The San Antonio Spurs hit the road Saturday for a Game 3 tangle with the Dallas Mavericks and the series tied 1-1. San Antonio had it all sewn up with a two-point lead and less than two seconds remaining, but Vince Carter conjured visions of Game 6 Ray Allen and nailed a game-winning three-pointer off a last-gasp inbounds play for a pivotal 109-108 Dallas win.
Monta Ellis led all scorers with 29 points, 12 of those in the fourth. Dirk Nowitzki scored 18, and Carter finished with 11. Samuel Dalembert double-doubled on 13 points and 10 rebounds to go with four blocks.
Tim Duncan dropped 22 points for hard-luck San Antonio, but he pulled down only five rebounds. Tiago Splitter went off for 14 points and 13 boards. Tony Parker finished with 19 points and six assists, but he rode the pine for the final minutes of the game.
The advantage teetered all afternoon with 18 lead changes and 18 ties. The contest was capped with a thrilling buzzer-beater from 37-year-old Carter, once a sensational slam-dunker and now a versatile bench option. His "V-C-3" stole victory from the Spurs and changed the face of the series. A screaming-with-joy Mark Cuban quickly found Carter in the celebratory scrum after the dagger, as captured by TNT cameras.
Dallas owned the second quarter 32-20 and grabbed a 59-54 halftime lead, but the game hung in the balance throughout a superb second half. It was a beautiful display of coaching and veteran savvy from both sides. Success came in fits and starts as each defense countered from timeout to timeout.
In Game 2, the Spurs shot 50 percent from the field and connected on 10 of their 20 three-point attempts, but Dallas' defense forced 24 turnovers by deploying a zone-style set at times throughout that win. In Game 3, they shot 54 percent and committed fewer turnovers than Dallas but lost once again.
If this were some other team, Carter's devastating buzzer-beater would be hugely demoralizing, but it's hardly Duncan and Co.'s first rodeo.
Player grades start at a C+ for a decent overall performance. That increases or decreases based on the quality of each player's contributions, with extra credit for huge stats or clutch performance. (We'll put role players on the grading curve.) Instead of gold stars and frowny faces, here are grades for every player.
Key Mavericks Grades
Dirk Nowitzki, Power Forward
Nowitzki notched nine first-half points, but he attempted fewer field goals than teammate Samuel Dalembert in that span. It's a credit to the Spurs defense, mainly Duncan and Splitter, for limiting the legendary German's chances.
Nowitzki finished up with seven field goals on 13 attempts on his way to 18 points. He added seven boards, three dimes and two steals, but he never really went into full "Nowitzki Mode." Instead, it was a guard in his first playoff series with the team who carried Dallas to victory.
Monta Ellis, Shooting Guard
TNT announcer Chris Webber continually praised Ellis' finishing at the rim as among the best in the league, and it was hard to argue with that on several plays, including an acrobatic and-1 in the first half off a devastating slash through the lane.
Ellis became a force to be reckoned with in the fourth quarter. He poured in a dozen in the final 12 minutes and tied the game at 106 with 24 ticks left on a gorgeous driving rainbow over Duncan's outstretched arm.
As Webber phrased it, "You cannot jump higher than the ball"—not even Duncan.
Jose Calderon, Point Guard
Calderon missed on only one of his six shots in the first half to notch 12 points and dished six assists in the process. He cooled off in the second half, but he still finished up with 16 and nine.
Though Calderon is hardly a pass-first point guard after his three-point prowess this season, he primarily brings the mentality of a facilitator to the floor. That works as a great complement to Ellis and Nowitzki.
Shawn Marion, Small Forward
Marion canned a pair of three-pointers in the final two minutes of the first half to pad the Mavs' lead. He also handed out a bunch of dimes. He only scored one point in the second half, but he also snagged six rebounds and dished five dimes.
It's surprising the 35-year-old has lasted this long with his shot-put jump shot, but he's been a vital member of the Mavericks since 2009. The Mavs are one of the few teams offering as many skilled veteran contributors as the Spurs.
Samuel Dalembert, Center
Dalembert nearly had a double-double in the first half with nine and nine. He kept up the hustle in the second half as a rim-protector and swatted four shots in total. He also dove for one notable loose ball in the third quarter, which received noisy appreciation from the home fans.
Dalembert was big on the boards with six offensive rebounds and 10 in all to go along with 13 points. Who knew he could be this useful? Dalembert has been a great fit for Dallas.
Vince Carter did not have his three-point shot working early, but he was able to create inside the arc and got to the free-throw line for eight points in the first 47:58 of the game. Then he drained the game-winner with stoicism and turned into the hero.
It also appeared that a young male fan ran onto the court and hugged Carter before being grabbed by security, as shown on TNT.
Devin Harris had 18 points in Dallas' Game 2 win and 19 in Game 1, but he was held scoreless through the first half on Saturday. His only points of the day came on a crowd-pleasing, tie-breaking three-pointer with just over nine minutes remaining. He also distributed four assists.
Ex-Spur DeJuan Blair only played three minutes, but he made his only field-goal attempt and committed two fouls plus two turnovers.
Brandan Wright made his only two shots of the game. He also made a beautiful veteran foul on Tim Duncan late in the third quarter that the refs simply did not see. Duncan went up just a few feet from the rim, and as Wright blocked the shot with one hand, he grabbed Duncan's forearm with the other. Duncan seemed astonished that no foul was called.
Jae Crowder made a couple of layups. That was it.
Key Spurs Grades
Tim Duncan, Power Forward
Duncan turned 38 years old on April 25, but you would hardly know it. The Big Fundamental found plenty of success in the post on his way to a dozen by halftime, and he led San Antonio with 22. Duncan grabbed three of the team's 10 offensive rebounds but managed only five in total.
The Spurs led in paint points 50-38, but the perimeter scoring behind Duncan was lacking. Despite shooting 54 percent as a team, the Spurs bricked 12 out of 18 attempts from beyond the arc. They will be even angrier about allowing 109 points in regulation.
Tony Parker, Point Guard
Parker picked the Mavs apart on the pick-and-roll to get a dozen first-quarter points. His scoring slowed as the Mavericks keyed on Parker in the second half, but he remained efficient. After leading all point guards in field-goal shooting at 49.9 percent, via ESPN, he shot 50 percent in Game 3. Call him Monsieur Reliable.
He finished with 19 points, six assists and two steals.
However, Parker yielded to Patty Mills for the final four minutes of the game and remained on the bench. Manu Ginobili ran the offense on most subsequent possessions as a result. Gregg Popovich is infallible, though sometimes slightly inexplicable, and the Parker-less Spurs came up just short in the end game.
Kawhi Leonard, Small Forward
After a so-so showing in Game 2, Leonard made his presence felt in Dallas. He was opportunistic on defense and netted four steals in the first half alone and a fifth after that.
Leonard was insanely efficient from the field and got to 17 points on 7-of-8 shooting, but in trying to force the action, he became a bit hasty and turnover-prone, coughing it up five times.
Tiago Splitter, Center
Splitter continues to be deceptively effective and turned in an excellent game that saw him often matched up against Nowitzki. As usual, he lived around the rim and ripped down 13 rebounds, five offensive. The big man got his 14 points on just eight shots, and he even tallied three assists.
Danny Green, Shooting Guard
Green turned in a goose egg in the first half by missing his only two shots from long range. He eventually drained one three-pointer, but he was a non-factor. He started but saw only 13 minutes.
Manu Ginobili missed his first five shots and did not score a point until the 4:32 mark of the third quarter. Then he scored eight points over the next two-and-a-half minutes.
But Ginobili's biggest bucket did not come until the dying seconds of the game. He drove the lane, absorbed contact, hung in the air to steady his shot and then banked it off the window with so much spin that it rolled around the entire rim and very nearly lipped out, but it kept spinning and fell through for a 108-106 advantage.
Only 1.7 seconds remained, which was too much time to leave Carter.
Marco Belinelli played very effective ball off the bench and brought energy against Dallas' speedy backcourt. He made all three shots he took to get seven points, but his defense is hard to trust in crunch-time situations. He made hay in the second and third quarter.
Boris Diaw did not do much of note until crunch time. He cleaned up on a sloppy play with just over two minutes remaining in the fourth by hitting a runner in the lane after a Parker fumble. Then he snapped a 104-104 tie when his baseline jumper rattled in with only 29 seconds on the clock.
Matt Bonner made a fourth-quarter cameo and showed no rust by draining his lone jump shot. Patty Mills couldn't find the mark with his three-ball, but he still got five points and three assists in 14 minutes.
At 30-11, no team compiled a better road record during the regular season than the Spurs. Moreover, Dallas was just 26-15 at home, the worst mark among Western playoff teams. That bodes well for San Antonio to bounce back, but the Mavericks are riding all the momentum after two consecutive wins.
The veteran Spurs will not be fazed ahead of what is essentially a must-win in the next tilt, but they have a tall task in figuring out how to limit the potent Dallas offense.
Game 4 tips off Monday at 9:30 p.m. ET on TNT. The series returns to San Antonio for Game 5 Wednesday.