A funny thing happened on the way to vacation.
The San Antonio Spurs were supposed to be starting an eight-day vacation before next week’s start of the NBA Finals but that was before the plucky little Dallas Mavericks, still without star forward Dirk Nowitzki, rallied from 19 points down, dropped a 29-10 fourth quarter on the Spurs and stunned them, 103-91, Tuesday night in the Western Conference finals.
The Spurs still lead the best-of-seven series, 3-2, but they’re going back to Dallas for Game 6 on Thursday, when Nowitzki’s sprained knee may be ready.
“I really feel like the luckiest guy in the world tonight,” said Maverick Coach Don Nelson. “We just hung around and hung around and hung around.
“And wouldn’t you know it, in the fourth quarter, they went a little cold and we went a little hot.”
The Mavericks went a little hot and the Spurs choked, missing their first eight shots in the fourth quarter and 12 of their first 13 as the Mavericks drew close, then blew by.
Nor was this their first gag job of the postseason. The Spurs have one bona fide scorer, Tim Duncan, and a lot of young players. When opposing teams take Duncan away, as the Mavericks did Tuesday, packing their four-guard lineup back in a zone, it’s up to the young guys to sink or swim.
Glub, glub, glub.
“Everybody says you have to be there and you have experience and this, that and the other,” said the smoldering Spurs’ coach, Gregg Popovich. “But I think if you have half a brain you realize how important a game that was. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been there before or not ...
“We did not shoot the ball well. That’s OK. But you still have to make stops. That’s who we are ... I saw blue [Dallas] shirts on the floor. I saw people in blue shirts ripping rebounds from people in white shirts. They [Dallas] deserved it. They wanted it more and they got it so my hat’s off to ‘em.”
So what began as an interesting series, with the Mavericks coming from 18 points down to win the opener, and turned into a walkover with the Spurs winning Games 2, 3 and 4 as Nowitzki went out, is once more an interesting series.
As has been the case since Nowitzki went out, his availability dominates all discussion and so it did before Tuesday’s game, when Nelson reported he had regressed.
Nowitzki asked Nelson to let him play in Game 4 but the coach held him out. It didn’t even come up before Game 5.
Meanwhile, Popovich, who was once Nelson’s assistant, kept predicting Nowitzki would play.
Nevertheless, Nelson had to send out one of his patented little lineups Tuesday, which got even smaller as his one remaining big man, 6-foot-11 Raef LaFrentz, got into foul trouble and played only 24 minutes.
Small is one thing but for the Mavericks, who play little or no defense, cold is fatal and as their shots clanged away in the first half, and the Spurs moved, seemingly inexorably, into a 48-29 lead with 6:50 left in the first half.
However, late in the half, the Spurs got sloppy and the Mavericks drew within 11 points. After that, it was all about stops and poise and the Spurs ran short on both.
Duncan, asked if he could feel his teammates tightening up, acknowledged he could.
“Yeah, a little bit,” Duncan said. “I think everybody does. You miss a couple shots, somebody comes back, you try and make it up in a hurry. We’ve done a pretty good job of trying to get away from it [blowing leads], playing one possession at a time but they just made shots in a row.”
Someone asked Popovich about the mood in his dressing room afterward.
“I’ll just let you go ahead and guess,” he said.