PLAYOFF SERIES: Western Conference finals; Spurs lead 3-2.
The vacant spot in the NBA Finals was already being given to the San Antonio Spurs. One half of basketball has made some wonder if they even deserve it.
With Nowitzki still in street clothes and the Spurs playing at home in Game 5 after winning the previous three, the Mavericks were being written off— especially when San Antonio was up 17 points with less than eight minutes left in the third quarter and on the verge of wrapping up the series.
That’s when Dallas started to take control, and the team that was one game away from playing for the championship began to fold.
San Antonio saw its lead cut to seven by the end of the third, then made one field goal during the first 9 1/2 minutes of the fourth en route to a 103-91 defeat.
“We take a fast lead and we’re playing great and we forget about the way we took that lead,” Spurs guard Tony Parker said.
The Spurs were outscored 29-10 in the final period and shot 3-for-17, with many of their role players looking tentative to even take shots, let alone make them.
“I feel like the luckiest guy in the world,” Mavs coach Don Nelson said. “We hung around. We kept trying. It didn’t look good. In the fourth quarter, they went cold, we were hot and we won our second game.”
Nelson said Nowitzki, his leading scorer and rebounder in the playoffs, was very doubtful to return Thursday after missing the last two games with sprained ligaments in his left knee.
“If he can’t play his normal rotation, I don’t think he should play,” Nelson said.
The Mavs did not miss Nowitzki with their season hanging in the balance Tuesday, as they clearly were the aggressors. Michael Finley, Steve Nash and Nick Van Exel all stepped up to hit big shots, giving Dallas a chance to even this series on its home floor.
“We have to play with attitude, we’re not ready to go home yet,” Finley said. “We have to fight every possession as if it were our last. We have to go out and play hard. We can’t relax because we’re at home.”
Finley scored 31 points and continues to be Dallas’ best player in this series, averaging 24.4 points and hitting all 30 of his foul shots. Van Exel scored 12 of his 21 points in the fourth quarter and Nash added 14, running circles around San Antonio’s guards in the second half.
Parker and Ginobili combined for 46 points in Game 4, but accounted for just 12 on 5-of-20 shooting Tuesday. Parker had only one field-goal attempt in the fourth quarter and missed it, while Ginobili went 0-for-3. Both finished with six assists, but each had only one in the second half.
Jackson had 20 points, but his fourth quarter included two turnovers, three fouls and two missed 3-pointers before a meaningless three-point play in the final minute. Bowen scored 12 points, but all of those came in the first half.
“We played like someone was going to give us something. That lack of maturity really hurt us,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said.
Tim Duncan had 23 points, 15 rebounds and six assists, but was held below 30 points for the second straight game after scoring at least that many in four straight.
He also made just 5-of-12 from the foul line as the Spurs hit 24-for-38. Dallas, which made its last 49 attempts after missing its first foul shot in Game 1, hit all 23 of its free throws in Game 5.
San Antonio has shot 73 percent from the foul line in this series, while Dallas has connected on 92 percent.
Van Exel and Nash have started in the backcourt the last two games as Nelson has gone with a small-ball lineup due to the injuries to Nowitzki and backup centers Shawn Bradley and Evan Eschmeyer. Despite those absences, the Mavs outrebounded the Spurs on Tuesday for the first time since Game 1. San Antonio had 42 more rebounds in winning Games 2-4.
If Dallas wins at home for the first time in this series on Thursday, Game 7 would be Saturday night in San Antonio. If the Spurs win, they will open the finals at home against the New Jersey Nets on June 4.
“The goal is still to get to four, and we’re up 3-2,” Duncan said. “The goal is still to get to four before them.”
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.
PLAYOFF TEAM LEADERS: Spurs - Duncan, 25.3 ppg, 15.1 rpg and 5.4 apg. Mavericks - Nowitzki, 25.3 ppg and 11.5 rpg; Nash, 7.1 apg.