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DIRK'S STATUS CRUCIAL FOR MAVS

Dirk Nowitzki's knee injury is not as bad as the Mavericks feared, although Dallas listed him as doubtful for tonight's Game Four against the San Antonio Spurs (8:30, TNT).

An MRI showed a sprain to the ligaments that hold the left kneecap in place, but there was no other structural damage, the Mavericks said.

"With an injury like this the typical recovery time is 10-14 days," Mavericks team physician Dr. T.O. Souryal said Saturday. "However, Dirk is an amazing athlete and with 24-hour treatment that we have already implemented, we hope he may be able to return to the court during this series."

Nowitzki's knee buckled inward when he collided with San Antonio's Manu Ginobili during the fourth quarter of Game Three on Friday night. The Spurs won, 96-83, to take a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven Western Conference finals.

"Well, it's great news. I think I was lucky," Nowitzki said. "I think it could have been a lot worse after seeing the replay last night.

"Basically what happened last night is that I've never had a knee injury before and I was just in shock. I had pain and I didn't know what to do. I couldn't move it. Already last night it started feeling better, and this morning I could walk around, so it's a lot better than I thought at first."

There was other injury news for the Mavs, and it was not good.

An MRI performed on Shawn Bradley's right knee showed a sprained medial collateral ligament, and the Mavs said he would be out indefinitely. Also, third-string center Evan Eschmeyer said a loose piece of cartilage in his left knee will likely prevent him from playing in the postseason.

That means Dallas might have to go into Game Four with only nine players in uniform. Raef LaFrentz, Eduardo Najera and Adrian Griffin would be the only big men available to defend San Antonio's Tim Duncan, David Robinson and Malik Rose.

"We're going to put Steve Nash on him one-on-one in the low post -- see how good Duncan really is, Mr. MVP," Nelson joked at Dallas' practice before the results of Nowitzki's MRI were known.

Nowitzki's status will remain the No. 1 question right up until the start of Game Four.

"I will not play Dirk Nowitzki if his knee is not perfect," Nelson said.

If Nowitzki sits out, the Mavericks will probably try to win it with something out of the nether reaches of Nelson's brain. Maybe they'll try to score 140 points. Maybe they'll shoot 50 three-pointers.

But to the Spurs, none of what Dallas does matters. And they mean it when they say that. San Antonio's preferred mode of preparation is almost entirely self-centered.

"We spend less time getting ready for other teams than any team I've been on. I was totally the opposite when I was a head coach," said P.J. Carlesimo, Popovich's assistant.

What worked for the Spurs on offense in Game Three was the usual -- Duncan's 34 points and 24 rebounds -- mixed in with something relatively new -- Tony Parker scoring 29 points in a dazzling mixture of quick drives to the basket and feathery jumpers that Nash could not contend with.

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