Partly Cloudy Currently: Dallas, TX
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  • Game info: 9:30 pm EDT Mon May 15, 2006
  • TV: TNT

PLAYOFF SERIES: Western Conference semifinals; Mavericks lead 2-1.

Tim Duncan has been dominant, Manu Ginobili may have regained his confidence and the Dallas Mavericks’ best player now has to fight through an injury.

As good as all that seems for the San Antonio Spurs, they’re the ones in trouble.

Facing a series deficit from which they have never recovered since Duncan’s arrival, the defending NBA champions will be pushed within a game of being eliminated by Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavericks unless they win Game 4 in Dallas.

Since drafting Duncan with the top overall pick in 1997, San Antonio has been in 23 playoff series and has trailed through three games on only four occasions—losing them all.

“We’re usually in a position where we’re up after three games,” Duncan said. “But it is what it is. We’re going to have to come out and know the importance of this game. It is a must-win for us.”

Duncan has averaged 31.3 points and 11.3 rebounds in the series, about 13 points and two boards more than his numbers in the first round against Sacramento.

He had 35 points and 12 rebounds on Saturday, but fouled out with 1:05 to play and the Spurs lost 104-103 as the Mavericks grabbed a 2-1 lead in this best-of-seven series.

A loss Monday means San Antonio would have to win three in a row to advance, and the only time all season Dallas lost three straight came in a four-day span at the end of a road trip in March.

“You can’t just beat the champs, you have to knock them out,” Mavericks guard Jason Terry said. “We’ve got another at home and we have to take care of business.”

On the play in which Duncan fouled out, Nowitzki twisted his right ankle by stepping on Duncan’s foot and appeared to be badly hurt. However, he would go back into the game and hit the go-ahead pair of free throws with 7.9 seconds left, finishing with 27 points and setting a franchise playoff record by making 21 foul shots.

Nowitzki said his swollen ankle remains stiff and is “up there” with other ankle injuries he’s endured.

But asked if there was any way he would miss Game 4, Nowitzki said, “If I lose a leg.”

Injuries have plagued Ginobili in recent months and he admitted to lacking confidence following Games 1 and 2, having totaled 28 points on 9-of-25 shooting. Coach Gregg Popovich took him out of the starting lineup for Game 3 and Ginobili responded with 24 points, including 10 in the fourth quarter, though he did have a crucial turnover down the stretch.

“He got into a rhythm and started attacking the basket and I thought he did a great job getting us back into the game at one point there,” Duncan said of Ginobili. “It was huge for him to break down that defense and get into the seams there when they double team or even if they don’t.”

The backcourt player, though, who has probably had the biggest influence on this series is Devin Harris.

Dallas has won both games since coach Avery Johnson stuck him in the starting lineup, with Harris scoring 24 points in Game 3 after providing a boost of energy with 20 in Game 2.

The Spurs, meanwhile, might be looking for two of their perimeter players to step up.

Tony Parker has been limited to 16.3 points in this series on 39.6 percent shooting. Michael Finley, a former star with the Mavericks, has failed to score in double figures, totaling 20 points, despite averaging nearly 26 minutes per game.

Of greater concern to Popovich is his team’s defense. In the last two games, Dallas has averaged 108.5 points, attempted 93 free throws and committed only 20 turnovers.

“Our bottom line is that our defense has not been good enough to date,” Popovich said. “That’s the bottom-line story for us. People score 100 points or more, we’ll probably going to lose that game. That’s the way history has been.”

The series heads back to San Antonio on Wednesday for Game 5.

HOW THEY GOT HERE: Spurs - 1st seed; beat Sacramento Kings 4-2, first round. Mavericks - 4th seed; beat Memphis Grizzlies 4-0, first round.

PROBABLE STARTERS: Spurs - F Bruce Bowen, F Robert Horry, C Duncan, G Brent Barry, G Parker. Mavericks - F Nowitzki, F Josh Howard, C DeSagana Diop, G Harris, G Terry.

PLAYOFF TEAM LEADERS: Spurs - Duncan, 22.7 ppg and 9.9 rpg; Parker 4.1 apg. Mavericks - Nowitzki, 27.6 ppg and 9.9 rpg; Terry, 4.3 apg.

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