DALLAS -- A four-point game from Tim Duncan can be dismissed as an aberration. Especially when you win anyway.
What happens, though, when Duncan follows up the four points with a mere 11 points in what was supposed to be his bounce-back game?
The San Antonio Spurs are about to find out. It's their turn to be subjected to some uncomfortable skepticism after the No. 2-seeded Dallas Mavericks, facing the humbling prospect of a first-round elimination Tuesday night, responded with a 103-81 rout that couldn't have played out much better in hope-building terms for the Mavs.
The reality is that Dallas still trails this series 3-2 and can't extend it any further without finding a way to win Game 6 in San Antonio. It's likewise important to note that Duncan was rested for the entire fourth quarter in Game 5, when Spurs coach Gregg Popovich preferred the idea of starting Game 6 preparations for the likes of Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker as opposed to letting Duncan try to pad his modest totals of 11 points and six boards.
San Antonio, though, will be facing undeniable pressure all its own to close the Mavs out at home Thursday, after Dallas hit the visiting Spurs on Tuesday night with an active and effective defensive display that led to numerous opportunities to push the ball, setting up Caron Butler to finally join this series with a career playoff-high 35 points.
And because Dallas quickly rebuilt its lead in the third quarter after the Spurs had sliced a 17-point deficit to seven at halftime, several key Mavs also came away with some bonus rest in the fourth quarter: Dirk Nowitzki, Shawn Marion and, most crucially, 37-year-old point guard Jason Kidd.
"They definitely don't want to come back here," Nowitzki said of a potential Game 7 on Saturday.
"You know they're going to be ready. Both teams got enough rest to really throw everything out there."
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, however, was predictably peeved that his team didn't respond to the Mavericks' inevitable first punch.
He didn't go back to the "played like dogs" slam he introduced after the Spurs dropped Game 1, but 18 turnovers and San Antonio's third-quarter capitulation had Popovich lamenting the waste of "a wonderful opportunity" to finish off a Mavs team that had clearly been shaken by two narrow losses in San Antonio.
"Mostly it was the case of they came with the mental and physical toughness," Popovich said, "and our starting group wasn't very good in either category. As a group, just the mental approach to the game, that was disappointing."
It remains to be seen whether the Mavs can reproduce the D that generates this kind of tempo on the road, where they so quickly lost their poise in the series-changing third quarter of Game 4. But Dallas did enough to at least generate some fresh doubts about the South Texans.
The big knock against the Spurs going into these playoffs was the concern about whether their vets could stay fresh enough to deliver consistently through a seven-game series. Those doubts were largely hushed when San Antonio reeled off three straight wins against its longtime rivals, but Manu Ginobili's mere seven points in 18 minutes -- on top of Duncan's two straight quiet games since turning 34 on Sunday -- would suggest that he's still getting used to playing with that broken nose he sustained in Game 3.
"The series isn't over, even though a lot of people are assuming that it is," Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said.
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