Dirk finally had it going on

SAN ANTONIO -- Dirk Nowitzki found his rhythm and his jumper, which is why the San Antonio Spurs were more than a little apprehensive in the fourth quarter Wednesday night at AT&T Center.


The Spurs couldn't stop him. All they could do was hope Nowitzki missed. His fourth-quarter scoring spree positioned the Dallas Mavericks to make another end-of-the-game rally in this Western Conference quarterfinal.

And with the Mavs trailing by four points and 2:05 left in the fourth quarter, Nowitzki pump-faked Tiago Splitter, dribbled inside the 3-point lane and took a wide open 17-foot shot from the left wing.

But ... he missed it. And the Spurs got their wish.

San Antonio grabbed the rebound and Tony Parker hit a 3-pointer on the other end.

End of rally.

San Antonio 109, Dallas 103.

"I think that was actually probably my easiest shot I had all night," Nowitzki said of his ill-timed miss. "I got Splitter off of his feet. He didn't want to give up that corner 3, and it was there. It was open. I wish I had that back."

Does he ever.

Nowitzki scored 26 points and grabbed 15 rebounds -- his first playoff double-double since Game 6 of the 2011 NBA Finals against the Miami Heat.

But it still wasn't enough because of the Mavs' raggedy fourth-quarter defense.

San Antonio, which has won consecutive games in these playoffs for the first time, leads the series 3-2 heading into Friday's game in Dallas.

The Mavs find themselves in a must-win situation for the first time this season. If you're a MFFL -- Mavs Fan For Life -- take solace in Nowitzki's performance Wednesday.

They Mavs won't win this series without Nowitzki being the epicenter of the offense in the next two games. The offense flows so much better when he's getting his points in rhythm, because it opens up the floor for everyone else.

It's the reason the Spurs pay so much attention to him.

Nowitzki became the 10th-leading scorer in NBA history this season while averaging 21.7 points.

But the Spurs did a wonderful job of containing him during the first four games. He had made only 25 of 65 shots (38.5 percent) and had failed to score 20 points in any of those tilts.

(Just so you know, Nowitzki never went more than five consecutive games without at least one 20-point performance this season -- and that longest dry spell occurred in November. He made 27 of 65 shots, shooting 41.5 percent while averaging just 14 points per games in that stretch late last year.)

The Spurs employ a simple philosophy: They refuse to give Nowitzki open shots. That means Splitter and Boris Diaw -- the players who have spent the most time guarding him in the series -- don't leave him on the pick-and-roll.

San Antonio wants Monta Ellis and Devin Harris taking shots, not Nowitzki. And when Nowitzki goes into the post, the Spurs often send a guard to double-team him, forcing the ball out of his hands.

It has been an effective strategy, because Nowitzki is all about making the right basketball play. He'll pass out of the double-team instead of taking a contested shot.

Through three quarters, Nowitzki had made only three of 10 shots and scored 12 points.

He turned the ball over while making an aggressive move to the basket to start the fourth quarter.

But with about nine minutes left, Nowitzki hit a free throw line jumper over Diaw.

Then came a jumper over Matt Bonner.

Next, he curled around a screen a swished another jumper, pounding his hands together as he loped down the court.

He made another jumper from the left wing, followed by a step-back jumper over Splitter.

"He just stayed aggressive," Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said. "We want the ball touching his hands in good situations. We've got to continue doing that."

After missing a 3-pointer from the right of the key, Nowitzki made a short jumper in the lane, giving him 14 points in the fourth quarter. The Mavs, though, still trailed by seven.

Parker made a layup, but a basket by Ellis and a 3-pointer by Vince Carter, who scored a season-high 28 points, pulled the Mavs within 98-94 with 2:58 left, surely giving every MFFL hope of yet another stolen victory at the buzzer.

After a Parker miss, Nowitzki found himself alone on the left wing. One more bucket and the Mavs might be able to ride the momentum home to win.

The shot rimmed out.

"That was a big shot," Nowitzki said. "I have to make that one."

More important, Nowitzki found his jumper in Game 5. The Mavs have no chance in Game 6 if he loses it again.