By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com
SAN ANTONIO — For the past 10 days in Dallas, it’s as if Mavericks fans have been waiting for a volcano to finally blow. They feel the rumbles, building, building as anticipation heightens, yet still with no eruption.
This is Dirk Nowitzki against the San Antonio Spurs. The big German is not producing a memorable postseason, and in a first-round, 8 vs 1 series so surprisingly tight, one can only wonder what might otherwise be. His shot just hasn’t been falling with the clockwork regularity he’s accustomed while battling a mountain of man in younger, stronger Spurs center Tiago Splitter.
Nowitzki’s slowly been bubbling — 11 points in Game 1, then 16, 18 and 19 in Game 4. Get that overdue, epic-type outing the entire city believes is roiling under the surface, and who knows where this thing might go?
If it’s going to happen, it will be in do-or-die Game 6 with a nod to a potential momentum-building fourth quarter in which Nowitzki, 3-for-10 after three, dropped his first six shots, finally missing when he rushed a 3 sensing a second of daylight. Each possession he demanded the ball. He put his head down and drove, sank four consecutive jumpers, then banged into Splitter and buried a fallaway. Dallas, which never led, but also never fell far from striking range — down 79-71 after three — was suddenly within 98-94 with 3:09 to go.
“He was hitting tough ones, and if he can hit those tough ones, there’s not a whole lot you can do about it whether you double-team or not,” Tim Duncan said. “With his size and the arc he puts on his shot, if he starts to hit those shots, we just have to continue to work hard, make him work for his shots and hopefully he tires out or he just misses a couple.”
With 2:35 left, the 35-year-old Nowitzki grabbed his 15th rebound and headed back the other way. At the left wing, he faked Splitter out of his air space, and launched unobstructed from 17 feet. The high archer landed short, bouncing high off the side rim.
“I think that was actually the easiest shot I had all night,” Nowitzki said. “I got Splitter off his feet. He didn’t want to give up that corner 3 and it was there. It was open. I wish I had that back.”
From there, the Spurs were able to close it out for the 109-103 victory and a 3-2 lead in the series.
Nowitzki scored 14 of his 26 points in the fourth quarter, outscoring his point total through three. Vince Carter singlehandedly kept Dallas in it with a mesmerizing long-distance shooting display. He scored 28 points and knocked down seven 3-pointers after making just four in the first four games.
Through three quarters, he had eight buckets and 22 points while Nowitzki and cold-shooting Monta Ellis had just seven field-goals and 23 points combined.
“I told the reporter after whatever quarter you have to do that thing (television interview), she asked, ‘what we were going to do?’ Popovich said. “I told her we were going to pass out a picture of Vince on the bench so everybody knows he’s on their team.”
The Spurs, though, were just too tough and the Mavs’ defense too porous, the story of their season. Finally figuring out the defensive curve ball Dallas threw starting with Game 1 to defend the 3-point arc at all costs, San Antonio’s pick-and-roll was deadly. Tony Parker, who welcomed a baby boy on Tuesday night and played with a mildly sprained left ankle, had 23 points and five assists. Duncan (16 points, 12 rebounds) and Splitter (17 points and five assists) practically scored at will in the paint.
Manu Ginobili continued his torrid pace with 19 points and five assists and Kawhi Leonard had 15 points and eight rebounds in what was easily San Antonio’s most efficient game of the series.
It was also Nowitzki’s most desperate. Despite his scoring struggles early and defense that needs tightened, Nowitzki knew the Mavs had already overachieved just get this far. A second consecutive loss after being up 2-1 would force them to win two straight, a monumental feat against the league’s best team.
He was leaping for rebounds and lunging for loose balls. Drenched in sweat, his hair as floppy as it’s been all season and a thickening beard, Nowitzki logged 39 hard minutes and had the look of that old playoff monster, being one of just four players in postseason history to average 25 points and 10 boards.
In this series, he needed a 7-for-10 fourth quarter just to raise his overall shooting percentage above 40, while he’s just 1-for-7 from beyond the arc. During the regular season, Nowitzki got as close to the rare 50-40-90 mark without actually hitting any of three — 49.7 percent overall, 39.8 percent on 3s and 89.9 percent at the free-throw line.
If the Mavs can’t come back and win two straight to move on, Nowitzki will likely finish second in playoff scoring on his own team for only the second time in 13 playoff appearances — the last being the forgettable 2007 first-round exit against Golden State.
While Dallas has been on the search since winning the 2011 title for a bona fide scorer to ease Nowitzki into a less burdensome role, Monta Ellis, averaging a team-best 20.4 ppg in the series, is doing so on 18.8 shots a game and hitting on just 40.4 percent.
For Dallas to force a Game 7 back in San Antonio, it’s going to take a mighty eruption from Nowitzki back in Dallas on Friday night.