DALLAS (AP) – Tim Duncan erased a sluggish performance with a rebound and putback with 50.4 seconds left, preserving a slim, late lead that the San Antonio Spurs parlayed into a 97-91 victory over the Dallas Mavericks on Thursday night.

Dallas faltered and went scoreless for a 6:13 stretch that ended midway through the fourth quarter, letting a five-point lead turn into a five-point deficit.

Despite 21 points from Dirk Nowitzki and 20 from Josh Howard, the Mavericks never recovered, although they were able to make things interesting down the stretch.

Tony Parker, who was questionable because of a sprained ankle, scored 19 points and Manu Ginobili scored 16 for San Antonio.

Duncan had 13 points and 10 rebounds, but made only 5 of 13 shots; he had only five points midway through the third quarter and wasn’t as involved as usual in the Spurs’ scheme. But he came to life during the Spurs’ go-ahead rally.

The game had other made-for-TV moments:

– Official Jess Kersey was KO’d with a split chin before halftime when a blocked shot bounced hard off the whistle still in his mouth.

– Mavs owner Mark Cuban said before the game he’d be on his best behavior per the commissioner’s orders – and he sort of stuck to it.

– Howard was called for a flagrant foul, and new San Antonio forward Francisco Elson’s screaming fit after a dunk drew a technical.

Also of note: Dallas went 19-0 last season when Howard scored at least 20, but is now 0-1.

It was Howard who got Dallas within a point at 85-84 on a turnaround jumper, then San Antonio’s Bruce Bowen followed with a 3-pointer. Nowitzki answered with a fadeway that cut the Spurs’ lead to 88-86, getting the sellout crowd roaring.

With 1:30 left, Bowen badly missed two foul shots, the first one barely even ticking the net. Fans’ cheers peaked then, but began dimming when Jason Terry missed a go-ahead 3 from the corner and Duncan caught a missed dunk by Elson and made the follow for a 90-86 lead.

Nowitzki missed an out-of-control shot on the other end and fans began heading out soon after, convinced Dallas’ streak of seven straight home-opening wins was done.

Although the Mavericks chose not to unfurl their conference championship banner until Monday night, Stackhouse provided a reminder of how last season ended in a pregame speech to the crowd.

“We got close last year. We’re excited to get it done this year,” he said, drawing loud cheers. “We’re going to try to make you proud by getting the job done.”

Part of the reason the league picked these teams to meet in the opener was to stoke the rivalry that began brewing during a tense second-round playoff series that wasn’t decided until overtime of Game 7. Before the game, Dallas coach Avery Johnson called it “awesome.”

“The Mavericks have been trying to get to this level for years,” Johnson said. “How can there be venom if there aren’t two good teams? So it’s great.”

Notes: After waiting until the third night to open their season, the Spurs play four games in five nights. “I don’t ever remember it,” San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich said. … Dallas had five subs on the court late in the first quarter. And another top reserve, free agent signee Devean George, was home recovering from a stomach ailment that hospitalized him Tuesday. “He’s still woozy but at least he’s keeping some food down,” Johnson said. … Speaking of woozy, Johnson had opening night jitters. “I couldn’t sleep, couldn’t eat or drink,” he said before the game. “I’m really nervous. Am I still a rookie coach?” … Opening night glitch: Instead of playing a song left over from the playoffs that jabbed at the Spurs, arena operators played one jabbing the Suns. It was shut off within seconds.

AP-ES-11-02-06 2317EST



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