The Dallas Mavericks won't win the NBA's Southwest Division championship. But last Friday night in San Antonio they earned something more precious: confidence. With a 92-86 victory over the Spurs, the Mavs proved they can win playoff-intensity road games against the league's defending champion. And that will be important a month from now, when, in the second round, the Mavs and Spurs hook up in a seven-game series that likely will determine this year's NBA champ.

Because of the league's flawed seeding system, the Western Conference's first and fourt seeds will meet in the second round, the conference semifinals. With only six games remaining, the Spurs seemingly have the Southwest Division locked up. But after Friday's showing--only San Antonio's sixth loss at home this season--the Spurs and the Mavs appear to realize the NBA trophy is truly up for grabs. The Mavs, who won in San Antonio for the first time in more than three years, will have to win another game on that court to beat the Spurs in a series. And now, thanks to Most Valuable Player candidate Dirk Nowitzki, they know they can.

Friday's game felt like a coronation for Nowitzki, who exorcized his Bruce Bowen demon in a 30-point, 10-rebound performance. A month ago, Bowen harassed Dirk into six-of-15 shooting. But Friday Nowitzki played much more aggressively and physically, rendering the smaller Bowen a gnat instead of a stopper. Said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, "That was an MVP-type performance. We couldn't stop Dirk." Because of the game, there's now a realistic chance the Spurs coach will bemoan similar failures a month from now. --Richie Whitt

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