Mavs one loss from more playoff pain

DALLAS -- San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich called his shot in the regular-season finale. You want us, the Dallas Mavericks replied, you got us.

But what the Mavs have is another full-blown postseason meltdown on their hands heading into Tuesday's do-or-die Game 5 at American Airlines Center.

Since the 2006 Finals flop, the Mavs have won one playoff series, last season against an injury-depleted Spurs team that has come back with full health and full force.

San Antonio's third-quarter Game 4 annihilation -- a complete physical and mental domination of Dallas -- will go down as the most recent playoff collapse of the Mark Cuban era, unless a team that appears mind-blown can regroup and somehow win three in a row.

"It's good, man," said Jason Terry, perhaps trying to convince himself, during Sunday's aftermath. "It's good because when your back's against the wall, you really find out who you are, not only as an individual, but as a team. I know what we have on this team, and I know what it's going to take for us to get this job done."

The odds are not good. Only eight teams out of 189 that faced 3-1 deficits have rallied to win the series. That Mavs coach Rick Carlisle and forward Shawn Marion were each part of teams that did it provides some hope as tangible evidence that it is possible. Marion shared his experiences on a Phoenix team that came back to beat the Lakers in the first round in 2006.

"He was like, they believed they were the better team that year, they just had a couple of tough losses," Dirk Nowitzki said. "They stuck together, though, fought through it. I guess that's what you have to do in a situation like that: Keep believing in each other and play together. Just play a little harder and play a little smarter down the stretch, we can get it done."

If body language could speak out loud, Nowitzki's would have released a long sigh. For weeks he's preached about the talent of this reconfigured Mavs team, its added toughness, its depth and versatility to play different styles, how it's built for the playoffs.

Yet 12 minutes of fury in that 11-point third quarter threatens to end the team's postseason run earlier than anyone associated with this franchise could have imagined. And some fault also falls on Nowitzki, who unraveled under the pressure of the Spurs' scrambling double-teams, deployed really for the first time in this season.

Nowitzki, easily the team's best player in the series and relied upon to carry the scoring load, played the entire third quarter and buckled. He finished it with two points and three of the Mavs' eight turnovers. He drew a technical foul near the end of the most physically contested quarter of the series.

"Yeah, it's not the first time we've had that problem," Nowitzki said. "Sometimes we let referees and a lot of stuff get in our heads and we don't respond the right way. So we talked about it all season long. Unfortunately, it was another example [Sunday]. We just couldn't stop the bleeding there."

But what can they do?

A Mavs team that was so good in close games during the season now can't buy a win in one, and the league's best road team just dropped two in San Antonio.

The Spurs' backcourt of Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and George Hill is killing Jason Kidd, Terry, Caron Butler and J.J. Barea. When the Spurs didn't make a single 3-pointer in Game 3, they still won. When the Big Three of Ginobili, Parker and Tim Duncan combined for only 31 points in Game 4, they still won.

The Mavs, shooting an unwinnable 42.3 percent as a team, allowed just 94 and 92 points in San Antonio but couldn't score more than 90. Kidd, unable to push the tempo or get clean looks from 3-point range, has been a nonfactor in the past three games. Nowitzki, locked up by double-teams in a stagnant half-court offense, was held to just 10 shots in Game 4.

"They're very scrappy; they're active. They know their opponent's plays," Nowitzki said. "They're already sitting on our stuff. We'd love to get some stops, obviously. We'd love to run, but it's easier said than done."

Popovich has pulled every string in this series. Richard Jefferson, chastised for his Game 1 effort, has outplayed Butler in the past three games. Rookie DeJuan Blair has hustled so persistently and hit the floor so often for loose balls in his limited time off the bench that Carlisle held him up as an example, remarkably, for his veteran club to follow.

As the Spurs' players rise to the challenge, Carlisle has benched starters Butler and Marion.

So now it comes down to one game for survival. It will challenge the Mavs' physical toughness, but even more so their mental toughness, an area that if exposed again in Game 5 will only add more misery to Dallas' already painful playoff legacy.

"This is a great challenge," Carlisle said. "And if you're not up for something like this, then you shouldn't be in this."

Jeff Caplan covers the Mavericks for ESPNDallas.com. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.