Dirk Nowitzki won't play vs. San Antonio

DALLAS -- There will be an MVP candidate missing from Thursday night's meeting of Western Conference powers.

Dallas Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki will not play against the San Antonio Spurs, coach Rick Carlisle said after the morning shootaround.

It will be the second game Nowitzki has missed after suffering a mild sprain to his right knee during Monday's win over the Oklahoma City Thunder. Nowitzki said after that game that the knee had been bothering him for two weeks.

Nowitzki, who is averaging 24.5 points and 7.6 rebounds while shooting 54.5 percent from the floor, did some light drills Thursday morning but left before the end of the shootaround. He declined comment other than exchanging pleasantries with reporters as he walked without a limp to the Mavericks' locker room. The Mavericks continue to list him as day to day.

"It's not time for him to go back out there yet," Carlisle said. "He's doing better each day, but he's not ready."

That will come as somewhat of a surprise to the 27-4 Spurs, who own the NBA's best record and a 2½-game lead in the Western Conference over their Interstate 35 rivals.

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich and perennial All-Star power forward Tim Duncan both said after the shootaround that they planned for Nowitzki to play.

"I'm quite confident Dirk will be out there tonight," Popovich said.

That surprise is certainly understandable, based on Nowitzki's history. This would be only the 34th regular-season game Nowitzki has missed due to injury in his 13-year career. Portland's Andre Miller and Dallas' Jason Terry are the only active players with at least a decade of experience who have missed fewer games.

Nowitzki has dealt with numerous ankle sprains throughout his career, but he hasn't had much knee trouble. The exception was a sprained left knee that caused him to miss the last three games of the 2003 Western Conference finals, a series won by the Spurs in six games.

A dispute about letting Nowitzki play through the injury is generally regarded as the issue that doomed the relationship between Mavs owner Mark Cuban and former Mavs coach Don Nelson, who was determined to hold Nowitzki out.

The Mavericks are optimistic that Nowitzki could be ready to play in a New Year's Day road game against the Milwaukee Bucks. However, he will not be rushed back.

"We're going to play that conservative," Mavericks president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson said. "No question."

Tim MacMahon covers the Mavericks for ESPN Dallas. You can follow him on Twitter. ESPN.com's Marc Stein contributed to this report.