Just what would iconoclastic Dallas Mavericks coach Don Nelson do to make up for injured star Dirk Nowitzki?
That was the question going into Game 4 of the Western Conference finals on Sunday. A relative of Eddie Gaedel to come off the bench to guard Tim Duncan? A virtual defense with images of defenders flashed onto the court from hidden cameras?
“With Nellie anything’s a possibility,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said.
Anyone for a grease fire? No one’s pointing the finger at Nelson, a former Celtic, but it sounded like one of those old Boston Garden/Red Auerbach ploys when the American Airlines Center was evacuated by a fire alarm about a half-hour before the game.
Well, the Spurs did say they prepared for anything.
And they were as they defeated the Mavericks 102-95 to take a 3-1 series lead. Game 5 is Tuesday in San Antonio.
Nelson said there was a chance Nowitzki could return for Game 6 or 7, if their series lasts that long. Nelson said Nowitzki had wanted “to crawl out there and play Sunday.”
Tony Parker led the Spurs with 25 points. Duncan finished with 21 points and 20 rebounds.
Michael Finley and Steve Nash paced the Mavs with 25 apiece.
The Mavericks outhustled the Spurs early and outshot them in the first quarter. Dallas started Nick Van Exel and Walt Williams and had Eduardo Najera on Duncan much of the first quarter.
The small Mavericks’ lineup scrambled the game and Dallas raced to a 15-6 lead.
Their hustle caused Popovich to call two quick timeouts and a massive lineup change.
“We’ve been proving people wrong all year,” Finley said before the game. “It’s another chapter to that book. That can be a great ending if we win this series without Dirk.”
The Mavericks went to an individual game, isolating on one side of the court several times, then driving and kicking out for three-point attempts.
They hit four of nine in the first quarter and beat the Spurs to loose balls for a 12-8 rebounding edge.
“They up-tempoed it even more and tried to be more physical,” Popovich said.
That drew a technical on Raja Bell when he threw a flagrant elbow, but aggressive double-teaming held Duncan to eight points and five shots in the first half.
“It’s always easier to take big guys out of the game,” Popovich said. “Then your perimeter guys have to come through.”
The Mavericks continued their wide-open attack in the second quarter, firing threes and taking a 52-47 halftime lead. Nash had four in the half and Finley three as Dallas was 9-of-20 on threes. And Van Exel added 13 points.
“We have a unique situation, two quality point guards,” Finley said. “When they can dictate the flow of the game, it gives us an advantage.”
But the Spurs began to exert their will and their young guards, putting together a 22-6 run to end the third quarter and take a 77-70 lead entering the final period.
Parker started it with a three-pointer to cut the tiring Mavs’ lead to 64-58 and Manu Ginobili ended it by tipping in a Parker miss at the buzzer. The Mavs missed nine of their last 10 shots of the quarter.
“Your perimeter,” Popovich said, “has to come through if they’re going to double down. With Parker and Ginobili, I’d be remiss to walk it up. I have to let them go.”