Dallas inbounds to Stackhouse, who is immediately fouled and misses the first attempt. Johnson has a decision to make -- have Stackhouse hit the free throw and play defense, or have him attempt to miss it intentionally, running time off the clock and leaving a desperation heave as the only option. Johnson chooses miss (which is what I would have done in that situation), but Stackhouse's attempt is terrible, and the ball bounces hard off the backboard, never nearing the rim. ("I was wondering what the hell he was doing," Nowitzki would tell ABC's Lisa Salters during his postgame interview.) This gives the Spurs the ball out-of-bounds at the free throw line with 2.0 seconds left....
... And now the significance of having to take a timeout seconds earlier in the game becomes apparent. San Antonio could have used the final 20-second timeout to advance the ball to half-court and set up a play that would have had a reasonable chance of succeeding. Instead, with no stoppage of play, they are forced to inbound some 80 feet away from the basket.
DeSagana Diop replaces Nowitzki to put pressure on Barry, inbounding the ball. The pass is deflected by Howard, playing safety (with Stackhouse behind him to tip the ball had he been unable to), but Horry still corrals it on the left wing with time to fire a desperation heave while in midair. However, it bounces harmlessly off the backboard. Final score: Dallas 104, San Antonio 103
Change any of several plays in the above sequence, most notably Harris' deflection and Nowitzki's offensive rebound, and the Spurs are holding a 2-1 lead and have recaptured home court advantage. Instead, they find themselves needing a win Monday night to avoid facing elimination at the AT&T Center in Game 5.
Playoff series are largely about adjustments, and so far the Mavericks have made the one with the most magnitude in this series, replacing defensive specialist Adrian Griffin in the starting lineup with Harris for Game 2. In the last two games, Harris has contributed 44 points on 14-for-26 shooting, hitting 16 of 20 free throw attempts, and has generally torched the Spurs at every turn.
Johnson's move to pair Harris and Terry is another example of the new breed of small lineups I wrote about for SI.com earlier this season. Technically, because Harris is 6-foot-3, the duo did not qualify for that study, which focused on backcourts in which both players are 6-2 or under. But Harris is a natural point guard who excels at creating off the dribble, which has made him a nightmare matchup for the Spurs. Outside of Parker, the only Spurs shorter than 6-6 are backup point guards Nick Van Exel and Beno Udrih, who have combined for 39 minutes in this series. Usually that length works to San Antonio's advantage, but Ginobili and Barry have been unable to keep Harris out of the paint.
Game 2 was actually more about Harris' fine play (and a motivated Mavericks squad) than the small backcourt, which played even with the Spurs during its 12:05 of action. However, Harris and Terry were together on the court for nearly two thirds of Game 3 (29:31, to be exact), and Dallas outscored San Antonio by a dominating 12 points in that span.
How does Popovich respond? The boldest possible move would be giving Bowen his third primary defensive responsibility of the series, moving him from either Howard or Nowitzki onto Harris. Bowen has the quickest feet of any Spurs perimeter defender save Parker (who has done a credible job on Terry thus far) and would likely quell Harris' uprising.
The move would be risky. Howard was at least as important as Harris in Game 2, scoring 27 points and getting to the free throw line 11 times before being quieted by Bowen in Game 3. It would also likely preclude the Spurs going small down the stretch if Dallas kept Erick Dampier in the game, as on Saturday, because San Antonio would need Horry to keep Dampier from going Dennis Rodman on the offensive glass.
But desperate times call for desperate measures. And with the Spurs trailing after three games of a playoff series for the first time since the 2002 Western Conference semifinals against the L.A. Lakers, these are desperate times.