Mavs spike Spurs in OT

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DALLAS (AP) – This type of series is exactly why the NBA will likely change its playoff format next season.

Because, so far, the Dallas Mavericks and San Antonio Spurs have delivered a riveting second-round series perhaps better suited for a conference final, with the Mavericks’ 123-118 overtime win Monday night another thriller.

Jason Terry scored four of his 32 points in overtime, including the go-ahead layup and the clincher – an arching jumper over the lunging, outstretched arms of Tim Duncan to put Dallas up 3-1 in the series.

If the Mavericks beat the defending champions Wednesday in San Antonio, they’ll advance to their second conference final in four years.

The finals is where the Spurs and Mavericks could have only met if the top two playoff seeds were based on records – which NBA commissioner David Stern announced before Monday’s game would likely happen next season. The Spurs won just three more games than Dallas in the regular season, but Dallas was dropped to the No. 4 seed behind the other two division winners.

But even if it’s not a series with the NBA Finals on the line, it has played out that way.

“That was the best game I’ve ever been a part of,” said Mavericks forward Jerry Stackhouse, who scored 26 points off the bench. “The emotional roller coaster was unbelievable.”

The loss gave San Antonio its first three-game skid of the season and the daunting task of trying to become just the ninth team in NBA history to climb back from a 3-1 deficit. The Spurs’ own history isn’t on their side, either: Since Duncan came aboard in 1997, the Spurs are 0-5 when trailing this deep into a playoff series.

They also haven’t won an elimination game to keep a series going; the only time they won when facing elimination was Game 7 of last year’s finals.

“The bottom line is that we could have come out of here with two wins,” San Antonio coach Greg Popovich said.

“It’s not like we’re playing horrible and they’re playing great. We’re right there.”

The close game was emblematic of the entire series, with the exception of the Mavericks’ 22-point blowout win in Game 2. The Spurs won the opener 87-85 and Dallas took the series lead Saturday with a 104-103 win.

Game 4 on Monday played out a lot like Game 3: a frenetic fourth quarter with three lead changes, clutch shots and high emotions.

Before Dirk Nowitzki hit two free throws with 8.5 seconds left to force overtime, Spurs defensive specialist Bruce Bowen was so disgusted with the foul call that he yelled, “That’s terrible!” – loud enough for Stern to hear from his front-row seat.

Before that, former Mavericks All-Star Michael Finley hit a stunning 3-pointer from the wing to silence the crowd that booed him all night, briefly putting the Spurs ahead 111-109 with 15.4 seconds left.

Duncan, who finished with 31 points and 13 rebounds, had a chance to win the game in regulation but his 6-footer at the buzzer was short when Mavericks center Erick Dampier forced a difficult shot.

“We’ve had no answer for (Duncan) all series,” Mavericks coach Avery Johnson said. “But I tell you, our big guys are battling.”

Including Nowitzki, who didn’t seem bothered at all by the sprained right ankle he got after taking an awkward tumble in Game 3. He finished with 28 points, half of which came at the foul line.

“I felt great early on,” said Nowitzki, who also had nine rebounds and shot 7-of-12 from the field. “I was a little worried because it was still swollen this morning but it loosened up right before the game.”

Tony Parker led the Spurs with 33 points and Manu Ginobili, who came off the bench for the second straight game, scored 26.

Parker got off to a blistering start, scoring 16 of his points in the first quarter. At that point, Johnson said he pulled aside guard Devin Harris and challenged him to steal the spotlight.

It seemed to work. Harris finished with 18 points and threw a smart cross-court pass to set up a crucial long jumper from Terry with 23 seconds left in regulation.

“I’ve had situations like that where a guy torched me early in the game,” Johnson said. “But can you come back? What are we going to remember at the end of the game?”

For most, probably another intense finish to a gripping series.

“They’re the champs,” Terry said. “They still got plenty more.”

Notes: Dallas F Adrian Griffin, who lost his starting job to Harris, didn’t play for the second straight game. … Spurs C Rasho Nesterovic played 0.7 seconds after not being used in Game 3. … This was San Antonio’s third lineup of the series and fifth in 10 playoff games.

AP-ES-05-16-06 0432EDT

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