LOS ANGELES — When Kobe Bryant drained a 3-pointer to put the Los Angeles Lakers up by 16 points in the second half, nobody would have been surprised if the Dallas Mavericks packed it in. After all, these perennial underachievers aren't exactly known for their playoff tenacity.
Their stirring comeback against the two-time defending champions showed that Dirk Nowitzki and his Mavs just might be capable of creating whole new reputations this spring.
Nowitzki scored 28 points and hit two go-ahead free throws with 19.5 seconds left, Jason Kidd forced a crucial turnover moments later, and the Mavericks escaped with a 96-94 victory in Game 1 on Monday night when Bryant missed two late chances to steal it back for the Lakers.
Jason Terry scored 15 points and Nowitzki had 14 rebounds for the Mavericks, who erased that huge third-quarter deficit before the dramatic finish to the perennial playoff teams' first postseason meeting in 23 years. The Mavericks trailed 92-87 with 3:32 to play, but finished on a 9-2 run.
"I thought we did a great job hanging in there," Nowitzki said. "It wasn't looking good, but we talked about in the huddle. Just stick with it, try to get some stops, don't turn the ball over, and get a shot up every time. Just at least give ourselves a chance to make it."
They made it, all right – but only when Bryant, who scored 21 of his 36 points in the second half, couldn't provide his usual late-game heroics.
"You've got to make plays, and you've got to dodge some bullets," Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said. "We did both."
After Nowitzki's free throws gave Dallas its first lead of the second half, Bryant fell down while trying to get past Kidd to collect the ball from Pau Gasol with 5 seconds to play. After one free throw by Kidd, Bryant missed a catch-and-shoot 3-pointer off the back rim just before the buzzer.
"I think they always had hope," Bryant said of the Mavs. "They're in the second round. They're here to play. I don't really see it as a big deal. We've got to improve."
Game 2 is Wednesday night at Staples Center.
Gasol had 15 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists for the second-seeded Lakers, who lost their second straight Game 1 after winning six straight openers over the previous two seasons. Their loss to New Orleans two weeks ago was much more surprising than this loss to the playoff-tested Mavs, but the Lakers' lack of poise down the stretch should be scary to anybody anticipating a threepeat.
Lakers coach Phil Jackson blamed the loss on one stretch of awful basketball: Right after Los Angeles completed a 21-2 run spanning halftime to take a 60-44 lead on Bryant's 3, Dallas made a 20-6 run.
"We felt like we gave the game away," Jackson said. "I'm not so sure Dallas didn't outplay us, but the players felt like we gave it away. ... The game was won in the third quarter when we got the lead and stopped playing defense and stopped playing offense. It took a lot of energy out of us, and put a lot of energy in them, to be able to do that. That shows a lot of heart on their part."
Terry scored 13 points in the first half to lead the Mavs' reserves, who outscored Los Angeles' bench 40-25. But the Lakers took a 53-44 halftime lead with a 14-2 run that included four points in the final 0.7 seconds.
Terry got too close to Lamar Odom's last-ditch heave from halfcourt right before the buzzer, and Odom – who finished with 15 points – made three free throws. Nowitzki then got a technical foul for throwing an aggressive elbow under the hoop while scrapping with Ron Artest, and Bryant hit a final free throw.
Both teams put aside the ugliness of their ejection-filled meeting on March 31 while preparing for the franchises' first postseason meeting since the 1988 Western Conference finals.
Jackson and Mavericks owner Mark Cuban declined to rekindle their history of mutual sniping in the media, instead praising each other in recent days. Jackson even said Cuban would be an excellent prospective owner for the troubled Los Angeles Dodgers, although Cuban declined to comment on the much-rumored prospect before Game 1.
Both clubs finished off their first-round series in six games after splitting the first four. The Lakers took control against the Hornets after the opening stunner, while the Mavericks bounced back admirably after blowing a 23-point lead in a Game 4 loss to Portland.
NOTES: Bryant had the 81st 30-point game of his playoff career, trailing only Michael Jordan (109) in NBA history. Bryant has scored in double figures in 156 straight postseason games. ... Fans near courtside included Eddie Murphy, Justin Timberlake, David Beckham (on his 36th birthday), Gordon Ramsay, Will Ferrell, John C. Reilly, January Jones, Jennifer Carpenter, singer Seal, Mekhi Phifer, Anthony Kiedis, New York Jets TE Dustin Keller and Timberwolves coach Kurt Rambis.