The last two games have represented a phenomenal opportunity for the Dallas Mavericks: rather than the 1-2 deficit they now face, the Mavs could very well have been blocking off travel dates for the second round as the proud owners of a 3-0 series lead. Instead, the San Antonio Spurs showed in both games what makes them such a formidable foe — not only to the Mavs, but to any team in the league — and their late-game performance last night made Game 3 an excellent companion piece to their Game 2 showing.
Tim Duncan (25 points on 18 shots, five rebounds, four assists, five turnovers), Tony Parker (23 points on 10-of-16 shooting), and Manu Ginobili (15 points, seven assists, five rebounds) were resolved and effective, as each provided fantastic contributions made even more impressive by the game’s snail-like pace (84 possessions). Opposite them were Dirk Nowitzki (35 points on 23 shots, seven rebounds) and J.J. Barea (17 points, four assists, four rebounds), who improbably kept Dallas competitive despite seeming completely outmatched.
This was just a fantastic performance by the Spurs’ team defense, and their ability to make the Mavs think twice about every shot attempt was a huge factor. Dallas, on the other hand, gave up too much ground to Tim Duncan and Tony Parker when matched up man-to-man, and their switch to the zone in the third quarter wasn’t enough to counter their lack of offensive balance.
Part of the reason the Mavs’ offense was so Dirk-heavy was due to an impromptu benching of Shawn Marion and Caron Butler; Marion played just three and a half minutes to start the third quarter and Butler didn’t play in the entire second half.
Caron’s benching was understandable, as he was completely invisible (save his three turnovers) in his 15 first half minutes. Shawn on the other hand, was the primary defender on Manu Ginobili and had limited Manu to a scoreless first half. The three-guard lineup of Jason Kidd, Jason Terry, and J.J. Barea (playing alongside Dirk Nowitzki and Erick Dampier) keyed the Mavs’ third quarter surge, but one can’t help but wonder if Dallas could have been more effective on defense in the fourth with Marion on the floor.
Instead, Ginobili drove through the heart of the zone for several key scoring possessions in the fourth, and while Dallas kept the game close, they were unable to respond. That difference highlights a key theme throughout the game: the Spurs were willing to get the ball inside, even if they were stopped at the rim, and the only Mavs determined to do the same were J.J. Barea and to a lesser extent, Dirk Nowitzki.
Dallas is going to need to get to the line more against San Antonio’s impressive defense, and while they showed they were capable of doing that very thing in Game 1, the whistles weren’t quite so friendly at the AT&T Center tonight. Woe are they, and regardless of any issues the Mavs had with the officiating, they’ve now magnified the importance of the almighty Game 4: a win rights the ship and presumably removes any doubt as to the Mavs’ ability to perform (not that any such doubt exists in the locker room, as the players themselves remain convinced of their own ability to win the series), while a loss on Sunday would force Dallas to win three straight elimination games.