Beating the Dallas Mavericks without Dirk Nowitzki on the court just wasn't as much fun for the San Antonio Spurs.
At least, that's what San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich claimed.
Tim Duncan bounced back from one of the least productive games of his career to score 17 points and reserve Gary Neal had 21, sending the Spurs to a 99-93 victory over the Nowitzki-less Mavericks on Thursday night in a showdown between the top two teams in the Western Conference.
"We don't take too much out of the win," Popovich said. "We didn't show very much. We didn't improve as a team, that's for sure."
Nowitzki missed a second straight game because of a sprained knee, and Dallas has lost them both after winning 17 of 18 with its leading scorer in the lineup. The only solace for the Mavericks was playing harder than they did while getting whipped by Toronto and hanging close against the mighty Spurs.
Caron Butler scored a season-high 30 points and Jason Kidd had a 12 points, 13 assists and 10 rebounds, but Dallas blew an early lead and never regained the lead. The Mavericks got close plenty of times, especially in the third quarter, but Duncan would make a shot or Neal would hit a 3-pointer to keep San Antonio ahead.
"We just couldn't get over the hump," Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said. "It was tough, it was frustrating, but our guys kept battling. I take the positives out of it, but right now we've got to really work together. Without Dirk in the lineup, the margins for error are extremely slim."
San Antonio won for the 12th time in 14 games and improved to 28-4, extending the best start in franchise history and the best record in the NBA. Coming off a thorough victory over the Lakers, this was a pretty good way to end 2010.
The Spurs broke the game open with a 21-2 run that started late in the first quarter. They avenged one of their few losses this season and ended a four-game, regular-season losing streak to their division rivals.
Duncan, who tied a career low with two points last game, opened the game with his trademark bank shot. In keeping with the way San Antonio has played this season, the ball didn't go through him much but he showed he could still be effective. When Dallas tightened things up in the third quarter, Tony Parker fed him the ball on three straight possessions and he delivered every time.
"Timmy played great," Parker said. "He got some big baskets for us. He was drawing double-teams. He was huge in the third quarter."
Duncan was 5 of 9 from the field and 7 of 7 from the line. He also had 11 rebounds.
"It's nice to get some baskets to go down, get some rebounds and play a little better to help the team," he said. "We can attack in different ways. That's what we've been hanging our hat on all season."
Neal is the latest breakout player uncovered by the Spurs — an NBA rookie after spending the last three years playing in Italy, Spain and Turkey. He's scored 22 points twice in the last two weeks and just missed doing so again. He was 5 of 8 on 3-pointers.
"He's a stone-cold shooter," Duncan said. "He feels he deserves to be here, and he does. He's shown he can make plays for us."
Manu Ginobili scored 15 points, despite a sinus problem that makes it hard to breathe through his mouth, and Tony Parker added 14. George Hill scored 12.
Nowitzki's absence takes 24.1 points per game out of Dallas' lineup. Butler and Kidd upped their games, but the Mavericks didn't get enough from other guys.
Jason Terry was 3 of 16, with a rut of 11 straight misses. Shawn Marion was Dallas' only other double-digit scorer with 10. Brian Cardinal started in Nowitzki's place and had nine points.
"Without Dirk, we gave ourselves a chance to win," said Kidd, whose triple-double was the 106th of his career. "Going into the fourth quarter, down by (seven), you can't ask for anything else."
Nowitzki is expected to join the team on a trip to Milwaukee for a game on New Year's Day.
NOTES: Mavs C Brendan Haywood suited up but didn't play for the first time this season. He's yet to play a minute against the Spurs in two meetings this season; he was suspended last time they met. ... Neal was 3 of 4 on 3-pointers through three quarters. His lone miss was an air ball that wasn't even close. ... Mavs owner Mark Cuban flew in from a vacation in the Cayman Islands for this game and was headed back Thursday.