Dallas Mavericks veteran Vince Carter proved the improbable hero of Game 3 with a buzzer-beating 3-pointer. In Monday night's Game 4, one of his role player counterparts on the San Antonio Spurs played the same part for the San Antonio Spurs.
With 32 seconds left in regulation and the score tied at 87-87, Tony Parker found 11-year pro Boris Diaw for the go-ahead 3-pointer. Dirk Nowitzki cut the deficit to a single point on the next possession with a putback of an errant Monta Ellis 3-pointer, and Manu Ginobili split a pair of free throws after a game-extending foul. Handed a chance to tie or win in the final 10 seconds for the second consecutive game, the Mavs got the ball to Ellis, who drove to the hoop and got a good look at a layup. It rimmed out, however, and Ginobili atoned for his foul-shot miss with two game-icing free throws. San Antonio's 93-89 win brings the series into a 2-2 tie with Game 5 set for Wednesday at the AT&T Center.
For a while, it looked as if the top-seeded Spurs might be heading back to San Antonio facing three straight elimination games. A 32-13 second quarter looked to put the Spurs in control with a 50-36 halftime lead, but the Mavs bounced back in the second half. After a Tony Parker lay-in gave the Spurs a 58-38 lead with more than nine minutes remaining in the third quarter, the Mavs started a slow, steady comeback focused on their usual diet of pick-and-rolls and handoffs and some suprisingly stout defense from Carter and others. At the 6:22 mark of the final period, the Mavericks tied the game at 77-77 and set up a pivotal moment in the series.
The Spurs' fortunes began with 3:08 left in regulation. With the Mavs up 83-82, Spurs center Tiago Splitter took a pass from Ginobili near the free-throw line and proceeded to drive on the defending DeJuan Blair. The two big men tangled and fell to the ground, earning Blair a foul in the process. But the action didn't stop there — as the two attempted to get up, Blair kicked Splitter in the head. Not surprisingly, he was ejected.
Apart from giving the Spurs an 85-83 lead, the play was a big one simply because Blair had been so instrumental to the Mavericks' comeback. In 16 minutes, the former Spur had totaled 12 points on 5-of-5 shooting, 11 rebounds and two steals, plus useful energy and a tough, if undersized, presence inside. The loss of Blair wasn't exactly cataclysmic — this was a very close game until the very end — but Dallas missed him.
The Spurs find themselves in strong position to take the series with two home games remaining, but they clearly have room for improvement. While Diaw (17 points on 7-of-12 FG) provided a boost in Game 4 and Ginobili continued to be the team's best player in the series, the Spurs are far from peak efficiency. In particular, Parker has yet to dominate the series as many predicted he would, restricting the Spurs' ability to play as well as many predicted they would. Before the playoffs, Parker looked to have a significant advantage over likely defenders Jose Calderon, Devin Harris and Ellis. While his shooting percentage in the first three games was solid, he has yet to score more than 21 points and appears less central to the Spurs' plans vs. the Mavericks. His Game 4 (10 points on 5-of-14 FG) gave cause for concern.
The rest of the series should be just as competitive. With the Mavericks able to transcend their subpar shooting nights by not turning it over and playing surprisingly frustrating defense, the Spurs know they have a fight on their hands. It remains to be seen which players will step up — unexpectedly or not — along the way.
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