George Hill caught a desperation pass in the corner from 6'7" rookie Dejuan Blair, who had just snared his first of five offensive rebounds in a tense and physical Game Four, and delivered the first of his many presents to Tim Duncan.
He swished a three-pointer with less than one second left to give the Spurs a 20-17 edge after the first quarter.
When his 29-point star turn was over, his message was clear, his status as the key to this series established.
Happy 34th, Tim. You have help now.
Duncan, who labored through a horrid one-for-nine shooting display, needed everything Hill could give and more.
The Spurs standout sophomore decided late in the fourth quarter that he could not allow the franchise player to finish without a field goal on the anniversary of his birth.
He threw up a tough running jump shot and bricked it. Duncan gathered the rebound, his ninth, and tipped in the miss.
Hill failed to record an assist, according to the box score, but this sure looked like one.
I got ya', big fella'.
This time last year, Hill was glued to the bench, told by his coach he wasn't ready for the rigors or the ardor of the postseason.
In his first significant minute of action in last year's one-sided Texas tussle, Hill drove to hoop and had his first lay-up attempt blocked by Ryan Hollins.
That was also a Game Four, and a crushing loss pushed the Spurs to brink of elimination.
Then, Tony Parker scored 46 points in the playoff game of his life, and Duncan broke the 30-point barrier.
No one else on the Spurs seemed fit to give No. 21 a proper gift for his 33rd.
Matt Bonner clanged a three that would have given the Spurs a late one-point lead. Roger Mason Jr. misfired.
Gregg Popovich played Hill then because his team's lack of firepower left him no choice.
A lot can change in one year, and the 23-year-old combo guard from IUPUI has been the difference for a recharged and reloaded San Antonio squad that plays like anything but a seventh seed.
The Mavs headed to the locker room with an 11-point cushion, 48-37, with all the momentum and the look of a team determined to land back in Dallas with a tied series.
Hill kept coming, and so did Spurs players not named Parker, Duncan, or Ginobili.
During a backbreaking 22-4 San Antonio run in a lopsided third quarter, players not on last year's depleted roster scored all but four of the points.
Antonio McDyess drilled one of his near mechanical mid-range jumpers to cut the Dallas lead to two, 57-55.
Richard Jefferson, who finished with 15 points, knotted the score with a hanging jumper as he was fouled.
If the history that accompanies 3-1 series leads does not destroy the Mavs' psyche, maybe these improbable numbers will.
The Spurs did not connect on a trey in Game Three, the first time they had failed to do so in a playoff match since 2000. And won.
Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili combined to shoot a dismal nine-of-34 from the field in Game Four. The Spurs still won.
Parker's jumpshot, the weapon he used to put away Friday's contest, was flat.
Ginobili, wearing a massive bandage and splint on his fractured nose, was three-of-15 before he drained a clutch triple from the corner.
The Spurs of the last two years would never have won a game in which three the stars struggled so.
Ginobili needed tour guide assistance to find the net. If Duncan was aiming for the Tower of the Americas, he hit the Alamodome.
Parker's touch from mid-range and around the basket was absent. When Rick Carlisle ordered his players to switch to a zone defense, the French guard might as well have been sipping wine with his Hollwood wife on the Champs Elysees.
He lost the ball five times.
The two-way sparkplug—happy to go for the jugular with his All-Star teammates misfiring on all cylinders—was a 26th pick missing on more than 25 GMs' first-round draft boards in 2008.
R.C. Buford and Popovich saw in Hill what Doc Rivers and only a few others did.
They stuck with him after he shot eight percent in the Las Vegas Summer League. They watched him grow from intriguing rookie to Parker's temporary replacement.
Sunday night, Popovich played Hill because he was carrying a team with three future Hall of Famers exhibiting all the accuracy of Dick Cheney on a hunting excursion.
Hill has started every game in this series. Parker, a former Finals MVP, comes off the bench.
McDyess emblazoned his volition again in defending the Mavs' best player. Dirk Nowitzki finished four-of-10.
The German forward's face sported a look of defeat in a second straight post-game interview. He looked as if he and the Mavs had been Pacquiao'd, as if he had just taken a knockout blow from Tyson or Ali.
Jefferson hustled on the defensive end and lived up to his billing as a fourth wheel for the second time in this series.
For all the grief he has taken for his disappointing first turn as a Spur, there is another side to the three-for-one deal that landed him in San Antonio, and more people should take notice.
The Spurs inquired about another former New Jersey Net first. Buford and Popovich wanted to see how Vince Carter would look in a silver and black jersey.
A proposed deadline deal for the explosive swingman hit an unexpected, undisclosed snag, according to a report in the San Antonio Express-News .
No one outside of the Nets and Spurs organizations knows why trade talks stalled.
A reason to be glad they did: Hill was part of the tentative transaction.
Popovich did not know what he had then.
Buford was dangling a late-round prospect with an uknown ceiling.
Neither man could have known Hill would star in a pivotal playoff joust, one in which Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili did the woofing.
With Hill unconscious from long range, harassing Jason Kidd into a three-for-10 performance, the trio could afford to play like dogs.
The second-year guard has become the team's best perimeter defender, taking over Bruce Bowen's role as chief molester.
His long-armed defense bothered one of the greatest point guards of all-time for a third consecutive game.
When he guarded other Dallas shooters, he fought with the poise and grit of a wiley veteran.
The Spurs wouldn't be a seventh seed without Hill. They would be watching the Mavs on TV, trying to figure out which good luck charm to send to Secaucus.
As invisible as Jefferson was in early season contests against title contenders, he wasn't worse than Carter.
His former teammate in New Jersey trudged through the worst January of his career, shooting 28 percent from the field. Sagging confidence and defenselessness sabotaged his effectiveness and playing time.
Stan Van Gundy often benched Carter in fourth quarters, unsure what to do with his inefficient bricklayer.
Carter found his way after the All-Star Break, and the Orlando Magic played as well as any team down the stretch.
The aging guard also plays with a defensive force who can cover up his frequent defensive mistakes. Dwight Howard is averaging six blocks in his squad's first-round series against the Charlotte Bobcats.
For most of the past decade, Popovich won championships by putting the ball in the hands of Parker or Ginobili.
Parker was right after Game Three when he said the "Big Three" forgot about Jefferson on too many occasions this season.
They didn't consign Jefferson to oblivion in a late first-half surge, a furious third-quarter rally, or a decisive fourth-quarter push.
The Spurs 92-89 victory should pulverize the frustrated Mavs.
Popovich found his squad on the other end of this deficit in 2006, after losing two tight games in Dallas. The Spurs hung on twice to force a Game Seven.
There are many reasons to think that won't happen again.
No one on the Spurs seems likely to throw a punch in a Game Five scrum. The Mavs' aren't the defending champions.
Hill is another. Caron Butler's production dwindled in the second half. He missed seven-of-18 shots on Sunday night.
As the intensity increased, so did Hill's impact.
Those who still think Carter was a better choice should remember this.
The Nets wanted to dump payroll while adding a young prospect on a rookie deal—cheap labor for a franchise in cost-cutting and relocation mode.
Instead of Courtney Lee, Hill might have been the draft steal left to flail on one of the NBA's all-time worst teams.
The Spurs and their birthday boy know now, if they didn't already, where they would be without him.
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