SAN ANTONIO -- Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks squandered every opportunity they had to finally overtake the San Antonio Spurs -- except the last one.
They lost the season-long battle for home-court advantage. They squandered a 3-1 series lead in the Western Conference semifinals and watched a 20-point lead in Game 7 dry up as well.
Then, just as another opportunity was getting away, Nowitzki slashed to the basket for the game-tying layup and free throw in the final seconds of regulation. Then he made a game-saving block at the other end.
Five minutes later, Nowitzki and the Mavericks had finished off the Spurs with a 119-111 overtime victory last night.
``I told Dirk, `Did you see that? It just ran out of the door,' " Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said. ``The monkey that's been on our back for so long, it's gone."
Not just shaken off the Mavericks' backs, but kicked off with a resounding blow that Dallas had failed to deliver in the previous two games.
``This is a testament to our perseverance," said Mavericks guard Jason Terry, who came back from his Game 6 suspension for punching former Maverick Michael Finely below the belt to score 27 points.
What they really showed was they could put away a championship-caliber team.
``It was a special series," Nowitzki said after scoring 37 points. ``We just believed it was our time to win it."
Tim Duncan scored 41 to lead San Antonio.
Dallas advanced to the Western Conference finals for second time in four years, but with almost an entirely new team. Nowitzki is the only remaining starter from the team that was eliminated by the Spurs in 2003.
``We battled against a championship team, a team with a lot of guts," Dallas coach Avery Johnson said. ``Now we haven't won the championship, but how about those Mavs?"
The Mavericks have never made it to the NBA Finals, but they'll go into the next round as the favorites against the Phoenix Suns, who eliminated the Los Angeles Clippers in another Game 7 last night.
The Spurs won a franchise-record 63 games, grabbed the West's top seed and were thinking this would finally be the year they repeated as champions. Instead, they'll have to try again next year to add to the titles they won in 1999, '03, and '05.
The Mavericks nearly kept pace. They won 60 games in a regular season that was only a hint of their superb meeting in the playoffs.
The tight games and taught emotions boiled over with Terry punching Finley, and the volatile Cuban admitting to the Dallas Morning News before the final that he cursed the Spurs' Bruce Bowen after Game 6.
The Mavericks built their 20-point lead early by spreading the floor and getting to the rim, only to watch San Antonio change the pace and rally with defense and Duncan.
Nowitzki blew past Duncan for a soft dunk for the first basket and the Mavericks blistered the Spurs with 15-of-18 shooting for 37 points in the opening quarter.