Updated: May 23, 2006, 1:03 PM ET

Mavs love that Dirk-y water

SAN ANTONIO -- It's not ugly or muddied water to Dirk Nowitzki.

It's not Mark Cuban's favorite tourist destination, obviously, but Dirk loves that Riverwalk.

It's in the shadow of San Antonio's renowned landmark, after all, where America discovered him.

Playoff Schedule
EAST FINALS
Miami vs. Detroit
Game 1: Tue., 8 ET, at DET

WEST FINALS
Phoenix vs. Dallas
Game 1: Wed., 8 ET, at DAL

The full playoff schedule

It's also where, nearly a decade later, Nowitzki announced himself to the NBA louder than he ever has.

San Antonio, remember, was where this league got its first glimpse of Nowitzki, who made the likes of Larry Bird drool with his 1998 domination of the nation's best high schoolers.

Monday night more than ever, San Antonio was left wishing Nowitzki never made that trip.

The big German stunned the city and its Spurs with the steeliest performance of his career, leading to the victory his Dallas Mavericks have been chasing since they got him. Nowitzki did have help here, in the finale of a series so taut that Game 7 simply had to go to overtime, but he also had the clutchest touch on the floor in Dallas' 119-111 overtime triumph. The same floor where Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili stood.

It was Nowitzki, most of all, who made sure Dallas didn't add a 20-point blown lead at the AT&T Center to the 3-1 series lead it couldn't hold. Duncan and Ginobili hauled the hosts back from 58-38 down, preserving the Spurs' dream of finally following a championship with another championship. But then Nowitzki earned his Mavs five more minutes and Duncan promptly disintegrated. Duncan's legs began to cramp and his shots started missing short, only one of his seven field-goal attempts dropping in OT.

Dirk?

His drive, layup and free throw in the closing seconds -- followed by a game-saving block of Duncan's follow shot at the regulation buzzer -- were merely the highlights. You saw lots of Nowitzki's new You Can't Guard Me sneer in this one, as well as a tongue wag or two, as he rang up 20 of his 37 points in the third and fourth quarters. It was priceless offense in the face of a Spurs second-half siege, and it kept the Mavs in the lead for all but 108 seconds.

They were too weary to celebrate wildly at the OT buzzer, skipping the court-rushing scenes witnessed after their first-round upset at Utah in 2001 in Nowitzki's first trip to the playoffs, but the Mavs' joy was unmistakable as they clinched a berth in the conference finals opposite Phoenix and Nowitzki's old friend, Steve Nash.

"That monkey that's been on our back for so long, it's gone," Cuban said.

Coach Avery Johnson admitted that he wasn't sure if he was asking too much for his Mavs "to get over this particular hurdle" in his first full season. Second-year guard Devin Harris suggested that the Spurs shouldn't be referred to as a hurdle. "They're more like a wall," Harris said.

Yet Nowitzki and his starless supporting cast managed to scale it, with the Spurs fading in OT and Dallas, which fell three wins shy of San Antonio's 63 in the regular season, claiming a whopping 29-2 edge in bench points in the decider.

"It seems like everybody did something special tonight," said Mavs swingman Jerry Stackhouse, "and it started with Dirk."

The Mavs did have everybody ready, quickly dispelling fears of a Game 6 hangover after failing to finish off the champs at home. Dallas made its first seven shots, checked in at 15-for-18 after a quarter and was still shooting a stunning 77 percent from the floor with two minutes left in the first half. The Mavs were doing it with pure shot-making, too, as opposed to fast-breaking, unlikely as that seemed given the stakes and the venue.

Terry returned from his one-game suspension for punching Michael Finley with a redemptive 27 points. Stackhouse and Keith Van Horn both threw in some big shots. Even DeSagana Diop, suddenly demoted to third-string center after starting the first six games, outproduced San Antonio's empty bench by himself with two buckets and two huge offensive boards in a late third-quarter flurry.

Johnson used 10 players on a night when his mentor, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, relied mostly on only five, defying the playoff maxim that says regular-season depth doesn't mean much in the playoffs.

Nowitzki did the rest. He had 15 boards. He had only three assists but was much more of a playmaker than that stat suggests, passing quickly out of double-teams to get the Spurs scrambling. He was aggressive throughout, as well, driving his way to 16 free-throw attempts, 15 of them makes.

The new Nowitzki, asked by Johnson to play more of a Duncan style, showed just how much progress he's made operating inside the 3-point arc by playing Duncan (41 points and 15 boards) to a virtual draw statistically when it mattered most. Better yet, Nowitzki's crunch-time successes to finally KO Duncan's team might have finally hushed the skeptics who have questioned his and the Mavericks' toughness.

"They used to say all the same [negative] stuff about the Spurs," San Antonio's Robert Horry said.

Fitting that this is where they had to stop saying so about Dirk and his Mavs.

"I guess San Antonio has been pretty good to me," Nowitzki said with a smile.

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Knocking Out Tough Champ

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
Dirk Nowitzki (37 points) gets a hug from Jason Terry, who came back from a one-game suspension and scored 27 points in the Mavs' 119-111 Game 7 win (in overtime) versus the Spurs.


Suns Have All The Answers
Among the points of emphasis written on the grease board in the Phoenix Suns' locker room prior to Game 7 was the simplest of messages, one that would eventually be proven to be so true as the evening unfolded.

"Speed: They have no answer," the message read.

Indeed, the Clippers had no answer, but it only began with speed. They had no answer for the Suns' 3-point shooting, no answer for Phoenix's ball movement, no answer for any of the members of the shortened rotation of seven players that Suns coach Mike D'Antoni has now used to knock off both teams from Los Angeles.

Speed is what suits the Suns, and when they're playing their speed game as they did Monday night and hitting on all cylinders, it's hard to find anybody who has an answer. The greatest individual player in the league couldn't beat them four times in the first round, and a team with a massive size advantage couldn't do it in the second round.

"If we're knocking down shots and running and put up at least 30 points each quarter, you'd better keep scoring. We may not stop you all the time, but if you have a lull at all, we just keep scoring," D'Antoni said.

That's the beauty of the brand of basketball the Suns play, and the Clippers certainly didn't have any answers in a 127-107 loss that ended their Cinderella season, even though Elton Brand (36 points) dominated the Suns' undersized front line.

The Suns made 15 3-pointers to the Clippers' zero, held Los Angeles to just seven second-chance points, shot an astounding 60 percent overall and had 32 assists on their 48 field goals while the Clippers had just 11 on their 41 buckets.

The crowd rose in unison with 3:45 left to give the Suns a standing ovation, never having had a chance to grow worried over the course of a game that Phoenix dominated throughout. Any time the Clippers made something even remotely resembling a run, the Suns picked them apart with crisp ball movement and deadeye shooting. Shawn Marion had five 3s, Steve Nash had four, and Leandro Barbosa and Tim Thomas added two apiece.

"Knowing that when you start a 7-footer [Chris Kaman] whose footwork is not all that great, then you have Elton Brand whose footwork is pretty good, the most important thing is you just want to run 'em," Thomas said. "When you're constantly pushing the ball, it puts a lot of pressure on you. And when we play small, bigs can't play this game. Our tempo has a lot to do with moving the ball but also with just pushing it right at them and making them make mistakes. And Steve is the best in the world at finding the open man, so with him having the ball, all you have to do is [get] yourself in an area where you're open."

The three days off between games clearly rejuvenated the Suns, who were already saying afterward how they expect to hear about their legions of doubters in the next round when they go up against Dallas. It'll be a rematch of the second-round series won by the Suns last season when Nash got revenge against the team that let him go.

"Avery [Johnson] has instilled some discipline and has them playing great," Nash said. "We're not the deepest team or the biggest, but we have to be up there with the most resilient."

There are a pair of teams from Los Angeles that would have to agree.

-- Chris Sheridan in Phoenix



Heat-Pistons Shooters Hard To Cover

Comparing the shooting guards in the Heat-Pistons series:

Heat: Dwyane Wade has been unstoppable in the playoffs. Neither the Nets nor Bulls had anyone who could guard him. He has averaged 27.2 points per game throughout the playoffs and has attacked the basket at will. He is getting to the free-throw line almost 10 times per game. Wade lit the Pistons up for 28 ppg in their four games this year. He will be a tough cover for Detroit because the Heat have more reliable weapons than Cleveland. The Pistons cannot load up on him with two or three defenders and disregard Miami's complementary players. It will be interesting to see whether the Pistons cross-match in this series and if Tayshaun Prince draws the task of guarding Wade.

Pistons: Guarding and chasing Rip Hamilton for 40-plus minutes is a full-time job. He has tremendous speed, runs his defenders ragged off screens and gets room for his mid-range game or his one- or two-dribble pull-up jumpers. Hamilton has been effective and efficient, averaging 21.5 ppg in four games this year versus the Heat. Look for the Heat to use James Posey and Payton to guard Hamilton at times so as not to wear down Wade defensively.

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New Rulers Of Texas

The Mavs earned a date in the Western Conference finals with the Suns after a Game 7 win over the defending champion Spurs.

Mavs Knock Off Champs



Messin' With Texas
Young Sun
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images
The Suns took a 127-107 Game 7 win over Clippers, thus earning a date with Dallas for the right to play in the NBA Finals.


Extreme Behavior
Dirk Nowitzki

Monday's Best
Mavs forward Dirk Nowitzki: Of course, he had 37 points and 15 boards. When the Mavs needed him most, trailing 104-101 with 32 seconds left, he did not shoot a fallaway jumper. He took it right to the rack, got fouled, scored and made his free throw.

Monday's Worst
Spurs bench: Brent Barry, Robert Horry and Nick Van Exel combined for a whopping two points in a combined 34 minutes of action. The Mavs' bench, meanwhile, was getting DeSagana Diop (huge OT defense on Duncan), Keith Van Horn (three 3s) and Jerry Stackhouse (13 points).

Quote of the Day
" How 'bout the Mavericks? Oh my God. "
-- Dallas coach Avery Johnson.

See how all 32 who played stacked up
Hollinger playoff stats (Tim on top)
Plus/minus stats from 82games.com

-- Andrew Ayres



What's Next For Clips?
Sam Cassell

So ... was it a glorious, one-time fluke or the start of something bigger?

The moves the Clippers make this summer will go a long way toward answering that question as L.A. enters the offseason with much uncertainty. Point guard Sam Cassell and forward Vladimir Radmanovic are entering free agency, coach Mike Dunleavy is heading into a lame-duck year, and center Chris Kaman is eligible for a contract extension.

On most teams, the next steps wouldn't be that hard to figure out. They'd try to get Cassell re-signed to a short-term deal, shell out what it took to keep Dunleavy, lock up Kaman for the next five years and see what the market was willing to pay for Radmanovic before committing.

But these are the Clippers, and they're still owned by the notoriously frugal Donald Sterling. Despite recent moves that suggest he's no longer content to have his team be a laughingstock (witness: matching offer sheets for Elton Brand and Corey Maggette, paying real money for a coach in Dunleavy, and signing a desirable free agent in Cuttino Mobley), the masses remain unconvinced. L.A. still has one of the league's lowest payrolls, and The Donald may figure he can let a few players walk and still sell out Staples Center for the next few years just based on the leftover enthusiasm from this spring.

If so, he'd be wasting a huge opportunity. With the Lakers a one-man show, this is the Clippers' chance to finally get the community excited about their basketball team.

While a club with talents like Elton Brand, Corey Maggette and Shaun Livingston would still have a chance to squeak into the postseason, that shouldn't be the goal anymore. L.A. has a chance to climb into the West's upper echelon if it can keep weapons like Cassell and Radmanovic, and, God forbid, add new ones by using its cap exceptions.

This series showed how close L.A. is to reaching that level -- if not for a Raja Bell 3-pointer at the end of the first overtime in Game 5, the Clips would be flying to Dallas tomorrow.

Clippers fans can hope this will convince Sterling of the rewards that can be had from making some investments this summer. The worry, however, is that it will have the opposite effect -- as in, convince Sterling that he can get by with less and still be OK.

-- John Hollinger



Looking Ahead For The Spurs
steve nash

Eva Longoria's season ended Sunday night as scheduled.

Tony Parker's ended Monday night, five wins short of the NBA Finals.

So what's next for the San Antonio Spurs?

Disappointed as they are to fail in their bid for back-to-back championships -- again -- I wouldn't expect the Spurs to turn desperate.

It was the third time since 1999 that San Antonio's title defense didn't last beyond Round 2, but the Spurs still have a three-man core to envy. Tim Duncan is 30. Manu Ginobili is 29. Parker is 24. As a trio, they combined for 88 points in San Antonio's Game 7 defeat.

So let's hold off on the idea that the Spurs' window is closing.

It's only the group around those three that has to change, with a skilled management team in place to make the changes. Remembering that they've managed to reload around Duncan more than once since the first title in '99, you figure that the Spurs will find the youth, athleticism and rebounding they need in the offseason to keep up with the West's fast movers: Dallas and Phoenix.

Besides...

It's not like the Spurs were overwhelmed by the team from North Texas that has made this rivalry more heated than ever.

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich made the concession early in the series that he had to shelve his big men and play small ball to stay with the Mavs, and he didn't miss by much. The teams split two games decided by a single point, and the Mavs won both games that went to overtime.

"Maybe it was Dallas' year," Parker said.

-- Marc Stein at the AT&T Center in San Antonio



Call And Response
sam cassell

Anthony (Ann Arbor): John, has a player as young as LeBron James ever gotten such preferential treatment by referees? Usually it is the "smooth" traveling violations that are not called. LeBron has awkward travels that aren't whistled. They handed Game 5 to him.

John Hollinger: Here's my take on the whole "superstar calls" phenomenon. Most great players have the ball in their hands an awful lot, which means most of the whistles -- good and bad -- will be on plays involving them. Inevitably, we tend to remember the ones where they caught a break and forget the ones where they got shafted, especially if we're rooting for the other team. Yes, LeBron seems to get away with some liberties with his pivot foot. On the other hand, so does Marko Jaric, and I don't think anyone has ever claimed it was because the refs were protecting him.

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