Dirk's no longer in this alone

When Rick Carlisle drew up the winning play against the San Antonio Spurs in Game 3 of this Western Conference quarterfinal, Dirk Nowitzki wasn't the first option.

Or the second.

Monta Ellis and Vince Carter occupied those spots, an indication of some much-needed progress in the Dallas Mavericks' never-ending quest to relieve Dirk of his burden to be this team's everything.

While Dirk remains the Mavs' best player, he has more quality help than he's had in years, as evidenced by Carlisle's play selection Saturday night.

When the Spurs took away Ellis, option No. 1, the ball went to Carter, option No. 2. Carter delivered the buzzer-beating 3 from the left corner that has given the Mavs a tenuous 2-1 series lead heading into Game 4 on Monday at American Airlines Center.

We've moaned and groaned for years about the inability of owner Mark Cuban and general manager Donnie Nelson to get Dirk some legitimate help, so he doesn't have to do everything.

It's the reason the Mavs chased Deron Williams two years ago and Dwight Howard last summer. It's just not smart to ask a 35-year-old dude to be the epicenter of the offense and take every big shot.

Well, the Mavs lead this series because players other than Dirk have been scoring. More important, Dirk is mature enough at this point of his career not to force the issue.

A few years ago, he might have felt compelled to force bad shots because he couldn't subjugate his ego. Hey, every NBA superstar has an ego. It's part of what makes them great.

He has failed to score 20 points in any of the first three games of this series; it's the first time that has happened since 2001. He has averaged just 15 points, while making 18 of 46 shots (39.1 percent).

This from a player who averaged 21.7 points -- 13th in the league -- during the season and shot nearly 50 percent from the field.

San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich has just decided Dirk isn't going to beat the Spurs.

That's why Tiago Splitter, the Spurs' 6-foot-11 center, never leaves Dirk on the pick-and-roll, which means he's not getting the open shots he usually does. And when Dirk ventures into the post, the Spurs have been regularly sending Kawhi Leonard to double-team him and force the ball out of his hands or make him consider a contested shot.

And the 3-pointer has been just about eliminated from Dirk's offensive repertoire. He made 131 three-pointers -- the fourth-highest total of his career -- this season, but has made only one in this series. The Spurs have even taken away the trail 3-pointer from beyond the top of the key, one of Dirk's favorite shots.

"They're a great transition defense team," Carlisle said. "They've done a great job all year long limiting 3s by opponents. Dirk's a priority for them, the way [Tony] Parker, [Manu] Ginobili and [Tim] Duncan are priorities for us.

"They pay a lot of attention to him, and we have to keep working to find crevices to get him the ball. The best way to do that is to get stops and get in transition."

Dirk took only 14 shots in Game 1, making only four. He was more aggressive in Game 2 with 19 shots -- many with a hand in his face -- but made only seven.

So he opted not to force the issue in Game 3, which is why he took a series-low 13 shots. Dirk trusted his teammates, and they rewarded him.

Five Mavericks scored in double figures Saturday.

Jose Calderon had 16 points and nine assists. Samuel Dalembert added 13 points and 10 rebounds. And Ellis, who signed a three-year, $24 million deal in the offseason, contributed 29 points, scoring 12 points in the fourth quarter as the Mavs rallied from five down in the final two minutes.

"We all know the pick-and-roll is lot of the ways I score," Dirk said. "I can grind and post up some, which I do. I pick my sports because I don't want to grind all night long. I'm a little too old for that.

"I thought I was efficient the other day. I can't keep hoisting bad shots and battling and grinding all night long."

Dirk can continue to be patient and act, in some ways, as a facilitator because his teammates are picking up the scoring slack.

Devin Harris had 19 points and Brandan Wright 11 in Game 1. Harris scored 18 and Shawn Marion had 20 in Game 2.

Every game -- heck, every quarter -- it seems the Mavs are getting yet another good offensive performance from someone not named Dirk. Hey, Calderon had 10 points in the first quarter of Game 3.

"This roster is built around being able to keep the load on [Dirk] lighter than it has been in other years," Carlisle said. "Everybody on our team has to be a go-to guy, and everybody has to be ready to step into big shots. That lightens the load on one guy."

Dirk's cool with that. He's content to be the third option, as long as the Mavs keep winning.