DALLAS — John Stockton was kicking himself. Karl Malone, too.

The Jazz could have had the week off, free to focus on their next likely postseason opponent, the San Antonio Spurs, a team that ought to know a little bit about kicking itself.

Instead, Stockton, Malone & Co. left themselves with a task at hand: Before they can even think about taking on the Lone Star State's best, the No. 1-seeded Spurs, there still is this matter of the pesky Dallas Mavericks.

The No. 5-seed Mavs beat the No. 4 Jazz 94-91 on Saturday afternoon at Reunion Arena, trimming Utah's lead to 2-1 in their opening-round, best-of-five NBA Western Conference playoff series.

But it's not for lack of opportunity.

"We had our chances," Stockton said.

Did they ever.

The Jazz turned a Mavs advantage that stood at 11 points with six minutes and 24 seconds remaining into a 1-point lead of their own with 34 seconds to go, only to see Dallas score the game's final 4 points on a Steve Nash jumper and two Michael Finley free throws.

Utah tried to force overtime with a well-guarded 3-point try thrown up by Stockton with 4.9 on the clock, but it missed the mark.

If that's not worth a Texas-sized toe to the backside bull's-eye, little else is.

Except maybe San Antonio's loss to Minnesota on Saturday, which leaves the Spurs, too, having to hold off on preparing for the second round.

"Hopefully our mindset is not 'Wait 'till we get back home. . . . We'll get 'em when we get back home,' " said Malone, whose Jazz can avoid a series-deciding Game 5 at the Delta Center on Thursday by winning Game 4 here in Dallas on Tuesday. "I don't like Game 5s, so hopefully we'll come out with determination.

"You know," added Malone, who scored a team-high 29 points, "we had opportunities in this game, and we just didn't get it done."

The Mavs, making their first playoff appearance at home since 1990, rode a raucous crowd at sold-out Reunion to an 11-point lead by late in the opening quarter.

Dallas' lead at the half stood at 51-43, thanks in large part to starting small forward Dirk Nowitzki, who bounced back from his horrendous shooting in Games 1 and 2 to score 24 of his game-high 33 points prior to the break.

The Jazz never led in the third quarter, but they did pull even at 65 when Bryon Russell hit a 17-foot jumper late in the period. Ex-Jazz guard Howard Eisley followed with two free throws, however, sending the Mavs on an 11-0 run at the end of the third and start of the fourth.

It took all Utah had to whittle that lead away and go up 91-90 when Stockton, who recorded his first career triple-double (12 points, 11 rebounds, 10 assists), drove for a layup for with just more than a half-minute left.

Even that wasn't enough, though, and for that another kick is coming.

"We still had our chances in the ballgame," said Jazz coach Jerry Sloan. "If we would have kept playing and kept executing properly — we had our chances to win the ballgame, if we had done the right thing.

"But, obviously," Sloan added, "you've got to have a perfect finish, and we did not have a perfect finish."

The Jazz allowed Nash his turnaround jumper with 22.8 remaining, making it 92-91 Dallas.

"They held their poise," Russell said of the Mavs.

Utah — with all of its 18 straight playoff appearances and two recent visits (1997 and '98) to the NBA Finals — did not.

Stockton came back on the other end and drove too deep, forcing the NBA's all-time assists leader to bounce a pass off Donyell Marshall that instead wound up in the hands of Finley.

"I just seen Stock in the air, so I tried to go to the rim," Marshall said. "I thought he was gonna shoot it; he passed it to me at the last second. I wasn't necessarily looking for it — you know, looking up — but I should have caught it."

Russell fouled Finley, prompting two freebies that made it 94-91.

After a timeout with eight seconds left, the Jazz had one more crack. Stockton's leaning, man-on 3 from 25, though, was wide right and rebounded by Nash before anyone from Utah could track it down.

"It was the last play — the same thing we've (run) about three or four other times," Sloan said. "We just didn't get to our spots quite as quick. John (Stockton) maybe took off maybe a hair too soon, or whatever, but our big people didn't get quite where they should have been to get the play started."

Said Danny Manning, who was on the floor at the time, and who scored all 19 of the Jazz's bench points: "We could have done a better job, but, you know, it's spilt milk."

So buff the boots and get ready for one more swift . . .

"We still had opportunities down the stretch," Malone said, "and I don't think we executed like we should have."

. . . kick.

E-mail: tbuckley@desnews.com