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By SCHUYLER DIXON
DALLAS (AP) Dirk Nowitzki had the only miss in a final minute filled with clutch shots by Dallas and San Antonio, topped by Vince Carter's buzzer-beating 3-pointer that gave the Mavericks a Game 3 win.
It was the 7-foot sharpshooter's third straight playoff game with less than 20 points, something that hasn't happened since his first postseason in 2001, also against his rival from South Texas.
Yet, the Mavericks have consecutive wins over the top-seeded Spurs after losing 10 in a row to them, and a 2-1 first-round series lead heading into Game 4 on Monday night in Dallas.
"You take something away, you give something up," San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich said. "You can't stop everything. You've just got to stop it more than the other team does."
Popovich and Dallas coach Rick Carlisle are harping on defensive stops after the Mavericks' 109-108 win Saturday. Carter's improbable pump-fake 3 with just 1.7 seconds to get off a shot was the ninth straight possession to end with points in the final 1:37. Both teams shot better than 50 percent.
Dallas' Monta Ellis had seven of his game-high 29 points in that closing stretch, including a floating jumper for a three-point play after he got fouled and a high-arching runner over the outstretched arm of Tim Duncan.
"We stole one," Nowitzki said. "We didn't execute quite as well as we did in the first two, especially the defensive game plan. I think Monta and Vince bailed us out a little bit the last couple of minutes with some great plays."
Carter's shot came 10 years after Derek Fisher of the Los Angeles Lakers beat the Spurs by somehow swishing a desperation toss at the basket with even less time remaining, 0.4 seconds. That Game 5 win was the third of four straight for the Lakers in the second round when San Antonio was the defending NBA champion.
The Spurs are defending their Western Conference title this time, a year after Miami's Ray Allen hit a tying 3-pointer when San Antonio was 5 seconds away from winning a fifth NBA crown in Game 6. The Heat eventually won that game in overtime before taking the series in Game 7.
"On a tough blow like this one, having been there, having suffered way worse than this, can help," said Manu Ginobili, who hit a go-ahead layup and was defending Carter on the winning shot. "Nothing is going to help if we don't make it help. Things are not going to just change because we were one, they were eight or things like that. We've got to go for it and play better."
Nowitzki isn't playing poorly. He's just deferring to teammates because the Spurs won't leave him open on the 3-point line or give him much room to operate from inside the arc either.
As a result, guards Ellis, Jose Calderon and Devin Harris have taken turns with dominant stretches. And journeyman center Samuel Dalembert offset the first career playoff double-double from San Antonio's Tiago Splitter with a bundle of energy, not to mention 13 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks.
After shooting 33 percent through the first two games, Nowitzki had his series high with 18 points in Game 3 on 7-of-13 shooting with seven rebounds, three assists and two steals.
"I think him just being on the floor still makes us better, even when he's not making shots," Ellis said. "Because teams still respect him, he's still a threat on the floor, so it really still opens up a lot."
Tony Parker and Duncan did their usual tag-team work to build an early San Antonio lead, combining for 20 of the team's 34 first-quarter points. Parker had 17 at halftime and six assists, then just two points and no assists after that.
"He looked pretty tired in Game 3," Harris said. "Obviously he exerted himself pretty much in the first half but we've got to continue to try to make him grind for his points as well as guard us on the other end. And I think so far we've done a good job of that."
Of course, the conversation would be entirely different without Carter's unlikely 3.
"They're going to come out and probably hit us with everything," the 16-year veteran said. "We can't get comfortable."
Follow Schuyler Dixon on Twitter at https://twitter.com/apschuyler
Updated April 27, 2014