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Posted: Monday April 26, 2010 12:35AM; Updated: Monday April 26, 2010 2:26AM
Ian Thomsen
Ian Thomsen>INSIDE THE NBA

Spurs playing just like old times

Story Highlights

Given the higher seeds' struggles, No. 7 San Antonio is looking good in the West

The Mavs were only trailing by four in the final minutes but lost their composure

George Hill came through in a big way, offsetting an off night by the Spurs' stars

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(2) Mavericks vs. (7) Spurs
Spurs lead 3-1
92 89
Game 5: @DAL Tues., April 27, 9:30 p.m.
Game 6: @SA Thurs., April 29, TBD, (If Nec.)
Game 7: @DAL Sat., May 1, TBD, (If Nec.)

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George Hill came through with 29 points on 16 shots for the Spurs.
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
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NBA Playoffs: First Round

SAN ANTONIO -- Guess who has emerged as the new favorite to win the West? It isn't the No. 2 Mavericks, who lost Game 4 here Sunday 92-89 to fall behind 3-1 in their first-round series.

The Spurs are suddenly the team to beat. With the No. 1 Lakers struggling to keep up with Oklahoma City, and with No. 4 Denver endangered by the heavily-injured No. 5 Jazz, the No. 7 Spurs have suddenly and firmly reclaimed their long-standing role as conference favorites. No team in the West plays with a more dynamic blend of team defense, offensive firepower, versatility and passion. San Antonio won on a night when its Big Three (a combined 9-of-34 for 31 points) were almost outscored by second-year guard George Hill (29 points on 16 shots). Similar was the outcome of Game 3, won by the Spurs even though they missed all seven of their threes. Take away their right hand and they'll club you with the left. "If you told me before the game that we would hold the Big Three to the numbers they had, I would have said we win the game,'' said a despondent Dirk Nowitzki. After he was held to 17 points on 10 attempts, it was easy to see who had lost.

Mavs lose composure. Though they were within two scores over the final four minutes, Dallas looked very much like a team staring up at a much larger deficit. A strong second quarter had provided the Mavs with a momentary 15-point lead. They were up 48-37 at the half before yielding an 18-point turnaround in the third quarter while shooting 4-of-17 and commiting eight turnovers. Over the second half, Nowitzki was 1-for-6 with three turnovers, and he didn't make a jump shot over the final 28:56 while growing noticeably frustrated by the persistent appearance of a second Spurs defender who forced the ball out of his hands when he dribbled. All the same, main defender Antonio McDyess wondered why Nowitzki wasn't more aggressive. "It wasn't the defense, he just wasn't taking them,'' said McDyess of Nowitzki's failure to launch. "It looked like he was a little reluctant because we were shifting on him a lot and getting off him. I don't think he ever really knew when to take his shot. He had some open shots, but he just wasn't taking them.''

Nowitzki's anger flared after he was assessed a technical foul for throwing a high elbow at rookie DeJuan Blair while blocking him out on a Spurs foul shot, and the ensuing free throw by Manu Ginobili gave San Antonio a 62-57 lead with 1:34 left in the third. Then the fourth quarter opened with Mavs forward Eduardo Najera -- a 1996 graduate of San Antonio's Cornerstone Christian Academy -- breaking up a Ginobili drive by spinning him to the floor with his left hand around Ginobili's throat. Najera's Flagrant 2 ejection turned into a four-point play, thanks to Ginobili's technical free throws and a subsequent tip-in by Blair to leave Dallas trailing 70-61 and the crowd roaring for more.

The name is George Hill. The pressure was on Hill, who had been shooting 8-for-25 over the first three playoff games while starting at point guard ahead of Tony Parker. "I finally have my feet back under me,'' said Hill, who had been troubled by a sprained ankle in recent weeks. That recovery was urgently needed: He made 5-of--6 three-pointers, including one to conclude each of the first three quarters.

Duncan (1-of-9) had four points and didn't make a field goal until he tipped one in with 4:11 remaining. Ginobili was 4-of-16, and Parker was held to 10 points on nine shots. How could Dallas lose while forcing those three stars to miss 73% of their attempts? "Well, when you get another guy going 11-for-16 and hits five threes, it could easily happen,'' said Mavs coach Rick Carlisle. "If you additionally get your (expletive) kicked on 5-to-7 loose-ball plays, that certainly contributes to losing. We played hard, but there's a set of plays in the last couple of games where we've got to get down-and-dirty. We have to come up with balls that are 50-50 balls. That's where the game is being won and lost.''

The supporting cast. Richard Jefferson had 15 points on nine shots, McDyess had 10 points and eight rebounds and Blair put his 265 pounds to good use with seven points and seven rebounds in 12 crucial minutes. Which is not to forget the night of nights had by George Hill.

While five of Nowitzki's teammates scored in double figures, they didn't produce the big plays needed to either win the game on their own or open the floor for him. "They aren't guarding some of our guys,'' said Nowitzki. Neither Jason Kidd (10 points and five assists) nor Jason Terry (13 points) responded with the necessary big game.

Is it over? Of course not. As badly as the Mavs have mangled the last three games, they've had chances to steal any or all of them. The margin is so small, they could win Monday to force a Game 6 here that the Spurs could not afford to lose.

To see how the Spurs have succeeded in throttling the favored Mavs -- using a variety of chokeholds to win each of the last three games in a different way -- is to be reminded of them at their championship best over the last decade. Many opponents over those years would look up at the scoreboard with thoughts of how close they'd come to beating San Antonio. In most of those cases, however, they were deluding themselves.

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