-- 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.
Ellis is trying to reach that level. When the Mavs needed him most this season, he turned in his worst performance of the series. When Ellis couldn't hit his jumper in Game 7, the Spurs stayed under the screen on the pick-and-roll and denied him access to the lane. Without a jumper or access to the lane, Ellis became passive.
In Game 6, he relentlessly attacked the basket. In Game 7, the dude who led the NBA in drives scored one basket in the lane.
Ellis finished with just 12 points -- his second-lowest total of the series -- and made just three of 11 shots. After the game, San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich had a lengthy conversation with Ellis, though he declined to give specifics of their conversation. "At 28 years old, he has a lot of great years left," Carlisle said of Ellis. "He's really just entering his prime, and there are some things we can do to help him get even better." A few days from now, the focus will shift from this embarrassing Game 7 loss to giving Carlisle credit for squeezing all of the potential from this roster.
The Mavs, as they should, are all about competing for championships as long as Dirk is on the roster.
Sure, they won 49 games, but the Mavs still finished eighth in the Western Conference and they're not close to being a championship contender as currently constructed.
The odds of the Mavs adding a star in the offseason are slim, so it's up to Ellis to spend the offseason significantly improving his jumper.
The Mavs don't Ellis to be a sidekick; they need him to be a star. It's the best way for the Mavs to become a contender.