Butler drove right at San Antonio's big guy and tried jumping by him for a dunk. Duncan got a piece of the ball -- but it caromed off the backboard and into the net anyway.
It was that kind of night for Butler and the Dallas Mavericks.
With Dallas facing elimination, Butler set an aggressive, energetic tone early and kept it up throughout a 103-81 victory over San Antonio on Tuesday night in Game 5 of their first-round series.
"That was fun," Mavs star Dirk Nowitzki said.
The Spurs still lead the series 3-2, giving the veteran club two more chances to get into the second round. Only eight teams have ever blown a 3-1 lead, and Game 6 is in San Antonio on Thursday night.
But Dallas looked like a different team with Butler and Brendan Haywood finally providing the toughness and athleticism the Mavs were seeking when they traded for them during the All-Star break.
Butler scored a career playoff-best 35 points and had 11 rebounds, while Haywood provided a strong inside presence at both ends in his first start of this post-season. He had eight points, eight rebounds and four blocks, and was a big reason Duncan scored just 11 points.
Duncan went to the bench for good shortly after that inadvertent tip-in, the Spurs essentially acknowledging this game was out of reach with 6:19 left in the third quarter. Dallas was soon up by 22, then 26.
"Now it's a series," said Butler, who just two games before was benched for the second half. "We have to go to San Antonio and bring the same energy and play with the same tenacity and disposition as we played with for 48 minutes here. We got to bring it some way, some how."
The Spurs were outplayed most of the first half, but trailed by only seven at halftime. Any hopes of turning things around with a throttling third quarter, like they did to win Game 4, vanished quickly with the Mavs scoring the first 10 points of the second half.
"Mostly it was the case of they came with the mental and physical toughness, and our starting group wasn't very good in either category," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said.
Despite losing three straight and looking ripe for a knockout, the Mavericks spent the last two days insisting everything was fine, that all they had to do was get to a few more loose balls and keep the Spurs from shooting close to 50 per cent, as they had all series.
Sure enough, San Antonio made a series-worst 36 per cent of its shots (only 27 per cent in the second half), with Dallas grabbing 11 more rebounds and committing six fewer turnovers. The Spurs had three turnovers during the Mavs' game-breaking stretch early in the third quarter.
"We're upset at the way we approached the game," said San Antonio's Manu Ginobili, who scored seven points in 19 minutes. "It's something we'll learn from. I hope that's how we take Game 6, because we don't want to come here for a Game 7."
Tony Parker led San Antonio with 18 points, half coming during an 11-2 run at the end of the second quarter.
Dallas showed a new life from the start, inspired perhaps by Haywood starting instead of Erick Dampier, or just by their now-or-never situation.
San Antonio's only lead was 6-4, and the Mavs followed that with a 12-2 spurt that included opportunistic plays like Jason Kidd slapping a rebound right to Shawn Marion for an easy layup. They ran plays through Haywood, something unheard of when Dampier starts, and Butler was scoring inside, outside and in between.
Butler, Haywood and DeShawn Stevenson were acquired during the All-Star break in a deal that cost Dallas four players and forced owner Mark Cuban to ante up another US$30 million. It looked like a great investment when Dallas won 13 straight in February and March, not so much with the Mavs on the brink of elimination and with Butler shooting 38 per cent in the series.
"We need him to attack. That's basically what I told him -- be aggressive at all times, we want you to shoot the ball and be a scorer for us," Nowitzki said.
Butler made 12-of-24 shots, including 3-of-8 3-pointers, and hit eight free throws. He was relentless, too, scoring 12 points in the first quarter, seven in the second and 11 in the third. Because Mavs coach Rick Carlisle refused to empty his bench until midway through the fourth, Butler got eight more points in the final period.
"I wasn't second guessing myself," Butler said. "If the shot was there, I was taking it."
Said Haywood: "I don't know what got into him. All I know is we're going to need it the next game."
Nowitzki gladly played the role of sidekick, putting up 15 points and nine rebounds. Jason Terry had 12 points, while Marion and Kidd each scored 10. Kidd also had seven assists and seven rebounds.
Haywood took only three shots, making one -- which is one more than Dampier has this series -- but he got to the line plenty. However, he made only 6-of-12 free throws.
"It's a different feel for the team," Haywood said of him being the starting centre. "I think it helps us with what we want to do. ... If you're talking about getting out and running early in the game, unless you're starting (6-foot-8 forward) Eduardo Najera, you're starting me because I'm the more mobile of the two. So that's just one of the things that I think helps me and helps the team."
Dampier turned out to be Dallas' only player not to play. Najera wound up as the backup, but he won't be much longer if he keeps playing rough.
After getting ejected from Game 4 because of a flagrant-two foul on Ginobili, he was hit with a flagrant-one for a whack on Parker. With three flagrant "points" this post-season, his next will draw an automatic one-game suspension. His performance already has won over the fans, earning cries of "Ed-die! Ed-die!" in the second half.
"I'm not trying to hurt anybody out there," Najera said. "I'm just trying to prove a point that we can do the same things they are doing."
NOTES: Ginobili opened the game with a brown, less-noticeable bandage over his broken nose, then went back to a thick white strip of tape in the second half. ... DeJuan Blair, whom Carlisle said had been kicking Dallas' rear in going after loose balls, became a non-factor by picking up his fourth foul with 9:26 left in the second quarter. ... Weird play early in third: On a made free throw by Dallas, San Antonio's Matt Bonner fouled Nowitzki, giving the Mavs one more free throw, which Nowitzki hit.