Coach's Corner

San Antonio and Dallas are two of the best teams in pro basketball. Their meeting this weekend was just a preview of a playoff showdown.

Power forward Dirk Nowitzki bounds from the Dallas locker room, hitting the floor with a shout of schoolboy liberation, like a fifth-grader at recess. It's still 90 minutes until tipoff in the Alamodome, but the 24-year-old German superstar is making it clear to Shawn Bradley, Wang Zhizhi, Evan Eschmeyer, and assorted other teammates that it's time to wrap up their highly structured 3-point shooting drills and relinquish the court to the starters.

Ninety feet away, Nowitzki's superstar counterpart Tim Duncan is likewise happy to be a NBA star. He's engaged in a good-natured (but highly competitive) game of one-on-one with veteran Mark Bryant and reserve Stephen Jackson.

Two of the league's best players arrived at their respective lofty places from wildly different avenues. The Mavs and Don Nelson were widely criticized for acquiring Nowitzki, the ninth player chosen in the 1998 draft. Playing in Germany, Nowitzki wasn't a household name ... even to Digger Phelps. Had he played at UCLA, or even Bowling Green, he would've been as well known as Larry Bird. As it is, he was considered another zany pick by the then much-maligned Nelson.

Duncan, on the other hand, arrived from Wake Forest with a glittering pedigree: College Player of the Year, Naismith Award winner, a host of All-American honors. He was the No.1 pick of the 1997 class, a year ahead of Nowitzki. Digger Phelps knows Duncan's name.

Nowitzki's career gets off to a rocky start. I see him in his rookie year. I figure he'll be the last No.1 pick Nelson will ever make. Not for the first time, I'm very wrong. Meanwhile, Duncan lives up to every inch of his college hype. He's Rookie of the Year, leading the Spurs into the playoffs.

Two hours later, before 34,700 frenzied Spur fans, both will figure prominently in the final seven seconds of a last shot San Antonio victory, closing the Maverick margin atop the Midwest to an asphyxiating half-game with six to play. The Spurs/Mavericks rivalry, although still young, is already quite intense. Last year the Spurs quickly dispatched Dallas in the playoffs. This year they took the season series 3-1, but the average margin of victory was less than two points.

Outside the Dome fans trudge in a steady, greasy-cold drizzle, but inside, the home team streaks to a quick 8-0 lead, making Nelson spend a timeout moments into the game. These first minutes will prove to be a precise microcosm of the game: three turnovers by the league's best team at taking care of the ball, and a quick deficit. The Mavs will repeat a pattern of falling behind, working hard to catch up, only to fall behind by 10 again.

It's not exactly classified information that the multinational Mavs are a shoot-first, play-defense-second kind of team. They've already reached the 100-point plateau 53 times this year. It would take San Antonio five years to do that. Unfortunately, playoff games rarely reach that point total -- and though tonight's game isn't officially a playoff game, it sure feels like one. Though Dallas briefly gets their lethal transition game going to tie the game midway through the second quarter, by halftime they've fallen back again to a 10-point deficit. Duncan already has 19 points and 10 rebounds.

The halftime stats look forbidding for Dallas. All-Star point guard Steve Nash, playing with a stomach virus, has zero points. They're shooting all of 12% from long range, and not because of great perimeter defense. Various Maverick shooters -- particularly Michael Finley, who has a ghastly night -- often miss the rim entirely. The Spurs have already been awarded 20 trips to the line, as opposed to four for the visiting Mavs. This absurd number will only increase in the second half, with San Antonio shooting 45 freebies to 19 for Dallas. I wonder if officials look at these ridiculous discrepancies after a game and wonder if maybe they were a little one-sided in their officiating?

Somehow, though it seems like the Spurs are in complete control, Dallas is always flashing their brights in the rear-view mirror. One reason is that longtime Spurs point guard Avery Johnson and Nick Van Exel more than fill in for Nash, scoring 36 second-half points between them. Plus, San Antonio misses just enough free throws to help keep things close. But veteran Danny Ferry, who finally seems to have found a happy home, hits three ultra-tough fourth-quarter 3s to keep the Mavs -- in particular Van Exel, who has 13 final-quarter points -- at bay.

And so we find our way back to Duncan and Nowitzki, who both have indifferent fourth quarters ... until the final seconds. Dallas has, again, fought their way back to find themselves down by only two, with a great chance to steal a monster game on the road.

With 13 seconds left, Dallas inbounds the ball to Nowitzki. The Big German moves too soon, spinning and twisting until he finds empty space for a falling away, 16-foot J that swishes the net. That's the good news. The bad is there's seven long seconds left in a tie game. 34,700 onlookers know the ball is going to Duncan, who can do almost anything he wants to win the game: 45 fouls bode well for a drive to the basket -- one free throw and the game's over. Dirk, aware of this awkward fact, wisely plays well off of Duncan as he receives the ball, facing the basket, above the free-throw line. Duncan dribbles left and then right, Nowitzki gives ground, but still, Tim's 18-footer, with two seconds left, is no gimmie. It's a tough shot, one that wouldn't have been attempted by most power forwards not in the building tonight.

Swish. Bottom of net. Ball game.

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