No help for Dirk in embarrassing loss

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SAN ANTONIO --  Dirk Nowitzki left the court for the final time this season with 7:29 left in the fourth quarter in Game 7 of this Western Conference quarterfinal on Sunday afternoon.

At 35, he had scored a team-high 22 points and grabbed nine rebounds, but, as has often been the case during his tenure with the Dallas Mavericks, Dirk didn't get enough help.

The Mavs' other four starters totaled 23 points.

So Dirk watched the final few minutes of the game wearing his blue warm-up suit. It was a sad sight considering he had played so well in his 16th season.

San Antonio 119, Dallas 96.

In the end, the Mavs' pathetic Game 7 performance was every bit as shocking as the eighth-seeded Mavs forcing the top-seeded Spurs, owners of the NBA's best record, to play seven games.

After all, San Antonio dominated the Mavs during the regular season, winning four games by an average of 11.5 points, and had beaten its I-35 rival nine consecutive times overall entering the series.

The only folks who really gave the Mavs a chance to beat the Spurs in a seven-game series were those who have Mark Cuban's signature at the bottom of their paychecks.

But five of the first six games were decided late in the fourth quarter. The only one that wasn't before Sunday? The Mavs' Game 2 blowout of San Antonio.

Well, the Spurs avenged that loss with their best overall performance of the series.

The Mavs took their only lead, 2-0, on a jumper by Dirk. Then, their shady defense betrayed them.

The Spurs led by 11 with 5:48 left in the first quarter, by 21 with 8:47 left in the second quarter and by 29 on a Tim Duncan layup with 2:13 left in the first half.

"We got hit by a tidal wave early," Carlisle said. "They had their best game today. We just weren't able to do quite enough to stay in it early."

San Antonio made 26 of 38 shots in the first half, which is hard to do shooting against air. The Mavs had started slowly in each of their first three games in San Antonio, trailing 21-9 in Game 1, 13-6 in Game 2 and 24-11 in Game 3.

In each of those games, though, the Mavs survived the onslaught. This time, they didn't.

Dirk made three of eight shots in the first quarter as he tried to ensure the Mavs started quickly through the sheer force of his will, but it's a lot more difficult to do at 35 than it is at 25. This is why the Mavs chased free agents Deron Williams and Dwight Howard the past two offseasons, respectively. They've been trying to ease Dirk's burden so he doesn't have to do everything every game.

Ellis and his 19.0 scoring average eased some of Dirk's scoring burden this season, but the Mavs still need a star, which Ellis isn't.

He's just a notch below.

Dirk remains a star. His 21.8 scoring average was 13th in the league, and he still plays his best basketball in the biggest games.

He draws so much attention from the opposing team that it makes every other player's job easier. Dirk remains the focal point of every opponent.

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