The opportunity was there for the Dallas Mavericks to make a season-defining comeback.
Now they have to worry if Monta Ellis has suffered a season-defining injury.
Dallas was outscored 36-22 in the final 18 minutes of the game, as the San Antonio Spurs won 94-76 at the AT&T Center on Friday night to split the season series at 2-2. But the bigger story is the health of Ellis, who we all know has taken pride in not sitting in any of his last 237 games.
Ellis took a Manu Ginobili knee to the right calf midway through the third quarter as the Mavericks were making an improbable comeback. Down by 21 at one point in the first half, Dallas cut the lead to as little four points, 58-54, with just under seven minutes to go. Ellis checked out of the game with 6:43 left and the snowball began to roll for Dallas.
After opening the second half on a 13-4 run, the Spurs took advantage of the absence Ellis, the Mavericks' leading scorer. Dallas trailed 69-61 after a Danny Green 3-pointer before the buzzer, and the Spurs held Dallas to 15 fourth-quarter points as they pulled away.
The Mavericks got a big-time win on their home court Tuesday against the Spurs, a 101-94 thriller which saw Ellis tie his season-high with 38 points. But when Ellis went down, it clearly hurt the Mavericks. Dallas missed 16 of its final 24 shots and made only two shots in the first 5:32 of the fourth quarter, both being dunks from Tyson Chandler.
Dallas shot 37.8 percent collectively, and shot an abysmal 4-of-18 from 3-point range. Ellis and Chandler were Dallas' leading scorers with 10 points, and no other Maverick scored in double figures. Chandler Parsons was 4-of-11 for nine points and Dirk Nowitzki only totaled seven points on 3-of-9 from the floor.
Boris Diaw had a game-high 19 points in 26 minutes off the bench for the Spurs, who have now won nine regular season games in a row over the Mavs at AT&T Center.
The Mavericks are off again until Sunday when they travel to Indiana to take on the Indiana Pacers, who are one of the many teams fighting for the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. That's one reason why Dallas won't take Indiana lightly. Another would be the Pacers beat the Mavericks at the American Airlines Center on Nov. 24 behind 29 points from Donald Sloan and 13 3-pointers from the Pacers. A third is that many expect the game to be the return of Paul George after his gruesome leg injury last summer.
Barring a run of epic proportions, the Mavs may not be able to catch up with the Spurs or Los Angeles Clippers for the sixth and fifth spots in the Western Conference. They're now only 3.5 games up on the Oklahoma City Thunder for the eighth spot, and are now 1.5 games behind San Antonio for the sixth seed.
With five road games remaining, as opposed to only four home games, it's crunch time for the Mavs as the playoffs get closer.
Their main concern right now is they don't go through this stretch run without Ellis.