This was not a choke job, it was a Mavericks team seizing it's opportunity to tighten the boot on the Lakers' throat and getting one step closer to advancing to it's first Western Conference Finals trip since the ill-fated 2006 season.
The catalyst as always was Dirk Nowitzki. Dirk continued his stellar play this series torching the Lakers for 32 points on 12/19 shooting. He was deadly from beyond the arc going 4/5 from three point range and unveiled a breathtaking lefty hook shot as the Mavs clawed back in the fourth quarter.
The bench play of the Mavericks continued it's magnificent play, outscoring the Lakers 42-15. It was Jason Terry leading the way with 23 points on 7/10 shooting. Terry drilled a three with two minutes left in the game to give the Mavericks the lead for good. But it was Peja Stojakovic who put them in position for the furious comeback. After appearing ice cold through the first three quarters, Peja found his touch in the fourth. Stojakovic ignited the comeback by draining a three to start the fourth and followed it up with another jumpshot to get the Mavs within three with ten minutes to go. The Lakers pushed their lead back up to eight and Peja answered with two more threes on his way to an 11 point fourth quarter. It's been all about bench play this series and it has to kill the Lakers to see JJ Barea and Peja Stojakovic beat them in the fourth quarter. Oh yeah, and his defense was pretty good too. Stojakovic played brilliant defense on Lamar Odom down the stretch and got a pivotal defensive rebound for the Mavericks to essentially seal the win with a minute left.
Without Ron Artest, the Lakers started the game with Lamar Odom at the small forward. They pounded it inside and as a result, Andrew Bynum finished with 21 points on 9/16 shooting. That was expected. What was not expected was the Mavericks outrebounding the Lakers 39-37 despite their enormous size advantage. I would have been shocked if the Mavericks won the rebounding in any game this series, but to win it tonight is a testament to the Mavericks will.
They want it more.
And the Lakers appear to be unraveling. Phil Jackson was demonstrative on the court during the game with his vitriol aimed toward struggling superstar Pau Gasol. He knows. Despite Bryant's proclamation that the Lakers will still win this series, he knows too. They're in denial, but they know. The window is closing.
And it's the Mavericks with the opportunity to slam it shut.
Game four is Sunday at 2:30.