Nash's long 3-pointer at the third-quarter buzzer triggered a decisive run for the Mavericks, who rode Nowitzki's 30 points and 15 rebounds to a 101-94 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves.
The opener of the Western Conference first-round series between fourth-seeded Dallas and fifth-seeded Minnesota was everything it was supposed to be as both teams raced up and down the court and fired away from all angles.
The third quarter featured a dozen lead changes, with Minnesota holding a 73-70 edge in the final seconds. A long miss bounced to Nash, who dribbled up the left sideline and threw in a running 38-footer at the horn, sparking the sellout crowd at the American Airlines Center.
"It was amazing," Nowitzki said. "They kind of had momentum going their way. They were making easy baskets and running on us and finishing some easy buckets. That was the thing that got it turned around and got the momentum going back to us."
"That was the biggest shot of the second half, Steve hitting the long buzzer-beater," Dallas guard Michael Finley said. "For us to see that ball go in, I knew good things were going to come for us because of that shot. When Steve hit that shot it gave us a little spirit. We carried that shot with us into the fourth quarter."
Before Nash sank the shot, Minnesota coach Flip Saunders had a sinking feeling.
"As soon as it left Steve's hands, I knew it was going in," he said.
Dallas scored the first nine points of the fourth quarter to open an 82-73 lead. The Mavericks led the rest of the way, thanks to Nowitzki.
The Timberwolves closed to 85-83 on a follow shot by Rasho Nesterovic with 4:56 left. On the next possession, Nowitzki drilled a 3-pointer from the right wing to rebuild the lead to five points.
The Mavs held on by making 9-of-10 free throws in the final minute, including two by Nowitzki.
"Can you imagine what kind of game we would have had without Nowitzki?" wondered Dallas coach Don Nelson.
Nash scored 21 points, Nick Van Exel added 18 and Michael Finley 16 for Dallas, which made just 7-of-23 3-pointers but many at opportune times.
Chauncey Billups scored 25 points and Kevin Garnett added 19 and 21 rebounds for the Timberwolves, who will try to get even here on Wednesday in Game Two of the best-of-five series.
"The first game, you have a lot of butterflies, a lot of anticipation with yourself," said Garnett, who never has won a playoff series in five tries. "Everybody wants to do well, so a better game from us wins it."
After Nowitzki's 3-pointer, Nesterovic scored again. But jumpers by Eduardo Najera and Michael Finley widened the lead to 92-85 with 1:44 to go. Minnesota got no closer than five points thereafter.
Van Exel also made a big shot, sinking a 3-pointer after the Wolves regrouped to close to 82-79 with 6 1/2 minutes to go.
Nowitzki made 10-of-19 shots and 9-of-10 free throws. He kept the Mavs afloat in the first half as they started slowly and nearly were shot out of the game by the Wolves. Minnesota shot 52 percent (12-of-23) in the first quarter, opening a 31-22 lead as Billups scored 12 points.
"Playing these guys, I've got to be real aggressive because both of their point guards are very aggressive players," Billups said. "That's two All-Stars basically, in Nick and Nash, so one thing I know is I've got to keep some pressure on those guys offensively."
Nowitzki scored 10 points in each of the first two periods. In the second quarter, his teammates pitched in and the Wolves went cold, making just 4-of-21 shots while committing six turnovers. Dallas led 50-47 at halftime.
"We've been doing a great job lately of getting to the foul line, so I just tried to drive a little more and post up a little more and it worked out well for me tonight," Nowitzki said. "They started with a smaller guy on me (Sam Mitchell) and I just tried to drive a little more with the smaller guy on me. I think it worked out pretty well."
"In the first quarter I told our guys, when they were a little frustrated over Nowitzki scoring, 'It's a team. You know,'" Saunders said. "If we had to, if Dirk would have a big game, but we contained their other people, we'd be in good shape. What happened was we let some of their other people, mainly Van Exel, came out in the second quarter and kind of got their momentum going back in their way."
LaFrentz scored 10 points for the Mavs, who shot 44 percent (37-of-84) and commited just nine turnovers. Dallas committed the fewest turnovers during the season.
Nesterovic had 16 points and nine boards and Wally Szczerbiak added 15 and eight for the Wolves, who held a 58-39 rebounding edge. However, Minnesota shot just 40 percent (36-of-90) and committed 19 turnovers.
"As I told our guys afterwards, we should be disappointed because I thought that we did some things well enough to have opportunities to win," Saunders said. "It's difficult to beat a team on the road. When you're 58-39 on the boards and you have 26 second-chance points, those are positive things. The things we didn't do -- we turned the ball over more than you'd like."