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  • Game info: 8:30 pm EDT Sun May 25, 2003
  • TV: TNT

PLAYOFF SERIES: Western Conference finals; Spurs lead 2-1.

An early summer vacation may be what awaits the Dallas Mavericks after losing their All-Star forward.

The NBA finals could be where the San Antonio Spurs are headed because of theirs.

While the Mavericks will likely be without Dirk Nowitzki, the Spurs hope Tim Duncan brings them within one win of the title round as these teams meet in Game 4 of the Western Conference finals.

Dallas has had no success slowing down Duncan, but Nowitzki was stopped by an injury Friday. The 96-83 home loss in Game 3 proved particularly costly for the Mavericks because their leading scorer and rebounder sprained his left knee in the fourth quarter.

“I think we have enough soldiers in this locker room to put us in position to win,” Mavericks guard Michael Finley said, “but it’ll be tougher.”

It was originally believed the injury could keep Nowitzki out for the playoffs, but after an MRI taken Saturday revealed he had sprained ligaments in his left kneecap, the team listed him as doubtful for Game 4.

Team physician Dr. T.O. Souryal said it usually takes 10-to-14 days to recover from this type of injury, but did not rule out Nowitzki’s return in this series.

“We are all thankful that Dirk’s injury is not as serious as it could have been,” Dallas coach Don Nelson said. “But we will continue to abide by our decision to not play him unless he is 100 percent.”

As good as Nowitzki had been in the first two games, averaging 30.5 points and 12.5 rebounds, Duncan clearly has been the dominant force in the series as San Antonio has taken a 2-1 lead.

However, Duncan won’t let his team look past the Mavs just because of Nowitzki’s injury.

“I think those guys have done a pretty good job the couple of times he’s been out to take the offense upon themselves,” Duncan said. “He will take a lot away from their game because he’s also a very good rebounder.

“They’ll fill his spot, but we can’t worry about what they’ll do.”

The reigning two-time MVP had 34 points, including 12 in the fourth quarter, 24 rebounds, six assists and six blocked shots in Game 3. He became the first Spurs’ player since George Gervin in 1978 to score at least 30 points in four consecutive playoff games.

Duncan has averaged 35.3 points, 18 rebounds and six assists in this series.

It’s a virtual certainty the Mavs will double-team Duncan nearly every time he touches the ball in Game 4. Besides Nowitzki likely being out, the Mavs learned Saturday that center Shawn Bradley will be sidelined indefinitely with a sprained MCL and third-string center Evan Eschmeyer would probably miss the rest of the postseason with a knee problem.

That leaves Dallas with nine players in uniform Sunday, with Raef LaFrentz and Eduardo Najera being the only available big men.

“We’re going to put Steve Nash on him one-on-one in the low post—see how good Duncan really is, Mr. MVP,” Nelson joked at Dallas’ practice.

Nelson, however, could benefit from Nash taking more of the scoring load. The All-Star point guard has managed just 22 points in the last two games, matching his total from the Mavs’ Game 1 victory.

Nash and Finley combined to take just 20 shots in Game 3, with each hitting four. Finley had 11 points Friday after totaling 55 in Games 1 and 2.

While increased production from that duo could be critical, it may be more important for Dallas to get Nick Van Exel going offensively.

Dallas’ top-scoring reserve has had a tough time getting open looks through the first three games, being guarded by defensive specialist Bruce Bowen or Manu Ginobili—both of whom are at least five inches taller than the 6-foot-1 Van Exel. A key to the Mavs’ success in the first two rounds as he averaged more than 20 points, Van Exel is averaging 14.3 points in this series and has shot below 33 percent (14-for-43).

While Van Exel has cooled off, the Spurs’ Tony Parker is on a roll.

The growing aggressiveness of Parker at the offensive end has keyed San Antonio’s recent success. The second-year point guard has averaged 22.8 points in the last five games. San Antonio is 7-2 this postseason when Parker scores more than 15 points, 3-3 when he doesn’t.

If the Spurs win, they’ll have a chance to close out the series at home Tuesday in Game 5.

HOW THEY GOT HERE: Spurs - 60-22, 1st seed; beat Phoenix Suns 4-2, first round; beat Los Angeles Lakers 4-2, conference semifinals. Mavericks - 60-22, 3rd seed; beat Portland Trail Blazers 4-3, first round; beat Sacramento Kings 4-3, conference semifinals.

PROBABLE STARTERS: Spurs - F Bowen, F Duncan, C David Robinson, G Stephen Jackson, G Parker. Mavericks - F Raja Bell, F Najera, C LaFrentz, G Nash, G Finley.

PLAYOFF TEAM LEADERS: Spurs - Duncan, 25.1 ppg, 14.1 rpg and 5.1 apg. Mavericks - Nowitzki, 25.9 ppg and 11.7 rpg; Nash, 7.3 apg.

REGULAR SEASON SERIES: Tied, 2-2. Each team won once on the road, but Dallas’ regular season-ending 93-72 win at San Antonio on April 16 was rendered meaningless after the Mavs’ late-season swoon allowed the Spurs to take the Midwest Division title and the top seed in the West. Duncan sat that game out, but averaged 23.5 points and 15.5 rebounds in the Spurs’ two wins. Duncan was held to 11 points and six boards in Dallas’ 95-87 home victory on Feb. 20.

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