SAN ANTONIO _ Before Game 5, San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich was talking about the reality of a best-of-seven playoff series.
"The best team wins,'' he said. "It used to (not always) be that way with three-game series and five games. But in a seven-game series, the best team wins. I'm a firm believer in that.''
The Mavericks left no doubt about that.
With Dirk Nowitzki dominating for the first time in the series, the Mavericks rode a strong collective effort to a 106-93 victory Tuesday night at AT&T Center, winning their first-round series 4-1 over the Spurs.
The Mavericks advance to the conference semifinals for the first time in three years. They will play the winner of the Denver-New Orleans series, which the Nuggets lead 3-1.
The Mavericks had more players playing well throughout this series than the Spurs did. That was the bottom line. With Manu Ginobili out for the Spurs and the Mavericks getting contributions from Josh Howard, J.J. Barea, Jason Kidd and Erick Dampier as well as Nowitzki, the Spurs simply did not have enough weapons.
That much was obvious in the clincher.
The Mavericks had ridden Nowitzki (30 points, nine rebounds) and all his helpers to a 15-point lead going into the fourth quarter. They knew the Spurs would make a strong push down the stretch, but it never really came.
Jason Terry canned a couple of 3-pointers, then Dirk took the baton and sank a pair of mid-range jumpers. All the while the Mavericks kept the lead in double figures, as if they were a bulldog holding onto a pants leg.
On several occasions, the Spurs got within 10, but each time the Mavericks responded with a score. When Terry hit a jumper and two free throws, the lead was 98-86 with under 2:30 to go and the Spurs knew they were beaten.
It was a vintage performance for the Mavericks. The Mavericks did everything right in the early going _ and yet they were only up by four points at halftime.
Nowitzki was rolling early, the beneficiary of a tweak in the Spurs' defense that allowed Nowitzki to work one-on-one much of the time. He responded with 11 points in the first quarter, his highest quarter total of the series. It was no coincidence that that's what the Mavericks' lead was _ 31-20.
The Mavericks kept the heat on through most of the second quarter and were up 47-37 with just over three minutes left in the half. Rookie George Hill poured in a 3-pointer among his five points in the last three minutes and the Spurs mustered a rally that pulled them within 52-48 at the break.
The Mavericks had put together a solid first half and didn't have much of a cushion to show for it.
Nowitzki had 15 first-half points and Tony Parker only had 12 as the Spurs went to different options offensively. The table was set for the Spurs to become the aggressors in the third quarter, but the Mavericks refused to let it happen. They played like the more desperate team, bumping the lead back out to 72-59 as Nowitzki and Josh Howard did most of the damage. By the end of the third, the lead was 82-67 and the Mavericks were ready to put their foot on the Spurs' collective neck.
Tim Duncan won't give up; you knew he wouldn't. He has 10 points in the first seven minutes of the fourth quarter, trying to get the Spurs' deficit under 10 points. Two 3-pointers by Jason Terry about 2 minutes deep into the quarter and two buckets by Dirk Nowitzki, delivering big time in a clutch situation, seemed to put the game out of reach.
A dunk by Duncan, giving him 12 in the quarter, gives him 30 for the game and keeps the margin at 10, 96-86 Mavs, with about 3 minutes to play in San Antonio's season.
Jason Kidd's second 3-pointer of the final 1:50 of the third quarter, this one at the buzzer, put the Mavericks ahead 82-67 and 12 minutes away from the second round of the NBA playoffs.
The Spurs got help from Kurt Thomas to cut the Mavs' lead to 72-67 before a timeout with 2:02 left in the quarter and Kidd's shooting turned the momentum back into Dallas' favor.
Dirk Nowitzki has 23 points, Josh Howard 15, Jason Kidd 12, J.J. Barea 10 and Erick Dampier nine for the Mavs, relying virtually all on their starters. Tony Parker has 20 and Tim Duncan 18 for the Spurs, facing elimination in the first round of the playoffs for the first time since 2000.
The Spurs are trying to hold on as Tim Duncan takes a rest. A Dirk Nowitzki-led run after the Spurs had cut the lead to 63-59 pushed the Mavs into a 72-59 advantage, Nowitzki scoring 6 of the points and Josh Howard getting a 3-pointer.
Duncan sat with about 3 1/2 minutes left in the third quarter. But Tony Parker and Kurt Thomas kept the Spurs in the game with key buckets.
The changes didn't work, as Josh Howard's tip-in on a fast break put the Mavericks ahead 63-53. A Jason Kidd 3-pointer and J.J. Barea's layup were part of the Mavs' fuel, as they try to end this series in Game 5.
The Mavericks gashed open a 45-31 lead in the second quarter after leading 31-20 at the end of the first period, as Brandon Bass scored six points (two dunks and a short jumper) and J.J. Barea also hit for six. Jason Terry's 3-pointer put the margin at 14 before San Antonio called timeout with 6:43 left in the half.
But the Spurs rode back from what seemed liked certain elimination behind reserves George Hill (7 points) and Ime Udoka (7 points), plus the constant, Tony Parker. Parker had 12 points at half on 6-of-13 shooting and Tim Duncan had 11.
The biggest stat might have been in rebounding, in which the Spurs regrouped for a 23-22 edge.
Dirk Nowitzki led Dallas with 15 points on 5-of-10 shooting and also had six rebounds. Josh Howard had eight points, Erick Dampier seven and Jason Kidd three.
Eleven of Nowitzki's points came in the first seven minutes of the game.