Johnson: 'We did some strong-minded stuff tonight'

DALLAS -- Another Game 3 against the Spurs at home. Another Dirk Nowitzki injury.

One big difference, though.

It wasn't a buckling knee this time, as seen in Game 3 of the 2003 Western Conference finals . . . after which Nowitzki wasn't seen until the following season.

Nowitzki merely rolled an ankle Saturday night.

He rolled it badly, true. Nowitzki himself admits that he rolled it "pretty nicely." He also put it "up there," in career terms, when asked where it rated on his personal Twisted Ankle Power Rankings.

However . . .

He's also fond of saying that it's something he's done "a hundred thousand times before."

Which is why you shouldn't be surprised if he's pretty close to fine for Monday's Game 4.

Especially if you saw what Nowitzki did at the end of Game 3, sealing the Dallas Mavericks' 104-103 squeaker over San Antonio before hobbling to and from the interview room with black tape wrapped tightly around his lower leg.

"These are the games I'm searching for to see how mentally tough we are," said Mavericks coach Avery Johnson.

"I thought we did some strong-minded stuff tonight."

Put Nowitzki at the top of that list. You can debate whether his attempts to draw contract on Tim Duncan merited a trip to free-throw line -- and a fuming Duncan protested vigorously -- but Nowitzki was pretty steely after landing his right foot on Duncan's right foot added up to Duncan's sixth foul with 1:05 to go.

Nowitzki sank two free throws after a timeout to gather himself. Nowitzki spun down the lane on the next trip and found Jerry Stackhouse for a tough layup when three Spurs converged. Nowitzki then grabbed an offensive rebound to set up the clinching free throws to complete one of his stranger gaudy stat lines.

He made only three shots all evening, but still finished with 27 points and 15 boards. He didn't attempt a 3-pointer, but was sufficiently aggressive against a five-man platoon of Dirk defenders -- Robert Horry, Bruce Bowen, Fabricio Oberto, Michael Finley and Manu Ginobili all took a turn -- to earn 24 trips to the line, sinking 21.

"This is the new and improved Dirk," Johnson reminded.

Said Nowitzki: "I don't think we're a 3-point shooting team any more. . . . That's a tribute to Avery."

The Spurs, by contrast, aren't sporting such a fresh look, after those three days off that were supposed to energize them so.

They look as shell-shocked as a team trailing 2-1 can look, mainly because the Spurs just lost the sort of game they always seem to win. Maybe also because they've never faced a deficit this daunting against their fellow Texans.

Unlike the retooled Mavs, San Antonio has the same core group as it had in the '03 West finals. It's a group that has always secured a higher playoff seed than the Mavs, even though Dallas is the only other team in the league to win at least 50 games in each of the past six seasons, and it's a group that had never lost a playoff game in this building in three previous attempts.


The Spurs are trailing, 2-1, and facing what even the normally reserved Duncan labeled a "must-win" Game 4.

They're mad at themselves for starting so sluggishly after those three days off and wasting Duncan's 35 points and 12 boards. They're wondering what happened to their vaunted D, which couldn't get a meaningful fourth-quarter stop and thus negated their own sparkling efficiency (13-for-17 shooting) in the fourth. They're stunned that the sure-handed Manu Ginobili and Robert Horry were short-circuited on a crunch-time handoff by Devin Harris . . . and even more stunned that the Mavericks, particularly Harris, continue to get in the lane so easily.

So easily that Dallas racked up 50 free-throw attempts, a whopping 22 alone in the final period.

"It's like Superman playing Bizarro Superman," Spurs guard Brent Barry said. "Up is down. Left is right. The players are different [on both teams], but it's like you're playing against a carbon copy of yourself. Their system and philosophy, they're trying to do the same thing we do."

The Mavs are succeeding, too.

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich emptied his adjustments reserve for this one, starting Barry in place of Ginobili and reluctantly shifting Bruce Bowen onto Josh Howard at the start, with Horry taking Nowitzki. A lot of it worked as well. Howard never got in the flow offensively, Bowen wound up guarding Nowitzki plenty and Ginobili matched Duncan's 10 points in the fourth quarter to finish with 24.

The problem?

"Usually we win games with defense," Ginobili said. "Tonight we just couldn't."

Which means they have to Monday night, or else San Antonio, which has never overturned a 2-1 playoff deficit in the Popovich era, takes something truly unusual back home.

A 3-1 deficit.

Nowitzki's history proves that he knows how to play through ankle pain. We're about to find out if these Spurs know how to play from behind.

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.