Nowitzki-less Mavs sink or swim with 'Fin'

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DALLAS -- Used to be that the Big Three in Big D, or the Big Four as they're now known, amounted to a Big One. Michael Finley was once Don Nelson's one and only fearsome scorer, and the bombers who flank Finley today have not forgotten.

Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki insist that Finley, who began these playoffs as the Dallas Mavericks' fourth offensive option, gets introduced last during the pre-game pyrotechnics. They insist that Finley still gets the Face O' The Franchise treatment, just like Shaq or T-Mac.

"He's still the leader around here," Nowitzki said.

If not vocally -- Avery Johnson and Nick Van Exel do the loudest talking -- it's true in stature, and Finley can obviously still play a little, too. Nowitzki could not play in Game 5 because of a sprained knee, so ol' No. 4 made it a throwback night, hearkening to the days when Finley was the Mavericks' only hope. He scored 31 points. He clamped down on the other team's point guard in the fourth quarter, switching onto Tony Parker after long stretches of guarding Malik Rose. Finley basically rescued the Mavericks from hopelessness, from 19 points down in an elimination game on the road, and stands as one of the reasons Dallas believes it can make it through one more game without Nowitzki ... even though the bet here remains that Nowitzki will be back for Thursday's Game 6.

"Typical Mike," said Mavericks assistant coach Donnie Nelson. "He's saved this franchise so many times."

The dynamics, though, couldn't be more atypical. In today's NBA? If you're looking for reasons to explain why the Mavericks are still playing in these playoffs, reasons beyond the obvious, those pre-game intros are a handy exhibit. They illustrate the selflessness that has carried Dallas as much as its free-wheeling offense.

The obvious part is that Dallas has a luxury seen nowhere else outside Sacramento, with a Finley to unfurl -- along with Nash and Van Exel -- to make up for Nowitzki's lost production. The underpublicized element is the Mavericks' chemistry. They just might be the NBA's chemistry champions, no matter what happens for the rest of this series, given how famously these four current and former All-Stars co-exist.

Finley scales his game back every year to allow Nowitzki and Nash to keep expanding their games. Nowitzki and Nash thus became perennial All-Stars, leaving no room for Finley on the West squad but prompting Finley's pals to make sure everyone knew who they consider the prodigal Mav, with "Fin 4" scrawled on their sneakers in Atlanta. All of them, meanwhile, readily sacrifice touches and shots in the playoffs so sixth man Van Exel can play like Vinnie Johnson instead of Avery Johnson, as described by Avery himself.

"Would we have won the Portland series without Nick?" Finley asked. "I was probably hurting us."

That's all changed now, which only adds to the good chemistry. Finley has begun to look like "the old Fin," in Nelson's words, after a hamstring injury knocked the 30-year-old out for 13 games late in the regular season.

Finley's extended absence probably cost Dallas home-court advantage in the Game 7 it hopes to force by winning Game 6 at home. Yet Nelson, trying to seize on the good of that setback, suggests now that the layoff has Finley feeling "as fresh as anybody" in this series.

By his own estimation, Finley believes he has been playing at his customary level since Game 6 of the Portland series. The numbers certainly back it up: Finley, in the past 10 games, is averaging 21.3 points on 46-percent shooting -- 43 percent from three-point range. Maybe more telling, Finley has attempted almost as many free throws in that span (45) as threes (58), after years of being rapped for not driving the ball enough.

Ballhandling is still a weak spot -- one the Mavericks are again urging Finley to work on harder this off-season -- but it was significant, at least to long-time Mavs watchers, that Finley scored the winning bucket in Game 1 on a drive. Game 5 wasn't bad, either, with eight rebounds and five steals to go with the 31 points.

"I still consider myself to be a big scorer," Finley said. "I just don't do it as often as some people may expect me to do it. We have a lot of scorers, so the ball can be distributed more offensively. It's not all about me right now."

True enough. It's mostly about Nowitzki, and whether the German will indeed play after nearly a week to recuperate. Cleared by team doctors, Nowitzki still feels trepidation as he attempts to recover from the first knee injury of his career. One of Nowitzki's favorite warm-up routines -- exaggerated knee bends while practicing his jumper -- is still causing pain. Which raises the possibility Nowitzki would sit out one more game and pray for a deciding seventh, even though he says his lateral movement is fine.

It's also about the Spurs' inability to close teams out, although it bears reminding that San Antonio blitzed the Lakers in Game 6 after a similar collapse at home in Game 5 against L.A. "For whatever reason," Nelson said, "they don't squander leads on the road like they do at home."

Yet in the end, it could be about Finley again if Nowitzki can't go, like Tuesday night in San Antonio. Like old times, when Nelson's refusal to take him out of games led to Finley becoming a perennial league leader in minutes played, Finley is averaging 46 minutes over the past 10 playoff games. He's also benefiting from the Mavericks' increased reliance on motion offense in this series -- a departure from Dallas' usual flurry of pick-and-roll calls, which usually shove him off to the weak side -- to counter the Spurs' aggressive perimeter defense.

Finley is no longer a $100 million player, having signed that contract two summers ago in a different economic climate, on the strength of his good service to the organization and before Nowitzki and Nash morphed into full-fledged All-Stars. Figure on the Spurs, nevertheless, to be tracking Finley closely in Game 6, with or without Nowitzki on the floor.

Game 5, after all, was a reminder than Finley can still play like the guy who gets introduced last.

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here. Also, send Stein a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.