Mavs lead series without Dirk dominance

DALLAS -- For the first time in what felt like forever, Dirk Nowitzki didn’t head to the podium, grab the microphone and lean back to address the media after a playoff game.

Nowitzki instead took questions from reporters in a more informal setting -- in front of his locker after Saturday’s thrilling 109-108 win over the San Antonio Spurs.

Leading scorer Monta Ellis and buzzer-beating hero Vince Carter got the bright-lights treatment.

Win or lose, Nowitzki has always accepted his face-of-the-franchise responsibilities as a team spokesman, becoming so comfortable in that role that he just reaches for the mike and relaxes as if he’s in his living room. Nowitzki, a highly paid role player so far in this series, was not sure when the last time was that he wasn’t requested for podium duty after a playoff game.

“Hmmm, maybe my first year in the playoffs, 13 years ago,” Nowitzki said.

Not coincidentally, that’s also the last time Nowitzki was held to fewer than 20 points for three straight games in a series.

That just happened to occur in the first three games of a series against the Spurs. Man, have the circumstances changed. Dallas was down 0-3 in those 2001 Western Conference semifinals way back when, a series Nowitzki recently said the Mavs had “no chance” to win as a young team just giddy to be there against the mighty Spurs.

Precious few who aren’t on Mark Cuban’s payroll gave the eighth-seeded Mavs much of a chance, if any, to beat the team with the NBA’s best record in this series. Seriously? The Spurs had a 10-game winning streak over their Lone Star State neighbors after Game 1, spanking them on most of those occasions.

But here the miracle Mavs are, holding a 2-1 lead over the Spurs despite no Dirk dominance so far in this series.

How the heck has that happened?

“It’s the way our whole season’s been, really,” Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said. “Dirk’s had a great year, and he was a more-than-deserving All-Star. But this roster is built around being able to keep the load on him lighter than it’s been in other years. That’s what we’ve got to keep striving to do.

“Everybody on our team has gotta be a go-to guy.”

Ellis -- Nowitzki’s new scoring sidekick who has made folks reconsider his reputation as a selfish gunner since arriving in Dallas last summer -- starred in Game 3. He led all scorers with 29 points, 10 of which came in the final 6:35 when Ellis simply refused to allow the Spurs to get any breathing room.

Carter, the 37-year-old future Hall of Famer who has settled into a sixth-man role in Dallas, made the shot the basketball world will be buzzing about for the next day or so, the 18th and last lead change in a wildly entertaining game.

With the Spurs keying on Ellis, Carter popped out to the corner, caught an inbounds pass, pump-faked to get Manu Ginobili to fly by and let fly a beautiful fadeaway 3-pointer that splashed through the net after the buzzer and set off a wild celebration at the American Airlines Center.

“The crowd went absolutely nuts,” said Nowitzki, who scored 18 points on 7-of-13 shooting, his best offensive outing of the series. “That was as loud as I’ve ever heard this building. That was a fun one to be a part of, for sure.”

That phenomenal finish, with Carter answering a go-ahead drive by Ginobili, wouldn’t have been possible without terrific days by the Mavs’ two least-heralded starters.

Point guard Jose Calderon, who appeared to be an afterthought when he played only 16 minutes in Game 1, got the Mavs going offensively with 10 points and three assists in the fast-paced first quarter. He finished with 16 points on 7-of-10 shooting and nine assists.

Center Samuel Dalembert, a journeyman playing for his fifth team in five seasons, played like his hair was on fire Saturday afternoon. He put up 13 points, 10 rebounds and four blocked shots while battling Tim Duncan for 25 minutes. He hit a couple of clutch free throws to tie it up after grabbing an offensive board with 42 seconds remaining.

Small forward Shawn Marion and backup guard Devin Harris earned most of the Game 2 glory, when the Mavs made it clear that this was going to be a real series by snapping that long losing streak to the Spurs with a rout on the road. Backup big men Brandan Wright and DeJuan Blair and even ninth man Jae Crowder had made some key contributions in what’s shaping up to be one of the most stunning series in NBA history.

“That shows a lot about us as a team,” Dalembert said. “We can’t put everything on Dirk. We’ve got to go out there and do our part as a team, each individual. We knew that was going to happen. Teams are going to focus [on Nowitzki] and make other people step up. As you can see, in different games everybody is stepping up.”

Nowitzki, meanwhile, is trying to play with a mix of patience and aggressiveness as the focal point of the Spurs’ defensive game plan. He’s averaging only 15 points per game in this series -- down significantly from his season average of 21.7 and drastically lower than his career playoff average of 25.8.

Nowitzki’s shooting percentage in Game 3 was by far the highest of the series, but his 13 field goal attempts were the fewest. The Spurs won’t leave him on pick-and-rolls and often double him on post-ups, so he isn’t forcing the action, pleased to be a high-priced decoy as long as the Mavs’ other weapons make San Antonio pay.

“Hey, we won the game, so I did my job,” Nowitzki said.

“Him just being on the floor still makes us better, even when he’s not making shots, because teams respect him,” said Ellis, who has credited Nowitzki’s presence all season for helping him ditch the inefficient label slapped on him as the go-to guy in Golden State and Milwaukee.

“He’s still a threat on the floor, so he still really opens up a lot. Even if his shot is not going down, he’s still a really big part of us winning and making shots and creating the space that we need to create for ourselves.”

With Dirk as the decoy and a wide variety of Dallas players grabbing shares of the spotlight, the Mavs have created much more drama than most anticipated in this series against the mighty Spurs.