Nowitzki morphed into 2011 mode in the fourth quarter on Wednesday night against the San Antonio Spurs, when he finally found his offensive rhythm and rattled off 14 points. Those championship Mavs made so many playoff comebacks, riding the shoulders of the big German, who had one of the great clutch runs in hoops history during those playoffs.
Too bad the Mavs didn’t have 2011 Tyson Chandler, too.
In that fantasy world, maybe the Mavs could have finished off the comeback Wednesday, like they did so many times during that title run. The reality is that the Mavs are facing first-round elimination after the top-seeded Spurs seized a 3-2 series lead with a 109-103 win Wednesday night in Game 5.
The Mavs desperately needed a defensive anchor as they attempted to rally from an eight-point deficit at the end of the third quarter against San Antonio, which has lost only once out of the 55 times it has entered the final frame with a lead this season.
Dirk finally did his part after mostly struggling in the first 19 quarters of the series, taking over the game for a stretch and drilling seven of his first eight shots of the fourth. Monta Ellis did a pretty good Jason Terry impersonation, scoring 10 of his 21 points and dishing out four of his five assists in the fourth.
But their offensive brilliance didn’t matter because the Mavs defended like a bunch of bullfighters.
“We didn’t play enough defense to win,” said Nowitzki, who finished with 26 points and 15 rebounds, both by far his highs for the series. “Even when I was scoring there in the fourth every time down, we just couldn’t get the stops to get back into it.”
The smoke and mirrors Mavs coach Rick Carlisle cooked up to make the Spurs’ offense sputter early in the series have been solved. San Antonio picked apart the Mavs with the pick-and-roll, scoring 54 points in the paint.
That’s no surprise. Anyone who watched the Spurs average 112.3 points while sweeping the regular-season series against the Mavs figured it would be a matter of time before San Antonio’s splendid offense started humming again.
It didn’t help matters for the Mavs -- who already were short-handed at center with DeJuan Blair suspended -- when starting big man Samuel Dalembert twisted his right ankle a few minutes into the game. He returned minutes later after getting it re-taped, but Dalembert was clearly hobbled.
Backup center Brandan Wright, who played 24 minutes, struggled mightily on defense. But he had plenty of company among the Mavs, who allowed five Spurs to score at least 15 points, including center Tiago Splitter, whose nine points in the fourth quarter were more than he averaged per game this season.
The Mavs scored 32 points in the fourth quarter, which ought to be enough to at least make it a white-knuckle final few minutes. It wasn’t.
That’s because the Spurs lit it up for 30 points in the last dozen minutes.
Maybe it would have been different if Nowitzki knocked down the wide-open midrange jumper he created by pump-faking Splitter off his feet with a little more than two minutes remaining. That would have cut the lead down to two. Even then, however, the Mavs provided no reason to believe they could have done what's defensively necessary to complete the comeback.
“Our defense has got to be better,” Carlisle said. “Really, they just kind of had it going all night. We’ve got to be better from start to finish, over the whole 48 minutes.”
Carlisle has been saying that consistently since Chandler left after the lockout, turning down cap-conscious Mavs owner Mark Cuban’s one-year offer to sign a four-year, $55.4 million deal with the New York Knicks. The Mavs have downgraded defensively at every other position since that title run, with Nowitzki and stopper Shawn Marion aging a few years and Jose Calderon and Ellis making up one of the NBA’s most defensively challenged backcourt.
This isn’t meant to criticize the Mavs’ decision to strip down that aging title team or even let Chandler go; he was the finishing piece to Dallas’ championship puzzle. But the Mavs couldn’t afford to make that kind of long-term commitment to Chandler, knowing they needed to remodel the roster to give Nowitzki a chance to contend during his golden years.
If Chandler is in Dallas, Ellis and Calderon are elsewhere. The Mavs probably don’t make the playoffs without that kind of scoring punch in their backcourt.
But the Mavs won a title because they were such a dominant crunch-time team on both ends of the floor during that postseason. Those Mavs outscored their opponents 137-66 in 49 postseason clutch minutes, as defined by the score being within five points in the final five minutes of the game.
These Mavs are still an elite offensive team, especially when Nowitzki gets in a groove, but they’re not nearly good enough defensively to be considered serious contenders.
Frankly, they’ve exceeded expectations by pushing the Spurs this far, especially with Nowitzki struggling most of the series.
That flash of Dirk dominance was fun to watch. Too bad the Mavs couldn’t get enough stops to make it matter.