The San Antonio Spurs spend Thursday night inching their way toward milestones, including the clinching of a playoff berth. The Dallas Mavericks spent the night inches away from achievement, their hopes to stride nearer the postseason bouncing off the rim with two seconds remaining to saddle them with an all-too-familiar 92-91 loss.
For the Dallas Mavericks, this marks the fourth loss of the season to a Spurs team that is capable of dominance even without injured point guard Tony Parker. The season sweep is the first in this highly competitive series since 1998, when Tim Duncan -- still going strong on Thursday with 28 points and 19 rebounds -- was a rookie.
"Tim played well,'' Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. "But overall, they played better than us. More physical, more aggressive ... we continued playing in mud. ... We're really fortunate to win this game.''
There is, of course, a bigger-picture meaning for the Mavs, who -- despite that San Antonio "mud'' -- see their four-game winning streak snapped. Dallas is 30-34 and trying to gain ground on the eight-place-holding Lakers, who have a three-game lead for that final West playoff slot.
And the opportunity was there.
The Mavericks pulled to within 92-91 thanks to a 7-0 run punctuated by Dirk Nowitzki's patented One-Legged Euro Lean-Back with 28.2 seconds left. After Dallas got one of its many clutch fourth-quarter stops when Manu Ginobili missed a jumper, the Mavs were set up for a game-winner.
But such situations have not been Dallas' forte this season. And indeed, it appeared there was some confusion as the ball was inbounded on the perimeter to Vince Carter. (Dirk said he didn't provide enough spacing.) So despite being guarded by the bigger Tiago Splitter, Vince couldn't get the ball to Dirk (who had 21 points and 11 rebounds) and didn't drive, instead missing an off-balance 3 at the buzzer.
""It looked good and felt good,'' said Carter, who scored 10 points and along with Darren Collison and O.J. Mayo (12 apiece) and Mike James and Brandan Wright (10 each) was among the six Mavs in double-figures. "We're playing for so much, I need it to go in."
But really, it wasn't a good shot -- not one to match the effort given here. Dallas can lament a couple of goofy decisions (Chris Kaman's clumsy work on the break and Mayo's jumper with a 3-on-1 fast-break advantage among them). Dallas can lament a rebounding deficit of 49-35. And Dallas can lament the absence of ace defender Shawn Marion, who missed yet another game amid concerns that his calf injury may be serious.
But the good news to come of is Dallas' push against the seemingly impossible; it's something for Mavs watchers to root for.
Oh, and the Mavs now play eight of their next nine at home. That's fuel for rooting, too.
And yet it's certainly not on the level with what Spurs fans get to enjoy. San Antonio is succeeding with spare parts like Gary Neal (16 points) and Kawhi Leonard (12 points) supplementing the work of Duncan and Manu, and it all adds up to the Spurs owning the Western Conference's top record at 50-16 -- the 50th win clinching them a playoff berth.
Two different teams. At two different places. Inches away from vastly different milestones.