Mavericks 3, Spurs 1. The End is Near.

Let's say that before tip-off of Game 1 I gave you these crystal ball visions about the Spurs-Mavs series:

*San Antonio's Tony Parker will skip down Dallas' lane at will, averaging 29 points including games of 38 and 43.

*Dallas' Dirk Nowitzki will be held 10 points under his season scoring average, Jason Terry eight under his and Jason Kidd almost four assists fewer.

*Entering Game 5 the series will be 3-1.

Guaranteed you would've bet me a week's worth of Swine Flu vaccine that it would be the Spurs' lead. And, of course, you'd be dead wrong.

Two reasons:

1. The Spurs are older, slower and worse than we thought.

2. Josh Howard.

NBA teams have rallied to win a series from down 3-1 eight times, but this one's over. Right?

Give the Mavs credit.

Coach Rick Carlisle's flexibility to pair Kidd with J.J. Barea is something Avery Johnson would've never considered. The Mavs - so reliant upon Dirk during the regular season - have found ways to win without him. They were 6-14 when he scored 20 or less. In the playoffs, they're 3-1.

Role players Erick Dampier, Antoine Wright, Brandon Bass and, in last Saturday's Game 4, even Ryan Hollins have swamped San Antonio's backups.

(I boldly predicted Hollins would have a positive impact on the series. It took until the second half of Game 4, but his length, athleticism and naive zest troubled Tim Duncan to the tune of eight rebounds, three blocks, one thunderous follow dunk and one ridiculous taunting technical.)

But also give credit to the Spurs simply sucking.

San Antonio players not named Parker or Duncan combined to miss 22 of 28 shots Saturday. And what of Gregg Popovich? With his team down only five points and three minutes remaining in Game 4, the Spurs came out of timeout and ran a set play for ... Matt Bonner?

For a change, it's nice to see the Mavericks' opponent shrink into a passive, jump-shooting team down the stretch. Inexplicably, the Spurs' final eight shots were 3-pointers.

It's also refreshing - for a change - to see the old Josh Howard.

Granted it's hardly a fair fight with the Spurs missing Manu Ginobli, but Howard has been this series' second-best player behind Parker. And its most gutsy. He's noticeably limping on that bothersome left ankle that will require post-season surgery, but all the while slashing to the hoop.

He got to the free-throw line 13 times in Game 4, helping dig Dallas out of halftime hole with 28 inspired points. While Terry missed 14 of 17 shots - a performance worthy of Sick Man of the Year? - Howard was consistently brilliant. A far cry from one year ago when - after Dallas lost to New Orleans in Game 4 to go down 3-1 - he passed out fliers to his birthday party in the post-game locker room.

I've been rough on Howard, but although his ankle is gimpy, looks like his head is finally screwed back on straight.

His birthday is Tuesday night. This time he just might throw a party right on San Antonio's court.

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