- Marc Stein, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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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.
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 shots dropping in OT.
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 his mentor 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 only had 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've 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.
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.
Dirk Nowitzki was at his toughest -- and best -- when needed in the Mavericks' scintillating OT win in Game 7 in San Antonio.