Spurs push Mavs to brink of elimination

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SAN ANTONIO (AP) — George Hill sank yet another big shot from the corner, this time right in front of the Dallas Mavericks bench, and ran back upcourt flashing three fingers. He probably meant 3-pointer. Or maybe it was three down, one to go. While Tim Duncan had a miserable 34th birthday and Manu Ginobili looked as rough at times as his bandaged-up broken nose, Hill scored 29 points to help the Spurs push the second-seeded Mavericks to the brink of elimination with a 92-89 victory on Sunday night.

"From the day they drafted me, I knew I belonged," said Hill, found by the Spurs late in the first round two years ago.

Hill's playoff performance was, in the Duncan era of the Spurs, virtually unprecedented.

The 23-year-old guard became the first player other than Duncan, Ginobili or Tony Parker to lead the Spurs in scoring in a playoff game since the first round in 2007. That's a span of 41 playoff games.

Put in even more remarkable context, one of the Big Three has been the top scorer for San Antonio in all but two postseason games since the Spurs won their second championship in 2003.

Michael Finley was the first in 2007. Hill became the other after Duncan, Parker and Ginobili combined for just 31 points in a physical Game 4 that left tempers flaring.

"If you tell me before the game we hold the Big Three to those numbers, we figure we win the game," Mavs forward Dirk Nowitzki said.

Heading home to Game 5 on Tuesday night, the Mavs have other numbers to worry about.

One is being on the verge of their third first-round playoff exit in four years. Considered one of the deepest teams in the West while claiming the No. 2 seed, Dallas is now tasked with trying to become just the ninth team in NBA history to rally from a 3-1 deficit in a best-of-seven playoff series.

It was three years ago that the top-seeded Mavericks were shocked in the playoffs by eighth-seeded Golden State. Dallas is now in danger of getting ousted by the No. 7 Spurs.

After the game, Nowitzki climbed up a dais in the media room, took the microphone off the stand and slouched back in his chair with a heavy sigh.

He scanned a copy of the box score: Duncan getting four points on 1-of-9 shooting. Ginobili getting a modest 17. Parker scoring just 10.

"It's tough. I'm not going to sit here and lie," said Nowitzki, who was held to 17 points, his worst outing in the series. "In Game 2 we should have had it at home and we feel we should have had one here. We didn't and it's frustrating, but we have to keep fighting until it's over."

If Game 4 was any indication, Tuesday could be a rough-and-tumble elimination game. Officials rang up three flagrant fouls, pouring more fuel on an already intense Texas rivalry.

Tempers flared as the Mavs threw away a 14-point lead in the third quarter, none more so than when Eduardo Najera was ejected after hooking a hand around Ginobili's head and sending him belly flopping to the floor.

A livid Popovich leaped from his chair and began stomping toward the basket before being slowed down by his assistants. Minutes earlier, Richard Jefferson and Jason Terry had to be separated when words escalated in the third quarter.

"We're not going to back (down), we're not going to take hits and let them keep doing it," Hill said. "Our guys stepped up and we can deliver a blow, too."

The Mavs can no longer count on shutting down the Big Three as enough. Duncan has scored at least 25 points in the first three games of the series. Ginobili, meanwhile, made just 4-of-16 shots while wearing a bandage across his broken nose that went from cheek-to-cheek, forgoing the discomfort of a face mask.

But he was bailed out by Hill, who was held scoreless in the series opener while battling a sore ankle.

"He really earned our trust all season long and he's responding in the playoffs in a tough situation," Ginobili said. "He started in front of Tony, which is not easy at all, coming from an injury and zero-point first game. It was not easy. The way he stepped up today and lead us was impressive."

Caron Butler had 17 points for Dallas, the NBA's best road team during the regular season. But the Mavs couldn't leave San Antonio with a win, and they have to push the series to a Game 6 to earn another shot.

Butler and Shawn Marion seemed to get the message after getting benched in the second half of Game 3. Marion had 14 points and helped push Dallas to a 51-37 lead early in the third quarter. It was reminiscent of Game 3, when Dallas went on a 17-0 run to get back in the game.

But then the Mavs' meltdown began.

Dallas missed its last 11 shots of the third and did not hit a field goal over the final 7:47 of the quarter. The Mavs turned the ball over eight times, struggling so much that even a simple inbound play was difficult.

Still, the Mavs weren't done. They pulled off a 13-2 run in the final five minutes to get within 86-84 with 2:13 left. But Ginobili came back down and connected on his first 3-pointer in seven tries, and the Mavs watched their chances disappear on back-to-back misses by Nowitzki and Jason Kidd in the final 28.9 seconds.

"We're not looking at three straight," Kidd said. "We're just looking at Game 5 and that's as far as we can look."

NOTES: Terry scored all of his 13 points in the second half, returning to the game after hurting his left ankle in the second quarter and being taken to the locker room. ...The Spurs made 6 of their 17 3-pointers after hitting none in Game 3.

Eds: Spurs 92, Mavericks 89. SUBS 11th graf to CORRECT to Tuesday night, sted Sunday. Optional.