Spurs know from past what Mavs must do

Editor's note: New season, new Stein Line. Now, Marc Stein's NBA report can be found every weekday during the playoffs.

DALLAS --The San Antonio Spurs are naturally biased, but they also are eminently qualified to tell the Dallas Mavericks how to handle their Dirk Nowitzki injury crisis, assuming there's even a shred of doubt about Nowitzki's left knee withstanding Game 4. Or Game 7. Or whenever.

Sit him.

The Spurs know firsthand. Barring a speedy Nowitzki recovery that no one was predicting late Friday night, that's the only option if the All-Star forward feels any sort of lingering pain.

Nowitzki has a high threshold for pain, and Saturday's MRI exam could always surprise the Mavericks and return more promising results than they anticipate, but there's a reason Don Nelson was so adamant when he said: "Nothing is more important than Dirk Nowitzki's career, and I will not jeopardize that."

That reason: Nelson knows what can happen when guys play hurt just because it's the playoffs. He obviously remembers the 2000 playoffs.

That's when the Spurs, as reigning NBA champions, considered gambling on Duncan's injured left knee, then resisted. Duncan's forthcoming free agency that summer undoubtedly factored into the decision, but San Antonio ultimately refused to play him and lost a first-round series to Phoenix. It's a stance -- refusing to badger Duncan into playing hurt -- that helped prevent the Spurs from losing their franchise player. Duncan appreciated the support in distress -- when it was suggested in some precincts that he should suck it up and play -- and elected to stay in San Antonio. Since his surgery, Duncan hasn't had knee problems.

That same postseason, Detroit played Grant Hill on a problem ankle. The Orlando Magic tried to sign Duncan and Hill as free agents and landed Hill and Tracy McGrady. All Orlando has now, of course, is T-Mac, because Hill's ankle has only worsened since the 2000 playoffs, to the point that he might never play again.

So you can understand. You can understand why Nelson said Nowitzki would have to "feel 100 percent for me to play him again in the series."

Nothing is worth risking Hill-like damage, especially with a player of Nowitzki's stature. Not even a championship. Not even now, in what could be a chance-of-a-lifetime playoffs, with Nelson never closer to a ring as a coach and with the Mavericks seemingly so well placed -- at least when the evening began -- to prove that their bombs-away style can succeed in the grind-it-out days of May and June.

"If there's any danger, we don't want him to play," said Mavericks guard Steve Nash, Nowitzki's closest friend on the team. "It's not just me -- we all want what's best for him."

Said Michael Finley: "You know Dirk. He can be hobbling around and then come out and get you 40. But we don't know the severity of this injury yet. We'll have a better idea tomorrow. If we have to, we'll be ready to play without him."

In case they need any more convincing, the Mavericks are also confronted by the realization that the night was lost before Nowitzki was lost, in the face of the Spurs' withering defense. Any payoff for risking Nowitzki is questionable anyway, with the Spurs now eyeing a chance to go up 3-1 on Sunday night.

After scoring a split in San Antonio without playing well at all -- Dallas led those first two games for less than three minutes total -- the Mavericks expected to relocate some offensive flow at home. Truth is, even before Nowitzki went down, the Mavericks looked disjointed until Tim Duncan took a three-minute rest in the second quarter. Dallas promptly turned a 26-24 deficit into a 31-26 lead, but even as the lead stretched to eight points heading into halftime, nothing came easy.

"Everything was contested," Nash said, referring even to Nick Van Exel's 13-point quarter, offense that came on a sequence of challenged shots.

This became an even bigger problem after halftime, when the Spurs started aggressively switching pick-and-rolls, with Duncan specifically applying the aggression to the Mavericks' guards. That hurt the hosts as much as Tony Parker's 19-point third quarter or anything else Duncan did. And there was plenty from the two-time MVP: 34 points, 24 rebounds and six blocks.

"He was the reason, he was the difference, he was everywhere with his blocks, his rotations, his strength on the boards," Nelson said.

And Duncan was not alone. The defense from Bruce Bowen, Manu Ginobili and Malik Rose is stifling Dallas, too, because each can guard players of all sizes.

"We really put the clamps on them," Rose said.

So it might be time to say that the Spurs' defense has something to do with Dallas' 41-percent shooting for the series.

"I'd have to say," Nash insisted, "that they deserve a lot of the credit."

Added Finley: "Their defense went up to a notch that I haven't seen in the series thus far. You have to tip your hat to them."

The Mavericks' plight was so distressing by night's end that Bowen, intentionally fouled on Nelson's orders three times in the fourth quarter, sank five of the six ensuing free throws.

Add it all up, factor in recent playoff history and the Mavericks' course is clear. Friday night might have been the last we see of Nowitzki in these Western Conference finals, but it won't be his last conference finals. Which is why, if Nowitzki's knee is anything less than Nellie's required 100 percent, there's only one option.

Sit him, Duncan-style.

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here. Also, send Stein a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.