DALLAS — In what has been a bizarre and often scintillating first-round matchup, maybe it makes sense the ejection of DeJuan Blair in the fourth quarter was too much for the Mavs to overcome. The former Spurs player helped the Mavs erase a 20-point deficit with tremendous play on both sides of the court before his untimely "hostile act" toward Tiago Splitter led to his dismissal with 3:08 left in the game.
Blair had 12 points and nine rebounds in his 13 minutes on the floor in the second half. The 6-7, 270-pound center used his strength and surprising quickness to frustrate Tim Duncan on defense. This would’ve forever been known as the "DeJuan Blair game" had the Mavs won Monday. Instead, they suffered a 93-89 defeat and saw the Spurs even the first-round series, 2-2.
On the play in question, Blair was called for a foul when he collided with Splitter while trying to grab a loose ball. While both players were on their backs, Blair appeared to kick Splitter in the head with his left foot. After reviewing the play, the officials called it a "hostile act" toward Splitter and sent Blair to the locker room. He received a rousing ovation as he jogged off the floor, but the Spurs were able to take an 85-83 lead after making all three free throws.
"Blair gave us a lot of energy, a lot of force and he gave us a physical presence," said Mavs coach Rick Carlisle. "I only saw one view of [the hostile act] and it was a distorted view on the coaches feed, so I didn’t see exactly what happened. But Scott Foster is one of the best officials. If he said there was a technical foul there and an ejection, then there probably was. They looked at it on the film, too. We have to avoid plays like that after the whistle."
The Mavs were able to tie the score at 87 when Monta Ellis hit a jump shot from the baseline while being fouled by Manu Ginobli. On the ensuing play, Spurs guard Tony Parker got in the lane off a pick-and-roll and then passed the ball out to Boris Diaw for a wide-open 3-pointer. Nowitzki, who had a difficult time guarding Diaw the whole game, wasn’t able to get a hand in his face. Diaw connected on 3-of-6 3-pointers to finish with 17 points. He scored eight of the Spurs’ 23 points in the third quarter as the Mavs were trying to cut into a big lead.
It’s not shocking when Manu Ginobli goes off for 23 points and five assists. But giving up a combined 27 points to Diaw and backup point guard Patty Mills is a losing recipe. The Mavs got some great production from their bench early in this series, but the Spurs’ reserves outscored them, 50-30, in Game 4.
It’s a wonder the Mavs found themselves in a close game when you consider that Nowitzki and Ellis were a combined 13-of-39 from the field. Everyone keeps waiting on Nowitzki to break out in this series, but maybe it’s not going to happen. He made two early shots to help the Mavs jump out to a 12-2 lead, but he was stuck on nine points for much of the game. The Spurs have kept him in check by making him play off the dribble. He’s struggled to score against Splitter and Diaw. Carlisle is getting agitated by questions about Nowitzki’s shooting. He’s pointed to all the other things Nowitzki’s doing in terms of communication, but this man was put on Earth to score. No one cares how well he’s communicating.
"If it’s not there, I’m going to swing it," said Nowitzki. "I want to look for my shot. But I don’t want to come out there hoisting my shot. I’ve been around long enough where I make the right play."
It’s strange to hear that from a player who’s been brilliant in the playoffs for so many years. It used to be a no-brainer that Nowitzki would have the ball in his hands at the end of games. But in back-to-back games, it’s been Vince Carter and Ellis who have taken the big shots. Yes, some of it has to do with what the Spurs are doing to Nowitzki on defense. That said, he needs to be more assertive. You don’t see Ginobli and Duncan always deferring to teammates, and they are both older than Nowitzki.
Role players such as Devin Harris elevated their games early in this series, but he’s been relatively quiet the past two games. Win or lose, Nowitzki needs to be a little more selfish in Game 5 in San Antonio. There’s no reason he and Diaw should basically play to a draw.
The Mavs showed a lot of determination in fighting back from a big deficit Monday, but it was a listless second quarter that put them in that position. That’s the part of the game Carlisle kept mentioning.
"I’m so disappointed in our no-show in the first half that it’s hard for me to mitigate it with fight for 24 minutes out of 48 minutes a game with this kind of meaning," said Carlisle. "I’m glad we showed that we were willing and able to fight in the second half, but the way we performed, just competitively, is inexcusable."
It makes sense the Spurs would look like the more desperate team since they were down, 2-1, in the series. What’s strange is that Dallas got off to an excellent start and then somehow lost its intensity on both sides of the floor.
The best news for the Mavs is they’ve been a solid road team this season. They outplayed the Spurs for much of the two games in this series that were played in San Antonio. There’s no reason for the Mavs to have any sense of panic.
They may have blown an opportunity to take the upper-hand in the series Monday, but most people didn’t expect this series to go past five games.
The Spurs looked at Game 4 as a must-win situation. It might not hurt for the Mavs to have that mindset Wednesday in San Antonio.