making sure that the so called "King" advances at any cost.
Chris Sheridan: You're wrong, Travis. Jordan got a lot more calls than LeBron is getting. As for whether he's being force-fed to us, are you kidding me? The guy has been the single most entertaining player in the entire playoffs, not because of the hype but because of how he has played. And he's doing it at 21.
Mitch (Mtown): Usually the playoffs are drawn out and leave you tired. This year they seem to make yuou want more and more. Is this a fluke or is the NBA back from its hiatus?
Chris Sheridan: They've shortened the number of days for each series, and there's rarely anymore three and four days off between games like there was a couple years ago. Does that mean the NBA is back from its hiatus? Depends on how compelling the next two rounds are.