When they entered the playoffs, the San Antonio Spurs were not considered a championship contender. Their late season success was chalked up as something of an aberration, and though many picked them to ‘upset’ the Dallas Mavericks in the first round of the playoffs, that’s not exactly the same as declaring the Spurs fit to battle the Lakers, Cavs, and Magic for NBA supremacy.
That time is not yet upon us, but based on how impressively they’ve handled their first round matchup with the Mavs, it could be quite soon.
San Antonio came back from a 15-point first half deficit to take a 3-1 series lead and push Dallas one step closer to the season’s edge. It was hardly easy, and the reason the Spurs may soon be considered contenders for the conference title is not because their wins over the Mavs have been particularly demonstrative. Rather, San Antonio’s three straight wins were in very competitive games, and the Spurs’ ability to close out their opponents remains a crowning achievement.
Dallas had been successful all season in besting their opponents in close games, but that success hasn’t translated well to the playoffs. Instead of Dirk Nowitzki hitting game-winners or Shawn Marion getting crucial stops, it’s been Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili hitting daggers and Antonio McDyess playing clutch defense. A few shots here and there or a few bounces of the ball and this series is quite different, but for the most part the Spurs are making their own luck.
It’s not as if San Antonio is relying simply on their opponents’ failings to determine the outcomes of these games; the Spurs’ defense has reached new heights over the last three contests, and their ability to play Nowitzki aggressively without giving up open shots to the Mavs’ shooters has been crucial.
“They ran at me from the get-go,” Dirk Nowitzki said, “on the block and on the dribble they came after me. When I was isolated on the free throw line, they came at me as well. After the game I had two days ago they weren’t just going to watch me shoot. They were aggressive tonight and got the ball out of my hands.”
That said, the Spurs don’t win Game 4 without a phenomenal night from George Hill, who was able to make up for the offensive shortcomings of San Antonio’s Big Three. Tim Duncan (1-for-9 shooting), Manu Ginobili (4-for-16), and Tony Parker (4-for-9) combined for just 31 points. Hill had 29 (11-of-16 shooting) on his own, and his jumper was almost eerily smooth.
He was hardly alone, though. Even though the stars didn’t come out in San Antonio, Richard Jefferson (15 points), DeJuan Blair (seven points, seven rebounds), and Antonio McDyess (10 points, eight rebounds), had hugely productive nights, with the impact of the latter two in particular hardly captured by their final stat lines. If not for Blair creating possessions on the offensive glass or McDyess’ physical, effective defense on Dirk Nowitzki, the Mavs could very well be rallying behind a 2-2 mark and the series headed back to Dallas. Instead, an inscription above each American Airlines Center entryway reading “Abandon hope, all ye who entere here,” will greet Mavs fans in Game 5.
Dallas not only had a chance to win Game 3, but to see their 15-point lead evaporate in Game 5 is flat-out painful. The Spurs honestly are not that much better than the Mavs, but its impossible to refute San Antonio’s ability to execute. This game was incredibly physical, particularly in the second half, and though the Mavericks were rattled by the physical play and their sputtering offense, the Spurs were not. As a result, San Antonio outscored Dallas 29-11 in the third quarter, and the Mavs surrendered a prime opportunity to seize the series’ momentum.
“Because this team has been there so many times and in this position, when it gets so close and tight like that I don’t think we panic,” Antonio McDyess said. “I think this is a team that always stays on one pace and never gets panicky. We always pull it out when we do that.”
For Dallas, that third quarter should hurt, and it will. San Antonio just has an edge right now in terms of their energy and execution, and while the probability of the Mavs winning three straight games isn’t impossible given the makeup of their three straight losses, it’s an uphill climb that the no. 2 seed never hoped to face.