DALLAS (AP)—The nickname “Big D” stands for two things now: Dallas and Dirk.
Dirk Nowitzki earned the right to share that moniker after his best game of the second round put the Mavericks into the Western Conference finals.
The 7-footer from Germany had 30 points, 19 rebounds and a super-timely 3-pointer—one of 11 by the Mavericks—as Dallas defeated the Sacramento Kings 112-99 in Game 7 of their conference semifinal series.
“I wasn’t a big factor the whole series. I couldn’t find my rhythm,” said Nowitzki, who worked on his shot before the game with his personal mentor, Holger Geschwindner, to add a little arc. “I’m glad my jumper was a little better than it was a couple days ago.”
The result was the type of breakout game everyone had been waiting for from Nowitzki, whose struggles in this series were so pronounced that The Dallas Morning News listed him as a 20-1 underdog to be the hero of the game.
But he was the star of Game 7, with strong supporting roles from Nick Van Exel, Michael Finley, Steve Nash, Raja Bell and even Shawn Bradley as the Mavericks advanced to the conference finals for the first time since 1988.
The all-Texas showdown with the San Antonio Spurs begins Monday night, with the winner advancing to the NBA Finals.
“We didn’t play great for 48 minutes, but we kept the foot down,” Nash said.
Van Exel, the Mavs’ most consistent offensive producer during the high-octane series, had 23 points and four 3-pointers. Finley added 18, Nash had 18 points and 13 assists and Bell chipped in 12 points.
“I think we owe the series to Nick Van Exel who, when things were looking bleak, got us thinking the right way and taking the next step that we really needed to hear from a teammate, not a coach,” Dallas coach Don Nelson said.
Bradley did his part during the first three quarters, giving the Mavericks an interior defensive presence that caused the Kings problems trying to run their inside-outside game on offense. That tactic that usually worked when Sacramento had Chris Webber available, but he went down with a knee injury in Game 2 to irrevocably change the dynamic of this series.
“You lose Webber, it’s like them losing Nowitzki or San Antonio losing (Tim) Duncan), but there’s nothing you can do about it,” Kings coach Rick Adelman said. “But I still give my team a lot of credit. They truly felt we could win this series without Chris Webber.”
As the Mavericks left the court, Finley lifted Nowitzki and carried him off—a fitting reward for a player who carried the Mavericks with 12-for-20 shooting.
Coming in, Nowitzki was only the fourth-leading scorer for Dallas in the series—making a total of just 14 field goals in Games 4-6.
Unlike last season when they had only themselves to blame for their Game 7 loss to the Lakers in the Western finals, this time they were simply outplayed for all but a few brief stretches.
“We had a couple of stops, hit some big shots and we were back in the game,” Divac said. “But every time we did that, they made big shots and put us away.”
Nash opened the fourth quarter with a 60-foot pass to Finley for a layup that upped the lead to 11. Sacramento got within five on a 22-footer by Jackson and a layup by Bibby, but the Mavericks answered instantly.
After Bibby’s basket, Nash beat everyone downcourt for a breakaway layup that turned into a three-point play. Finley followed with a pair of foul shots and a 3-pointer. Suddenly, the lead was up to 13 with 7:26 left.
A flagrant foul by Bell against Divac led to a five-point possession that hushed the raucous crowd of 20,595, but that moment of doubt was brief.
Nowitzki answered with a 3-pointer that rolled around the rim, hit the backboard and dropped through, and Nash stole the ball from Divac and found Finley for a fast-break layup.
After Jackson missed underneath, Van Exel launched a 3-pointer from well behind the arc. The shot hit all net, the lead was up to 16—and it was all but over for the Kings.
“We’ve really learned how to close games out,” said Nowitzki, whose team had been eliminated in the second round for two straight years after going 10 seasons without a postseason appearance.
For only the second time in the series, the Mavericks held a lead at the end of the first quarter. Nowitzki shot 5-for-7 in the quarter and led the Mavericks with 10 points, while Bibby had a dreadful 12 minutes—missing all five of his shots.
Nelson was forced to go to Bradley just 3 1/2 minutes in after LaFrentz picked up two fouls, but the presence of the 7-foot-6 center was an effective deterrent against the drives to the basket that Sacramento had been successfully making.
A 3-pointer by Finley with 7:10 left in the second quarter gave Dallas its first double-digit lead at 34-24, but Sacramento came back with a 15-0 run before Dallas closed the quarter with a 9-1 spurt run for a 48-43 halftime lead.
LaFrentz picked up his fourth foul early in the third quarter, but again Bradley came in and helped the Mavericks to keep playing from ahead. Running a unique set of dual 7-footer pick-and-rolls with Nowitzki and Bradley, the taller of the two hit a jump hook and then assisted on a short jumper by Bell midway through the third quarter as Dallas did not let its lead dip below six.
Bradley finished with four points, seven rebounds, two assists, a steal anda block.
Nelson reached the conference finals for the first time since 1986. … Doug Christie, averaging 15.2 points in the series, missed all six of his shots. … Divac was only 3-for-12 from the field. … Dallas Cowboys coachBill Parcells sat courtside.