SAN ANTONIO, May 22 (Ticker) -- Dirk Nowitzki put his head down and went hard to the basket, driving the Dallas Mavericks past the resilient San Antonio Spurs and into the Western Conference finals.

Nowitzki's season-saving three-point play forced overtime, where the Mavericks finally found a solution for Tim Duncan and surged to a 119-111 victory over the Spurs in a fitting Game 7 of a fantastic conference semifinal series.

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Now 4-0 in Game 7s, Nowitzki had 37 points and 15 rebounds for the fourth-seeded Mavericks, who ended the championship reign of the top-seeded Spurs and reached the conference finals for the third time in franchise history. They host the second-seeded Phoenix Suns on Wednesday.

"We believed it was our time to win this," Nowitzki said.

Dallas narrowly avoided the specter of a catastrophic collapse. After squandering a 3-1 series lead, the Mavericks blew a 20-point second-quarter lead and were one miss away from yet another setback to their Texas-sized nemesis.

Instead, the Mavericks became the 18th team to win Game 7 on the road as they showed the mental toughness that has made the Spurs champions. They denied San Antonio the chance to become the ninth team - and second during this postseason - to overcome a 3-1 deficit.

"They did a great job," said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, whose team has yet to reach the conference finals in defending its three NBA titles. "They obviously deserve to move on. It's a disappointing loss for us. It's impressive what Dallas has done. I wish them the best."

"Now we haven't won the championship, but how about those Mavs," beamed Spurs coach Avery Johnson.

Wilting under the demands of defending Duncan - who had a playoff career-high 41 points, 15 rebounds and six assists - the Mavericks faced their first deficit at a terrible time.

Duncan passed out of a double-team to Manu Ginobili, whose 3-pointer gave the Spurs a 104-101 lead with 32 seconds remaining in regulation and brought a roar from the crowd at the AT&T Center, who sensed the completion of a historic comeback.

Nowitzki had other ideas. Instead of settling for one of his patented jumpers - as he did at the end of Game 6 - the 7-footer overpowered a smaller defender on his way to the basket and dropped in a layup while drawing a hard foul from Ginobili. His free throw tied it with 21 seconds to go.

"We had a similar situation in Game 6," Nowitzki said. "We didn't have a lot of time left, I forced a three and the game was over. This time, I had a clear shot to the basket and a lot of time left. I don't know how the ball went in. Manu hit my hand. It was a lucky bounce."

Ginobili and Duncan missed in the final seconds of regulation, and the Spurs never led again. In overtime, they repeatedly went to Duncan, who had put practically the entire Mavericks' roster in foul trouble but could not solve backup center DeSagana Diop.

Duncan made 12-of-24 shots and 17-of-23 free throws, fouling out Erick Dampier and Keith Van Horn in the process. But in overtime against Diop - an inexperienced fourth-year center- he was just 1-of-7, perhaps giving into the fatigue of carrying his team.

"We put ourselves in position to win the game," Duncan said. "We fought all the way back in overtime and we didn't have much left in the tank."

Diop even gave the Mavericks the lead for good at 108-106 on a dunk with 3:32 to play. He "pulled the chair" and got Duncan to travel before Jerry Stackhouse made a jumper.

Ginobili and Jason Terry traded a pair of free throws before Diop contested a lane jumper by Duncan and Stackhouse made a tough pull-up from the baseline for a 114-108 lead at the 1:48 mark.

"We just didn't play as sharp in the overtime as we did during when we were making our comeback," Ginobili said. "They hit a couple of great shots down the stretch."

Duncan made a driving hook but could not get another one to drop with 50 seconds to go. Diop sealed matters by rebounding a miss by Terry and splitting a pair from the line for a 115-110 lead with 22 seconds remaining.

"Tim missed some shots that he usually makes at the end of games and I was trying to make him work hard on the offensive end," said Diop, who had started the first six games of the series. "We'll take the shots he missed and be happy with it."

Terry returned from a one-game suspension to score 27 points. Josh Howard added 18 before fouling out and Stackhouse contributed 13 for the Mavericks, who cooled after a blistering start but still shot 52 percent (42-of-81).

"Basketball is a game of mistakes and I made a big one (in getting suspended) the other night," Terry said. "But we showed a lot of character. We didn't let our heads hang down wondering about what could have been."

Tony Parker scored 24 points and Ginobili added 23 for the Spurs, who shot 47 percent (36-of-76) and stayed in the game by making 33-of-39 free throws.

It was the ninth overtime game of the 2006 postseason, setting a record with two full rounds remaining. This series featured two OT games and four others decided by a combined nine points. Fingered as a flaw in the playoff seeding system, the matchup instead became an unforgettable classic.

"This has been an amazing series," Nowitzki said. "Every game but Game 2 was a battle. A couple of plays here and there and the games go either way. This was a special series."

"This is the best series I've ever played (in)," Duncan said. "Both teams gave their all. It went down to the wire, it was about the ball and whether the ball bounced one way or another and the result is just how it bounced."

Game 7 did not start in memorable fashion. Instead of staring down the Spurs, the Mavericks fixed their gaze on the rim, shooting nearly 70 percent (25-of-36) and opening a 64-50 halftime lead as Terry scored 17 points.

In the third quarter, Duncan rallied the Spurs with 13 points, including a three-point play that cut the deficit to 74-70 with 4:26 to go.

"He's unbelievable and unguardable," Nowitzki said. "He was amazing all series. We could never find an answer for him."

Two free throws and a jumper by Nowitzki rebuilt the lead to 93-84 with 8:30 left, but Ginobili scored nine straight points for the Spurs, shaving the margin to 96-93 with 4:11 to go.

Nowitzki moved onto Duncan but was helpless. Duncan made a follow shot and a spinning layup before finding former Maverick Michael Finley for a 3-pointer that pulled San Antonio within 101-100 with 1:43 to go.

"I would hope that if we had won three championships and that we were playing an up and coming team, I would hope that we would do the same thing," Johnson said. "But we are still a young team."