DeleteDALLAS (AP) — Dirk Nowitzki was a free agent last summer, unshackled from the Dallas Mavericks for the first time in his career. It was his chance to escape a franchise with a long track record of winning big in the regular season and losing painfully in the postseason.
The former MVP signed up for four more years because he wanted to turn around that reputation.
Just a week into the playoffs, the Mavs are in jeopardy of adding to it.
Dallas went to Portland with the chance to pull off a sweep, but returned home licking its wounds following one of the most humiliating losses of the NBA's shot-clock era. The Mavericks spit up a 23-point lead with 13 minutes left to lose Game 4 and knot the series at 2-2.
Game 5 is in Dallas tonight. A return trip to Portland is already set for Game 6 on Thursday night.
"Frustration is definitely at a high level," Nowitzki said. "There is a huge difference from being up 3-1 and 2-2. This is definitely up there with the most frustrating losses."
In Nowitzki's collection of most frustrating losses, nothing can top blowing a 13-point, fourth-quarter lead while up 2-0 in the 2006 NBA finals against the Miami Heat. This one is in the ballpark, though.
Up 2-0 for the first time since that infamous series, the Mavericks were halfway to only their second series win since then. They had the chance to sweep the Trail Blazers, or to return home with a chance to knock 'em out. By losing both games, this title-starved collection of veterans in their 30s guaranteed themselves at least two more games in a series that keeps getting more physical, plus another round-trip flight to the Pacific Northwest.
And, of course, the immediate concern is getting over what Jason Kidd called "one of the toughest losses I've ever been involved in."
"But we can still win the series, and that's where our focus has to be," Kidd said. "We have to stay together and get home and come out Monday with the same focus and intensity as we did today. Then we just have to finish."
The Mavs flew home after Game 4 on Saturday. They didn't practice Sunday.
The biggest thing going for them is that Game 5 is in Dallas, and so would a Game 7. The home team has won all four games this series — just like the home team won all four games during the regular-season series.
"Game 5 is the pivotal game," Blazers forward Gerald Wallace said. "The advantage is tilted their way because they're at home. But we've got the momentum on the court."
Portland's momentum includes a rejuvenated Brandon Roy.
Roy left Dallas wondering about his career and his role on the Blazers. He hardly played in Game 2 and didn't score. He was so low in the rotation that he said he was nearly in tears on the bench. He picked things up in Game 3, then was the star of Game 4, scoring 18 points in the series-shifting fourth quarter, including the winning basket in the final minute.
"He helped us in Game 3, and people doubted if he could do it again," Portland center Marcus Camby said. "He proved a lot of people wrong. He's got a lot of game left."
Maybe there's a lesson there for Dallas.
Roy said he regained his confidence and his shooting touch with the support of friends and family. He won the fans back with a few more jumpers. If the Mavericks can get the same kind of backing, maybe they can turn things back in their favor.
After all, they did dominate the first three quarters of Game 4. It's just the last one they need to clean up.
"We just have to stay positive," Nowitzki said. "Two out of three we're at home, where our crowd has really carried us, especially in the fourth quarter in the two wins that we got. This is going to sting; this is going to hurt, but we worked hard all through the regular season to get those two at home."
Dallas' sketchy playoff history includes a 2003 matchup against Portland that played out somewhat similarly to this series.
The Mavericks jumped ahead 3-0, then the Blazers won the next three. Game 7 was in Dallas and the Mavs pulled it out. Portland hasn't won a playoff series since; its drought actually stretches to 2000.
"As each game goes on, it becomes the biggest game of the series," Camby said. "Neither team has been able to win on the other team's home court. I know they're thinking the same thing. They don't want another collapse like they did in the finals against Miami."