By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com
DALLAS — Tim Duncan started this unpredictably wooly series with 27 points and talking about doing this playoff thing a couple more times. In the middle of it, he turned 38.
By the end of Friday night’s Game 6, his goatee seemingly sprouting a few more grey hairs, Duncan was left explaining how former kicked-to-the-curb teammate DeJuan Blair dominated a fourth quarter that now has the top-seeded and reigning Western Conference champions staring down another improbable Game 7 long before they figured they would.
“We’re here to win four games, it doesn’t matter how many games it takes,” Duncan said, his voice terse. “We’re not worried about being disappointed. This is a very good ballclub over there. There’s eight, nine and 10 good teams in the West, so we’re here to win four games. We have one more at home to do that. We played great in the regular season so that we would be in this position to have homecourt. There’s no disappointment there.”
There certainly was no joy in the visitors’ locker room following a sloppy fourth quarter that led to Mavs 113, Spurs 111, to set up Sunday’s Game 7 back in San Antonio. The last one they played didn’t go so well last June in Miami after the Spurs somehow let Game 6 and another championship slip away in the final 28 seconds. It’s only the first round, yet suddenly the stakes are as equally high for this tight-knit group that regrouped so brilliantly this season to win a league-best 62 games.
Coach Gregg Popovich, being pushed to the limit by the scheming of Dallas’ Rick Carlisle, won the Coach of the Year award for their efforts. Now his team finds itself in the same precarious spot as the East’s No. 1 seed, the embattled Indiana Pacers. Both get Game 7 on their home floor.
“Well, you wouldn’t give it away, but it doesn’t guarantee you anything,” Popovich said of playing the finale at home. “We’ve won Game 7s and we’ve lost Game 7s.”
San Antonio led the eighth-seeded Mavs 87-82 with 9:15 to go. It seemed this would be a methodical ender for the Spurs, 52-1 during the regular season when leading after three quarters, a slow death for the home team like a boa crushing the final, desperate breaths from its prey.
But then we should have known better. The gutty Mavs have spent this series escaping danger and reinforcing their resiliency. Even in Game 5 when the Spurs seemed to be in total control from the start, there were the Mavs hustling to within four points in the final minutes, and a missed Dirk Nowitzki jumper from making it two.
This time, a 16-4 Dallas charge sparked by a scrambling defense and two steals by Blair, who had four on the night to go with 10 points and a game-high and career-playoff best 14 rebounds, led to a flurry of buckets in the 37-point quarter. By the time Dallas’ leading scorer in this series, Monta Ellis, who dropped 29 points for the second time, hit an eight-foot driving jump shot with 2:59 left, the Mavs, buoyed by a boisterous, believing crowd, went up 102-94.
A pair of late 3s accounted for the extra-thin final margin, but Blair, who stole Tony Parker‘s interior pass with 29.9 seconds left, then made enough free throws to skate away out with the win.
Earlier in the day on his local radio program, Carlisle fumed that he wasn’t proud of anything his team had accomplished to this point. “We should be the ones up, 3-2,” he said. “That’s how I see it.”
Maybe he was right. Maybe if Blair, whose energy flipped the Game 4 momentum in Dallas’ favor, hadn’t of kicked Tiago Splitter in the head in the fourth quarter of a one-point game, drawing a “hostile act” violation and automatic ejection, maybe the Mavs win that one to go up 3-1. Blair was subsequently suspended for Game 5. The Spurs won by six.
On their three home games, San Antonio has been less than dominant, getting blown out in Game 2 and winning Games 1 and 5 by a combined 11 points.
“Of course it’s disappointing, but it is what it is,” said Manu Ginobili, just 1-for-8 for six points after averaging 19 in the first five games. “We have to go and fight and try to get it in seven.
“I don’t think we’re in an awful position.”
Blair would certainly enjoy putting them in one. He’s held a grudge against his former club all season for being ousted from the rotation first spot by Splitter, suddenly the Spurs’ best inside scoring threat, and then Boris Diaw, and finally being set free last summer.
“Of course,” Blair answered when asked if his massive Game 6 served as sweet revenge after watching Game 5 sequestered in his San Antonio hotel room. “It ain’t over yet, we’ve got Game 7 on their court. Winning on their court would be the best revenge.”
Nowitzki, a solid 22 points on 11-for-20 shooting, knows that feeling. The last time these two longtime rivals went seven games in the 2006 conference semifinals, Nowitzki bludgeoned the Spurs with 37 points and 15 rebounds. He and re-acquired guard Devin Harris are the only Mavs left from that series, but Popovich and the Big Three remember it well.
It kept them from challenging for a repeat, and possibly a three-peat after they won it all again in 2007. New Knicks president Phil Jackson recently reminded the Spurs that their three titles in five seasons do not constitute a dynasty.
Now they’re just desperate to avoid a second first-round exit in four years as the No. 1 seed.
Sunday is about one thing: survive and advance.