Epic failure leaves Nowitzki, Mavericks frustrated

Dirk Nowitzki was a free agent last summer, unshackled from the
Dallas Mavericks for the first time in his career. It was his
chance to escape a franchise with a long track record of winning
big in the regular season and losing painfully in the
postseason.

The former MVP signed up for four more years because he wanted
to turn around that reputation.

Just a week into the playoffs, the Mavs are in jeopardy of
adding to it.

Dallas went to Portland with the chance to pull off a sweep, but
returned home licking its wounds following one of the most
humiliating losses of the NBA’s shot-clock era. The Mavericks spit
up a 23-point lead with 13 minutes left to lose Game 4 and knot the
series at 2-2.

Game 5 is in Dallas on Monday night. A return trip to Portland
is already set for Game 6 on Thursday night.

”Frustration is definitely at a high level,” Nowitzki said.
”There is a huge difference from being up 3-1 and 2-2. This is
definitely up there with the most frustrating losses.”

In Nowitzki’s collection of most frustrating losses, nothing can
top blowing a 13-point, fourth-quarter lead while up 2-0 in the
2006 NBA finals against the Miami Heat. This one is in the
ballpark, though.

Up 2-0 for the first time since that infamous series, the
Mavericks were halfway to only their second series win since then.
They had the chance to sweep the Trail Blazers, or to return home
with a chance to knock ’em out. By losing both games, this
title-starved collection of veterans in their 30s guaranteed
themselves at least two more games in a series that keeps getting
more physical, plus another round-trip flight to the Pacific
Northwest.

And, of course, the immediate concern is getting over what Jason
Kidd called ”one of the toughest losses I’ve ever been involved
in.”

”But we can still win the series, and that’s where our focus
has to be,” Kidd said. ”We have to stay together and get home and
come out Monday with the same focus and intensity as we did today.
Then we just have to finish.”

The Mavs flew home after Game 4 on Saturday. They didn’t
practice Sunday.

The biggest thing going for them is that Game 5 is in Dallas,
and so would a Game 7. The home team has won all four games this
series – just like the home team won all four games during the
regular-season series.

”Game 5 is the pivotal game,” Blazers forward Gerald Wallace
said. ”The advantage is tilted their way because they’re at home.
But we’ve got the momentum on the court.”

Portland’s momentum includes a rejuvenated Brandon Roy.

Roy left Dallas wondering about his career and his role on the
Blazers. He hardly played in Game 2 and didn’t score. He was so low
in the rotation that he said he was nearly in tears on the bench.
He picked things up in Game 3, then was the star of Game 4, scoring
18 points in the series-shifting fourth quarter, including the
winning basket in the final minute.

”He helped us in Game 3, and people doubted if he could do it
again,” Portland center Marcus Camby said. ”He proved a lot of
people wrong. He’s got a lot of game left.”

Maybe there’s a lesson there for Dallas.

Roy said he regained his confidence and his shooting touch with
the support of friends and family. He won the fans back with a few
more jumpers. If the Mavericks can get the same kind of backing,
maybe they can turn things back in their favor.

After all, they did dominate the first three quarters of Game 4.
It’s just the last one they need to clean up.

”We just have to stay positive,” Nowitzki said. ”Two out of
three we’re at home, where our crowd has really carried us,
especially in the fourth quarter in the two wins that we got. This
is going to sting; this is going to hurt, but we worked hard all
through the regular season to get those two at home.”

Dallas’ sketchy playoff history includes a 2003 matchup against
Portland that played out somewhat similarly to this series.

The Mavericks jumped ahead 3-0, then the Blazers won the next
three. Game 7 was in Dallas and the Mavs pulled it out. Portland
hasn’t won a playoff series since; its drought actually stretches
to 2000.

”As each game goes on, it becomes the biggest game of the
series,” Camby said. ”Neither team has been able to win on the
other team’s home court. I know they’re thinking the same thing.
They don’t want another collapse like they did in the finals
against Miami.”

AP Sports Writer Anne M. Peterson in Portland, Ore.,
contributed.