DALLAS 103, SAN ANTONIO 91 --------------------------
SAN ANTONIO (Ticker) -- With nothing to lose, the Dallas Mavericks figured they would try some defense.
Using constantly changing defensive schemes and an inspirational performance from Michael Finley, the Mavericks somehow stayed alive in the Western Conference finals with a 103-91 Game Five victory over the stunned San Antonio Spurs.
The Spurs-Nets rhetoric will have to wait at least two more days. Dallas closed to 3-2 with the fourth road win in the series and has Game Six on its home floor Thursday.
Perhaps Mavs All-Star forward Dirk Nowitzki will be ready by then. Nowitzki went down with a sprained left knee late in Game Three and was expected to miss at least 10 days. But after watching Finley and the rest of his teammates pull this one out, he may be inspired to make an early return.
"I would say we should call him doubtful," Mavs coach Don Nelson said. "The longer the series goes, the better chance he could play."
"If you have half a brain, you realize how important a game like this is," said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, whose team will be looking for its third straight Game Six road win.
Finley, who has become somewhat obscured by the star power of Nowitzki and All-Star guard Steve Nash, scored 15 of his 31 points in the third quarter, when the Mavs began their march back from a 17-point deficit.
"That's my role on this team," Finley said. "My stats might not be as good as they were a couple years ago (but) I still feel that I'm the leader of this team. Vocally, I may not be as expressive as some leaders are, but by example I think I can lead this team and they feed off of that."
In a terrific all-around game, Finley made 9-of-14 shots and 12-of-12 free throws. He also set a tone of toughness that his fellow Mavs followed with eight rebounds and five steals, both team highs.
But the key was Nelson's defense, which looked indecipherable at times. Hiding his team's shortcomings - height-wise and otherwise - Nelson used an amalgamation of zones and switching man-to-man schemes that smothered Tim Duncan and put the pressure on his teammates to makes shots. They didn't.
"We couldn't seem to stop them man-to-man, so we went to zone and looked more effective," Nelson said. "In the fourth quarter, we stayed with it instead of going back to man-to-man."
"We've zoned them in previous games, but not as successfully," Finley said. "We weren't aggressive enough and seemed to relax a little. You can't do that against the league MVP. Tonight, we were more aggressive in our traps and our rotation."
The Spurs scored just one basket - a dunk by Duncan off a great save by David Robinson - in the first 9 1/2 minutes of the fourth quarter. During that stretch, they watched an 81-74 advantage evaporate and become a 97-86 deficit.
"It sorta looked like we thought somebody was going to give us something," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. "That lack of maturity hurt us."
Duncan had 23 points, 15 rebounds and six assists but got very little help in the second half. The Spurs scored just 10 points in the fourth quarter.
"They dropped back into that zone," Duncan said. "You miss a couple of shots and they start to come back. You try to make it up in hurry."
"We see everything that you can see on Tim," Spurs forward Malik Rose said. "Maybe the timing and how hard they did it was a bit different. They really came at him hard in the fourth quarter and were not going to let him beat them."
Nick Van Exel scored 21 points and Nash added 14 for the Mavs, who made all 23 of their free throws and actually held a 42-38 edge on the boards, where they have been pounded all series.
"They never really put us away," Van Exel said. "They had lots of chances to put the nail in the coffin, but they never did."
In the first half, the Mavs looked as if they were holding the nail steady for the Spurs. They trailed 30-23 after one period and 44-25 early in the second quarter after the San Antonio put together a 12-0 run.
Dallas was so desperate it again began intentionally fouling Bruce Bowen, who again made them pay by sinking 4-of-6 free throws. In the series, the Mavs have hacked Bowen 10 times. The 40 percent foul shooter has made 14-of-20 free throws, while Dallas has scored on just one of the ensuing possessions.
"It's a ploy," Nelson said. "I thought he was shooting well - even the two he missed, he shot well. It was a ploy I thought was useful at the time, because anything was better than what was happening."
But the change in tempo seemed to get the Spurs off their game. They made just one basket in the last six minutes of the first half, settling for a 58-47 lead - which they rebuilt to 66-49 on consecutive baskets by Duncan early in the third period.
That's when Finley got going, and soon after his teammates got into the act. His 3-pointer made it 72-64 with 4:47 left, and two free throws by Eduardo Najera inched the Mavs within 78-72 with 1:12 to go.
"When their turns came, they were anxious to make something happen," Finley said. "They brought it home in the fourth quarter."
Nash made a clock-beating, running floater in the lane over Duncan and a 3-pointer in a 9-2 spurt that opened the final period and tied the game. A dunk by Najera at the 7:33 mark gave the Mavs their first lead at 85-84, and they never gave it back.
Van Exel made a runner and 3-pointer around Duncan's dunk, and Nash made another improbable shot, this time stepping back for a rainbow jumper and a 92-86 lead with 4:26 left.
Van Exel made two free throws, then dove to steal the inbounds pass and drew a foul while shooting an alleged 3-pointer. Three more from the line made it 97-86 with 2:32 to go and sent most of the SBC Center crowd of 18,797 heading for the exits.
Walt Williams had 12 points and eight boards and Najera added 11 and eight for Dallas, which shot 43 percent (36-of-83).
Stephen Jackson scored 20 points, Malik Rose added 14 and Bowen 12 for the Spurs, who shot 44 percent (31-of-70). Tony Parker, who had been averaging nearly 23 points per game in the series, managed just seven.
"Coming into the second half, I took it upon myself defending Parker when he tries to be more aggressive," Finley said. "I wanted to pick him up full court and make him go against me more 1-on-1 and take them out of their flow."