Dirk leads Mavs where they want to go

DALLAS -- Phil Jackson uttered one raspy word, and only one, to describe Dirk Nowitzki's dominance in this stunning semifinal series.

"Great," he said, adding exclamation with an affirming nod.

Really, what else can be said? The Los Angeles Lakers played with desperation and at times were even in control of Game 3, leading 79-71 with 9:29 to play and 87-81 with 4:43 left. But again, they had no answers for Nowitzki, as he escaped double-teams with patience and poise and buried four of five high-archers from beyond the arc. He capped his third 30-point effort of the postseason with a hard drive to the left, a jump-stop, then pump-faked followed by an off-balance lefty hook around Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, off glass.

"I've been watching him for five years," said J.J. Barea, "and I've never seen the lefty hook."

Tyson Chandler remarked, "Man, he's unbelievable. I thought I had seen it all until he pulled off that left-handed jump hook."

It put the Dallas Mavericks ahead by two with 1:23 to play, flip-flopping the lead for a fourth and final time in an 83-second span. Part of a definitive 9-2 run, the Dallas defense then finished the job on a 98-92 victory that moved the Mavs to an improbable 3-0 series lead in front of a record American Airlines Center crowd of 21,156 believers.

Nowitzki finished with 32 points on another efficient night of 12-of-19 shooting, with nine rebounds. The greatest Dallas Maverick of all time and arguably still the most underappreciated superstar over the past decade is on a redemption tour at the expense of a disappearing Kobe Bryant and the two-time defending champion Lakers.

He outscored Bryant again in the fourth quarter, 9-4, making three of four baskets. Defensively, he again flustered Gasol, who had three points in the fourth and just 12 overall as his miserable series going head-to-head with Nowitzki continued.

"His attitude and his will to win was amazing tonight," Barea said. "He's talking [on the floor] like I've never seen him talk."

Dallas will go for the sweep Sunday afternoon on its home floor and a berth in the Western Conference finals for the first time since 2006.

"Dirk Nowitzki made it happen. Just about everything that happened down the stretch was a direct result of either him scoring the ball or him making a play to get somebody a shot or make the pass for an assist," said Mavs coach Rick Carlisle, who moments later left no doubt of the destination this rolling train hopes to reach.

"He's one of the all-time greats, there's no question about that," Carlisle said. "But, you know, we're going for the ring. That's the one thing he hasn't done in his career."

After Game 3, Nowitzki took the dais in typical fashion, his hair still wet as he periodically patted it down. Wearing a dress shirt, he removed the NBA-TV microphone from its stand, gripped it with his right hand and folded his arms. He leaned back in the chair and opened the floor for questions.

The opening question: Are you playing your best basketball?

Nowitzki's response was predictable: "As a team?"

The Mavs' lone All-Star, averaging better than 27 points in the playoffs and killing the Lakers with better than 52 percent shooting, has never been about himself, and as tremendous as Nowitzki is playing, neither is this run from a cast of hungry, ring-less veterans.

Despite falling in love with jump shots -- taking 29 -- and bouts of sloppiness -- 14 turnovers -- the Mavs persevered through 3½ quarters and then seized the victory with crunch-time defense that spurred offensive execution.

Jason Terry continued his own eradication of postseason demons. He scored 23 points and hit a critical go-ahead 3-pointer with 2:01 left. Peja Stojakovic shrugged off a miserable first-half shooting performance with 11 fourth-quarter points that included three 3-pointers, and then forced Lamar Odom into a difficult shot and miss with the Lakers down two and 1:02 to go.

Chandler continued to hold his own battling Bynum. Jason Kidd had a horrible shooting night, yet in the end frustrated Bryant with suffocating defense that induced Bryant to throw a pass off Gasol's back and take long jumpers that didn't have a prayer -- even for Bryant.

Nowitzki reflected back to the Game 4 collapse at Portland as the impetus for this amazing show of fourth-quarter force in all three games. Killer instinct? The Mavs have outscored the Lakers 82-55 in the three fourth quarters, including 32-20 in Game 3.

"We're a bunch of veterans that came together in the playoffs and trying to reach our goals," Nowitzki said. "It's great. We've played some good basketball on both ends of the floor."

The Lakers will come to the AAC on Sunday afternoon for Game 4. Bryant said he might be crazy, but he expects the Lakers to win the game and eventually the series in seven.

Nowitzki, with so many tortured postseason memories, surely hasn't forgotten 2003, when the Portland Trail Blazers rallied from a 3-0 hole to take the first-round series to a seventh game in Dallas that the Mavs eventually won.

But those were the old Mavs. So, too, were the Mavs in Portland in Game 4 just two weeks ago. It feels like a lifetime.

"We're playing against the best, they're the two-time defending champs, and if you want to beat the best you have to bring your best," Nowitzki said. "We're all coming together and playing at a higher level than we did in the regular season. That's what the playoffs are all about."

Jeff Caplan covers the Mavericks for ESPNDallas.com.