Nelson holds out forward; Mavs hold out little hope

Editor's note: New season, new Stein Line. Now, Marc Stein's NBA report can be found every weekday during the playoffs.

DALLAS -- Don Nelson said it Friday night after Dirk Nowitzki got hurt. He said it again on the off day Saturday. He said it one more time pregame Sunday. And he said it with finality after the loss that nudged the Mavericks to the brink of their season.

Dirk Nowitzki, as Nellie repeatedly insisted, was not going to play in Game 4 no matter how much Nowitzki wanted to.

"That would have been a bad decision," Nelson said, as he marched away from the interview room Sunday night after being asked how close he came to giving in to Nowitzki's lobbying before what wound up a 102-95 defeat to San Antonio.

"We would have regretted it," Nelson added, "and he would have regretted it."

Nelson believes that even though Nowitzki's sprained left knee isn't as bad as originally feared. The coach believes it even after Nowitzki's frantic treatment efforts to convince Nelson to let him come back for Game 4, and even with Nelson himself saying there's a chance Nowitzki will play in Tuesday's Game 5.

That last part doesn't make much sense -- there's even less justification for risking Nowitzki now, with the Spurs up 3-1 in the conference finals -- but it's tough to argue with the rest of Nelson's logic, for at least a couple reasons.

Reason No. 1: The way the Spurs are suddenly playing -- holding leads a bit tighter, making more of their free throws and repeatedly dragging the Mavericks out of their preferred chaotic state into a more reasoned pace Tim Duncan controls -- it might not have mattered had Nowitzki played. Which thus made it an ill-advised gamble. With or without Nowitzki, whose knee buckled with Game 3 already slipping away, Dallas has played from behind all series, scrambling to keep up with San Antonio's versatility.

Reason No. 2: Contrary to whispered suggestions that Nelson needs Nowitzki's injury to make the Mavericks' expected elimination look like less of a disappointment, it wouldn't be a major disappointment to lose a series to the team that became the first this century to win a playoff series with the Lakers. Nelson's bench future remains uncertain beyond this week, but let's get real. Losing to the Spurs in the conference finals wouldn't be what leads to a coaching change in Dallas.

If that surprise happens and Nelson is not back as Mavericks coach next season, it'll be because either he or Mavs owner Mark Cuban decide they can no longer work together. Again, that would be an unexpected outcome. While maintaining all season that he wouldn't consider an extension on Nelson's coaching contract until the summer, Cuban has said repeatedly during the playoffs that "there is no reason to think he won't be back." For all the supposed contract angst, the Mavericks have been far more successful than disappointing in these playoffs, when the widely held expectation for this team was spectacular failure.

"The last couple games have been rough, but we're getting better every year," said Mavericks guard Steve Nash. "We're growing as a team. I hope we can keep adding to what we already have."

Nash includes the coach in that statement and went on to add that "this team still loves playing for Nellie." That includes Nowitzki, disappointed as the German was told he'd have to watch in street clothes. Nowitzki eventually accepted the ruling, saying: "Sometimes you've got to be smart. It was smart for me not to play."

Without Nowitzki, and without fellow bigs Shawn Bradley and Evan Eschmeyer, Nelson predictably tried to scramble the game with small-ball lineups and religious double-teaming of Duncan. Yet the Spurs, if also not quite 100 percent, were plenty sharp. Duncan put short-handed Dallas' only big left (Raef LaFrentz) in immediate foul trouble, and Manu Ginobili was scorching (17 points before halftime) when Tony Parker (25 points) started so sluggishly that Gregg Popovich pulled Parker after less than three minutes.

The Mavericks corralled Duncan as well as anyone in the league before the playoffs, holding him under 20 points per game in three regular-season meetings, but this is a new Duncan, ever since the two-time MVP KO'd the Lakers with a domineering performance in Game 6. While Parker has to score to be effective, Duncan is there to run the team and keep it organized.

Dallas tried to swarm Duncan and scramble the game with an array of small-ball Nellie lineups, like Phoenix did in the first round, but the Suns have more athletic defenders and this isn't the first round any more. In their 100th real game of the season, paying now for letting Portland force a Game 7 from 3-0 down in Round 1, the Mavericks gradually faded, leading to a complete disintegration of their suspect defense over a four-minute stretch bridging the third and fourth quarters.

Unlike Game 1, when the Mavericks shut the Spurs out for the final 2:45 to capitalize on their 49-for-50 exhibition from the free-throw line, Dallas didn't get any significant stops when needed in Game 4. It also doesn't help that the Mavericks were awarded just 19 free throws in their two home games over the long weekend.

"We went to the basket all night," Nash said wistfully.

Said Nelson: "I think the rebound again is our nemesis ... and their ability to get to the free-throw line and our ability to never get there."

They almost certainly won't get there, either -- there being the NBA Finals. Of course, with Duncan around, maybe the playoffs weren't so suddenly wide open as suggested after Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant were ushered into their offseasons. Since that Game 6 against L.A., Duncan has been punishing folks Shaq-style.

"The bottom line in this series," Nash said, "is that Tim Duncan is so good."

Which explains why the Mavericks are likely to chase all the same free-agent names the Lakers are linked with, since they're both trying to catch up to the same team. Scottie Pippen, P.J. Brown, Karl Malone, Alonzo Mourning -- Dallas needs one or two of them for toughness, rebounding and defense no less than L.A.

The Mavericks also still need to secure a coach for next season, but the prognosis there hasn't changed. Dallas' preferred scenario continues to be: Nelson staying on for a season or two more, to groom Avery Johnson if Johnson is willing, with Nowitzki as the franchise player no matter who's coaching.

Nowitzki on two good knees.

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here. Also, send Stein a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.