In the first four playoff games between the Mavs and the Spurs, each game was decided by just a few possessions. Dallas edged San Antonio in Game 1, the Mavs were within two points during the fourth quarter of Game 2, and the Spurs’ took Games 3 and 4 by a combined seven points.
Then in Game 5, Dallas through the series blueprint out the window, and rode the wave of their own desperation to a decisive 103-81 victory. Facing a 1-3 deficit, the Mavs had no other choice. They’ll still need to secure a win on Thursday to give themselves a shot at the series, but at least Dallas lives to fight another day.
The heroes of Game 5 were undoubtedly Caron Butler (35 points, 11 rebounds, three steals) and Brendan Haywood (eight points, eight rebounds, four blocks), who ironically enough were both the subjects of recent mini-controversies over Rick Carlisle’s distribution of playing time.
Butler didn’t see a second of floor time in the second half of Game 3, and his inefficient scoring style has been considered by many to be a reason why the Mavs have struggled to top the Spurs. Haywood received his first start of the series on Tuesday night, and responded to his unearthing by grabbing six offensive rebounds and getting to the free throw line 12 times. These were keynote performances by two of the Mavs’ mid-season acquisitions, and should Butler and Haywood maintain the theoretical foundation for their success — Butler’s improved shot selection and Haywood’s increased intensity on the boards and defensive focus — there’s no reason why Dallas won’t pose a legitimate threat to San Antonio.
Dallas exploded out of the gate in similar fashion to their opening statement in Game 4, only this time around they protected their double-digit lead with offensive balance and superior defense. With Butler (and the rest of the Mavs, for that matter) looking to attack the basket more than ever, the Spurs’ defense faced a rather difficult test. Even San Antonio’s impressive team defense couldn’t hold against a Dallas team attacking from all angles, and the game was already decided by the midpoint of the third quarter.
The heavy lifters on both sides received plenty of rest, as Gregg Popovich had officially thrown in the Ian Mahinmi towel by the end of the third. Tony Parker led the Big Three in minutes with 26 (and in points with 18; Ginobili and Duncan scored 18 combined), and though Dallas’ starters lasted a bit longer, Butler was the only Maverick to log more than 32 minutes.
The Mavs looked confident and impressive with their backs against the wall. Dallas looked to push the ball at every opportunity, and their effectiveness in transition helped to establish an offensive rhythm that carried over into their half-court sets. Game 6 will bring its own challenges, though, as Butler isn’t likely to drop 30+ points again (much less in such an efficient manner; Caron shot 50% from the field and didn’t turn the ball over once), and the atmosphere in San Antonio won’t offer the same fuel for the the Mavs’ fast break.
This team seems prepared, though. Butler’s ascent was accompanied by a team-wide offensive improvement, due to both the more favorable pace and improved player movement. The reason the Dallas offense became bogged down Games 2, 3, and 4 was due to too many Mavericks camping out along the perimeter while Dirk went to work. As impressive as Nowitzki is, that strategy is doomed to fail, and fail it did. With more transition opportunities and better movement once the Mavs settle down, the Mavs could perform far better offensively in Game 6 than they did during their last trip to San Antonio.
Dallas was the best road team in the Western Conference during the regular season, and they’ll need every bit of that visiting team mojo when they face the Spurs in San Antonio on Thursday.