DALLAS – A truly exquisite NBA playoff game deserved a remarkable ending. And Mavericks veteran Vince Carter was up to the task.
His 3-point fadeaway shot from the corner splashed through the net to give Dallas a 109-108 win over the San Antonio Spurs. It sounded like a cannon blast inside the American Airlines Center as Mavs fans exploded. Dirk Nowitzki, who took those type shots for so many years, was the first player to jump into Carter’s arms. The Spurs can still win this series, but they are officially on notice.
If the Mavs can win Game 4 on Monday, San Antonio would have a huge mountain to climb. Dallas could’ve easily folded when the Spurs took a five-point lead with just over two minutes remaining Saturday. Instead, Monta Ellis took over the game.
As crazy as it sounds, the Spurs don’t have anyone who can defend Ellis. He hit a 21-foot jumper to bring the Mavs to within 100-99. And after Tim Duncan made two free throws, Ellis canned another shot. Dirk Nowitzki was relatively quiet for the third consecutive game, which illustrates how improbable it is for the Mavs to have a 2-1 advantage in this best-of-seven series.
Ellis once again tied the game when he turned the corner and floated a 5-footer over the outstretched arms of Duncan. It was one of the great clutch performances in Mavs playoff history, and it set the stage for Carter’s heroics.
Jose Calderon said he had other options on the inbounds play with 1.7 seconds left in regulation. But it was clear immediately the Spurs were hellbent on keeping the ball out of Ellis’ hands. Carter caught the pass and pump-faked Manu Ginobli into the air. He then released the ball with his usual flat arc while falling to his left.
"It was going to have to be a quick shot," said Carlisle. "Any pump fake was going to have to be quick. It was a great catch and Jose did a great job of getting him the ball because Ginobli was denying it. The execution of the shot was great, obviously. Vince really deserves it. He’s been so good for us and he’s been about so many of the right things."
It was an odd sight to see someone other than Nowitzki in the main interview room following a playoff game. Asked how long it had been since he wasn’t the featured Mav after a playoff game, Nowitzki smiled and said, "My first year in the playoffs, about 10 years ago."
Nowitzki made his first two shots to help his team jump out to a 16-8 lead. It was strange to hear him take solace in shooting better than 50 percent for the first time in this series (7-of-13). He’s only attempted 11 free throws through three games, with six of those coming Saturday. Nowitzki even referred to himself as a "decoy" after the game. Everyone keeps waiting for him to have a breakout game, but maybe it’s not going to happen. Ellis and center Sam Dalembert both had huge games. Ellis finished with 29 points. Dalembert had 13 points, 10 rebounds and four blocked shots. He had nine points and nine rebounds by halftime. That’s why it was bizarre that Carlisle didn’t play him the first nine minutes, 56 seconds of the fourth quarter. He grabbed a Nowitzki miss with 43 seconds left and was fouled. His two free throws tied the game, 104-104. I asked him if he thought Carlisle forgot about him in the fourth quarter.
"No, I’m used to it," he said with a grin.
This series is far from over (see Miami 2006), but the Mavs definitely have the Spurs’ attention. This is the same team that came within seconds of winning an NBA title last season. Tony Parker had 17 points and six assists in the first half. But as he’s done this whole series, he was a no-show in the second half. He was 1-of-5 from the field and didn’t have any assists while only playing 13 minutes. Still, the Spurs shot 54.3 percent and only had 14 turnovers, as opposed to 24 in Game 2. Duncan, Kawhi Leonard and Tiago Splitter all had excellent games. This team is too experienced and well-coached to panic, but it certainly has to be scratching its head.
"They’re obviously the heavy favorite," said Nowitzki of the Spurs. "But they know we’re here to play."