12:28 AM CDT on Saturday, April 8, 2006
By EDDIE SEFKO / The Dallas Morning News
SAN ANTONIO – Any message the Mavericks sent Friday night wasn't nearly as important as the one tangible thing they held onto – a legitimate shot at home-court advantage throughout the Western Conference playoffs.
The Mavericks made the big shots and the big plays that usually are reserved for championship teams in these situations. They were rewarded with a hard-earned and well-deserved 92-86 victory over their Southwest Division rivals, leaving the Spurs just one slim game ahead in the race for the No. 1 seed.
The victory tied the season series at two wins apiece. The tiebreaker, if they end up with identical records, most likely will boil down to division or conference record.
"Now we know the potential of this team," Jason Terry said. "These are the champions. You're not going to walk in here and have an easy game. Thank God for the MVP. He came to play tonight."
That would be Dirk Nowitzki, who outplayed every Spur with 30 points and 10 rebounds.
"It was a hell of a game both ways," San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich said. "The difference was Dirk. He's an MVP player, and we couldn't stop him."
The Mavericks stifled the Spurs in the second half, holding them to 33 points and 11-of-35 shooting (31.4 percent).
When they walked off the AT&T Center court, they had survived a physical, entertaining evening. And they may have learned a thing or two about the Spurs and themselves.
"They're going to have to do something different in the future," Jerry Stackhouse said. "I don't think they're going to be able to play Bruce Bowen on Dirk anymore and put Tim Duncan on Josh [Howard]."
Nowitzki and Howard combined for 52 points and 20 rebounds. The Spurs' starting forwards, Duncan and Bowen, had just 18 points and 12 rebounds combined.
A week ago, the Mavericks were tail-spinning out of control with a coach that was lashing out at players and a team that was getting crushed under the weight of an injury overload.
Now? Spirits could not be higher as they handed San Antonio its second home loss in three days. The Spurs hadn't lost back-to-back home games since January 2004.
It wasn't as sweet as, say, a win a month from now at the AT&T Center would be. That one would come in the second round of the playoffs and carry far more weight. But this one was pretty darn tasty.
The Mavericks kept Spurs point guard Tony Parker out of the paint most of the night and hassled Duncan into 5-of-15 shooting, same as Parker.
About the only thing the Mavericks didn't do well was shut off the Spurs on their offensive glass. San Antonio had 16 second-chance points. But only four of those came after halftime.
The playoffs, or at least the intensity required in them, arrived early as both teams treated this evening like it was far more important than just one of 82 regular-season games. Emotions bubbled over. Shots were contested on virtually every possession. And the crowd got progressively more energized as the game progressed.
Howard had scored 15 points in the first quarter to keep the Mavericks close. After falling behind by 11 in the second quarter, they rallied to trail by just two at the break.
Nowitzki was smoking to start the second half, canning three shots over three different defenders as the Mavericks eased ahead, 63-59, midway through the third quarter.
The Mavericks enjoyed one of their best defensive quarters of the season, holding the Spurs to 4-of-17 shooting and 12 points.
They had no excuses, heading into the final quarter with a 71-65 advantage. And they never let the Spurs get closer than three points.