They lost the season-long battle for home-court advantage. They blew a 3-1 series lead in the Western Conference semifinals and watched a 20-point lead in Game 7 dry up, too.
Then, just as another opportunity was getting away, Nowitzki slashed to the basket for the game-tying layup and free throw in the final seconds of regulation. Then he made a game-saving block at the other end.
Five minutes later, Nowitzki and the Mavericks had finished off the Spurs with a 119-111 overtime victory Monday night.
"I told Dirk, 'Did you see that? It just ran out of the door,' " Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said. "The monkey that's been on our back for so long, it's gone."
Not just shaken off the Mavericks' backs, but kicked off with a resounding blow that Dallas had failed to deliver in the previous two games.
"This is a testament to our perseverance," said Mavericks guard Jason Terry, who scored 27 points in his return from his Game 6 suspension, which he served after punching former Dallas teammate Michael Finley below the belt.
"We showed a lot of character."
What the Mavericks really showed was that they could put away a championship-caliber team.
"It was a special series," Nowitzki said after scoring 37 points. "We just believed it was our time to win it."
Tim Duncan scored 41 to lead San Antonio.
Dallas advanced to the Western Conference finals for second time in four years, but with almost an entirely new team. Nowitzki is the only remaining starter from the team that was eliminated by the Spurs in 2003.
"We battled against a championship team, a team with a lot of guts," Dallas coach Avery Johnson said. "Now we haven't won the championship, but how about those Mavs?"
The Spurs won a franchise-record 63 games, grabbed the West's top seed and were thinking this would finally be the year they repeated as champions. Instead, they'll have to try again next year to add to the titles they won in 1999, '03 and '05.
The Mavericks nearly kept pace. They won 60 games in a regular season that was only a hint of their superb meeting in the playoffs.
"This is the best series I've ever played," Duncan said. "Both teams gave it their all."
The tight games and taught emotions boiled over with Terry punching Finley, and the volatile Cuban admitting to The Dallas Morning News before the final game that he had cursed the Spurs' Bruce Bowen after Game 6.
The Mavericks built their 20-point lead early by spreading the floor and getting to the rim, only to watch San Antonio change the pace and rally with defense and Duncan.
Nowitzki blew past Duncan for a soft dunk for the first basket and the Mavericks blistered the Spurs with 15-of-18 shooting for 37 points in the opening quarter.
The Spurs changed the pace in the second half by pushing the ball to Duncan, who had his fifth game of the series with at least 30 points compared to just twice during the regular season.
"He's unbelievable and unguardable," Nowitzki said. "He was amazing all series. We never could find and answer for him."
Duncan's free throws and layup cut the Mavericks' lead to 84-82 as the home crowd chanted "M-V-P!" The Spurs hit 33 of 39 free throws in the game. Duncan was 17-of-23.
"The first half was the worst half of basketball we've played all season," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. "We dug down and gave ourselves a chance to win."
The Spurs, who trailed almost the entire game, led 104-101 on Manu Ginobili's 3-pointer with 32 seconds left in regulation. Nowitzki then drove around Bowen, who blocked his potential game-winner in Game 5, for a layup and was fouled by Ginobili at the basket.
The 7-foot German, who finished third in the MVP voting in the regular season, hit the free throw to tie it with 21 seconds remaining.
"He willed it to the basket," Mavericks guard Jerry Stackhouse said. "Everybody did something special in this game. It was great to have [Terry] back in the lineup. He came up big."
The Spurs had a chance to win it in regulation. Ginobili drove the basket with about six seconds left. His shot missed, Duncan grabbed the rebound and Nowitzki got a hand in to block what would have been a point-blank game-winner.
It was a redeeming final few seconds for Nowitzki, who had the ball in his hands in Dallas' three losses with a chance to win or tie it in the final seconds.
"I saw everything slipping away, the great season we had," Nowitzki said. "If there's a drive to the lane, just take it in there."
Dallas opened overtime with baskets by Josh Howard and Stackhouse, and Terry's two free throws quickly pushed the lead to 114-108.
Howard, who scored 18 points, became the third Dallas player to foul out in overtime. But after their furious rally to take the lead, only to watch it disappear in the final seconds of regulation, the Spurs had little left in overtime.
Duncan missed three close shots and DeSagana Diop, in the game late because of Dallas' foul troubles, came up with two key rebounds on both ends of the court to help preserve the win.
Finley missed two long 3-pointers in the final seconds as Spurs fans started leaving the building.
"We put ourselves in a position to win the game," Duncan said. "We fought all the way back and in overtime we didn't have much left in the tank."
This was the first time the Mavs ousted a No. 1 seed. They had been 0-7. ... It also was the first time Dallas got past San Antonio in the playoffs, having lost in the '03 conference finals and the second round in '01. ... Nowitzki finished the series
1-for-7 on 3-pointers. He took only one in the final game and missed ... After sitting in Game 6, Terry hit his first six shots before he was blocked on a layup by Duncan.