The San Antonio Spurs reminded everyone Monday night why they finished the regular season with the NBA’s best record.
Displaying with grit and determination that they were known for all season long, the Spurs raced out to a 20-point lead then held on for a hard-fought 93-89 victory over the Dallas Mavericks at American Airlines Center.
The win ties the best-of-seven series at 2-2 and guarantees that there will be a Game 6.
Game 5 is Wednesday at 6 p.m. in San Antonio, and Game 6 is back at the AAC on Friday.
The Spurs didn’t put the game away until Manu Ginobili nailed a pair of free throws with 1.7 seconds left to account for the game’s final points.
Prior to that, with the Mavs down by two points, Monta Ellis drove in the lane and missed a twisting shot with five seconds left. The Spurs grabbed the rebound, and Ginobili’s two freebies snuffed out a furious comeback by the Mavs.
Ellis had knotted the game at 87-all with a 3-point play. However, Boris Diaw drilled a 3-pointer to give San Antonio a 90-87 lead with 32.7 seconds to go.
Dirk Nowitzki’s put-back basket got the Mavs within 91-90 with 19.5 ticks left. Ginobili then split a pair of free throws, leaving the door open for the Mavs to send the game into overtime or win it with a 3-pointer just like they did in Game 3 on Vince Carter’s buzzer-beater.
But Ellis had difficulties getting through a forest of Spurs, and his game-tying shot rolled off the rim.
Ellis led the Mavs with 20 points, and Nowitzki scored 19. Jose Calderon finished with 13 points, and DeJuan Blair had 12 points and 11 rebounds.
Ginobili led the Spurs with 23 points. Diaw tallied 17, and Tim Duncan finished with 14 points and 10 rebounds.
After falling behind 58-38 early in the third period, the Mavs pecked away until they narrowed the deficit to 73-66 entering the fourth quarter. Most of that came from the exceptional hustle by Blair, a former center for the Spurs.
Early in the fourth period, Blair had played just 10 minutes, but he had already picked up 10 points and 10 rebounds. And it was Blair’s basket with 4:50 remaining in the game that put the Mavs ahead 81-80 to complete a 43-22 run.
But with the Mavs leading 83-82, Blair was ejected from the game for what an obscure rule described as a “hostile act.” In essence, while on the floor battling for a loose ball, Blair was called for a foul and then ejected for kicking Tiago Splitter in the back of the head.
The Mavs came out as though they had something to prove, particularly since the national cynics still aren’t convinced that Dallas has been able to befuddle the Spurs thus far in this series.
Behind five points from Dirk Nowitzki, the Mavs blew out to a 12-2 lead with 6:31 remaining in the first quarter. Samuel Dalembert also was fired up as he scored two points, collected seven rebounds, a blocked shot and a steal in the opening 12 minutes.
But after their fiery start, someone pulled the plug on the Mavs offense. Dallas led 23-18 at the conclusion of the first period but could muster just 1 of 12 field goals to open a sluggish second period.
On the other end, the Ginobili-led Spurs popped in 9 of 13 shots and went on a blistering 21-4 run to assume a 39-27 lead with 4:35 remaining in the second quarter. With Tim Duncan punishing the Mavs inside and Ginobili driving to the basket with very little resistance, San Antonio appeared to be the hungrier team.
The Spurs converted 13 of 19 shots and outscored the Mavs 32-13 in a second quarter where they took control of the game and reminded Dallas why they were the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference. San Antonio’s suffocating defense smothered the Mavs for the better part of two quarters — Dallas was 4 of 19 from the field during those ugly 12 minutes — that they must have felt like they were locked in a steam room for 24 hours.
But in the end, the Mavs’ comeback bid fell short. And now it’s a best-of-three series with two of the games being played in San Antonio.