- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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DALLAS -- No one will remember how smoothly Dirk Nowitzki returned to the big stage. Or how Jason Kidd drilled his second buzzer-beater of the series at the third-quarter horn. Or how Nowitzki was feeling good enough on this Saturday night to come out of a fourth-quarter timeout mouthing the words to "Start Me Up" from the Rolling Stones as it blared over the American Airlines Center sound system.
The finish overshadowed everything else.
The finish to this Game 3 was so wild and contentious that things were still happening some two hours after Carmelo Anthony, with one second left, followed his driving dunk with an all-net dagger from the wing to grab a 106-105 victory for the Nuggets that almost certainly finished off the seething Mavericks.
"I think this is about as tough a loss as I've been a part of in my 11 years in the league," Nowitzki said.
It's a claim Nowitzki made without knowing that the NBA would later issue an official statement admitting that the referees -- as Dallas loudly insisted afterward -- made a mistake when they failed to call a foul committed by Antoine Wright just before Anthony's game-winning triple which Melo promptly ranked as the biggest shot of his life.
Dallas owner Mark Cuban and coach Rick Carlisle declined the opportunity to respond to the league's announcement. Club sources said late Saturday that the Mavericks looked into filing an official protest but decided against it after quickly concluding that appealing against a judgment call was an unwinnable protest.
"What do you tell your fans?" Carlisle wondered aloud in his postgame address before the NBA's statement was released.
"What do you tell your players?"
There's no guarantee that the Nuggets wouldn't have won this Game 3 anyway, with a different dagger in the last few ticks, had the refs called the foul on Wright. The Mavs had a foul to give, which would forced Denver to inbound the ball one more time, but we're talking about the hottest playoff team this side of Cleveland.
There's also no question that the Mavericks left themselves open to this kind of ending by (a) failing to build a first-quarter cushion when Denver missed 15 of its first 17 shots, (b) uncharacteristically clanking four huge free throws in the fourth quarter, (c) allowing Anthony to score so quickly and easily with that dunk with less than 30 seconds to go when they had a four-point lead and then (d) wasting the crunch-time chances they had to make this a 2-1 series instead of a 3-0 lost cause. Nowitzki blamed himself after missing two midrange jumpers in the final minute, with opportunities to hike the Mavs' lead to five points and then four, after living off one-on-one isolations against Kenyon Martin in the two games in Denver.
There's likewise no doubt that the resulting hubbub about the missed call -- and the NBA's admission that referee Mark Wunderlich messed up by not calling the foul on Wright when the Mavs' intentions seemed so obvious -- will slice into the appreciation Denver deserves for finding a way to stretch its season record against Dallas to an amazing 7-0. The clutchest shot of Anthony's career enabled him to finish with 31 points after a 1-for-9 start from the field. Chauncey Billups, with 23 of his 32 points in a sterling second half, provided the pick-me-up for a supporting cast Nuggets coach George Karl described as "disoriented." You'd be hearing a lot more about how peeved Denver was with the officiating if not for those two.
The Nuggets privately fumed about the foul trouble that plagued all their big men, as well as the fact that Dallas was called for just three team fouls in the fourth quarter. However
If the refs are involved, with Cuban and his Mavs in the middle of the mayhem, you know where the spotlight is going. Even the Nowitzki story -- with an emphatic 33 points and 16 rebounds in his first game since the arrest of a woman who, according to reports, is his fiancee -- was reduced to a sidebar. Ditto for the news, long before the noncall by Wunderlich, that Wright's condo was robbed Friday of an estimated $120,000 in jewelry.
"Unfortunately, in a game where there were 61 fouls called, an official decides not to call a foul when we were trying to give one," Carlisle said. "It's just a shame, because Mark's a good official, an experienced official. I assume they know we have a foul to give and we would take it in that situation. I'm yelling at Antoine: 'Get him, get him, take it.' And no whistle blows. It's just extremely disappointing.
"I'm almost as disappointed for Mark as I am for us. That's a call he makes 100 percent of the time."
Said Cuban, "I'm not saying anything. You saw it all."
Wright was seen pulling back and raising his arms straight up as Anthony hoisted the winning shot, but the Mavs argued -- which the league's ruling would appear to support -- that Wright was merely trying to avoid a shooting foul once he realized that his charge into Anthony's shoulder on the dribble didn't sway Wunderlich.
"Antoine was so sure he fouled him," Carlisle said, "that he stopped."
Asked Wright, "What do you want me to do? Do you want me to Derek Fisher him, just take him out, and then I get a flagrant foul late in the game? I'm upset like everyone else in this locker room, and I feel like we have a right to be upset."
After the week he has endured, Nowitzki was putting what he charitably called a "weird" finish right up there -- or is that down there? -- with the three unforgettably tight games Dallas lost to Miami in the 2006 NBA Finals.
"I just think that three days off was a long time," Nowitzki said. "I wish we would have played Thursday or Friday. It was a tough week for me and my family, but I stuck with it. If you go through tough times, basketball is always an [escape]. It's what we love to do, and I felt good out there."
Until the end, obviously.
"I had my shots, and we had the game," Nowitzki said, acknowledging the cost of his 0-for-5 finish in the final 2:38 if you include his no-hope heave at the buzzer.
"That's how we feel."
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.
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