Another playoff run for the Spurs, another showdown with the Mavericks. After last year's destruction that saw Dallas easily win the series in five games, revenge would definitely be sweet.
Unfortunately, revenge won't be easy. Outside of the Lakers, no other team in the Western Conference boasts as many challenging matchups for San Antonio -- as has been seen the last two times the Spurs took on the Mavs in the playoffs. Even worse, the Mavs seem to be the world's most comfortable basketball team within the confines of the AT&T Center.
Compared to last postseason's squad, this Spurs team is more talented, deeper, more explosive and, most importantly, healthier. That said, a number of issues have plagued San Antonio this season, most prominently chemistry and consistency on both ends of the court. Truthfully, the Spurs are still a work in progress.
How can the Spurs get their revenge? Here are my top ten keys.
10. George Hill's Health
George Hill has become an indispensable part of this team. He's the starting point guard and easily the fourth best player on the Spurs. As the season progressed and Hill's role grew, he flourished while illustrating an exciting amount of potential.
But after stepping on a cameraman and tweaking his injured ankle on the last day of the regular season, Hill enters the playoffs with a limp. If he's not able to perform near 100%, that would be a crippling blow for the Spurs. His ability to guard multiple positions, run the floor, attack weak defenders and hit three-pointers has allowed those around him to thrive -- especially Manu Ginobili.
9. Tony Parker vs. Jason Terry
Both teams have quality bench players but the battle of the benches basically comes down to Tony Parker and Jason Terry. Parker is the better player on paper but it's been a difficult season for the French point guard due to injuries, a lack of cohesion with his new teammates, and sloppy and sometimes unfocused play. Additionally, Parker's role as the bench x-factor is in its infancy.
On the other hand, Terry knows how to perform off the bench. He seemingly always drains the big shot when facing off against San Antonio. Even though Dallas has a stacked starting lineup, don't be surprised if it's Terry who takes the most important shots.
8. Tim Duncan and Foul Trouble
Though he's coming off the least foul-prone regular season of his career, you can throw out that statistic when Tim Duncan goes up against the Mavs. Simply put, the Mavs are constructed perfectly to get Duncan in foul trouble. They have a pair of bruising centers to be physical with Duncan. Their offense, which is built around isolation plays and pick-and-roll plays, puts Duncan in awkward positions on the court. Oh and that Dirk Nowitzki guy isn't exactly an easy opponent for Duncan to defend.
7. Shooters Stepping Up
Since the beginning of the Tim Duncan Era, the front office has made it a point to surround Duncan with three-point shooters. Currently, however, outside shooting isn't something the Spurs can rely on going into the playoffs.
Hill is probably the team's best three-point shooter right now … but he's hurting. Ginobili is a good three-point shooter but he is classified more as "streaky" than "dead-eye". Matt Bonner and Roger Mason, Jr. can shoot but they both monumentally struggled last year against the Mavs in the playoffs (and they just finished going a combined 0-for-8 from three-point range against Dallas on Wednesday). Richard Jefferson shot 22.8% on three-pointers after the All-Star break and Keith Bogans is Keith Bogans.
To win this series, the Spurs need at least two or three shooters to step up and knock down shots from deep. We'll see if that is too much to ask.
6. Transition Defense
Just like the Spurs, the Mavs are different than the team from last year's playoffs. With the additions of Shawn Marion, Caron Butler and Roddy Beaubois, Dallas can get out and run. Add the ageless Jason Kidd to the mix, who just might be the best fast-breaking point guard of all-time, and there's little doubt that the coaching staff will make transition defense a top priority.
Transition defense is especially important with regard to Marion. As the Spurs have witnessed firsthand, stout transition defense can keep Marion under control.
5. Limiting Turnovers
Turnovers have been an unexpected bugaboo for the Spurs this season. Last year, the Spurs turned it over fewer times than any team in the NBA. This year, nine teams had fewer turnovers. Since the All-Star break, the Spurs have only lost one time in games in which they've finished with less turnovers than their opponent.
The previous key makes this key even more vital. If the Spurs can limit their turnovers, that will go a long ways toward making sure the Mavs don't get easy buckets in transition.
4. Make Dirk Work
Teams that have had success against the Mavs in the playoffs have done so in large part due to taking Dirk Nowitzki out of his comfort zones. He's not going to be stopped completely but the Mavs are most dangerous when Nowitzki is free to do what he wants.
The bad news is the Spurs still lack anything resembling a Dirk stopper. Antonio McDyess has too many miles on the odometer, DeJuan Blair lacks size and is foul prone, Matt Bonner isn't athletic enough, Richard Jefferson tends to be undisciplined and soft, Keith Bogans is way too small and Tim Duncan is too immobile. The coaching staff is going to have to be inventive with gimmicky schemes to overcome the gaping hole in the personnel.
3. Pop and Common Sense
In 2006 and 2009, Pop made glaring mistakes in the playoffs against the Mavs. Too much small ball doomed the Spurs in 2006; Pop overreacted to the mismatches and had the Spurs playing a then uncharted brand of basketball. Last postseason, Pop inexplicably buried Hill on the bench to begin the series. Additionally, Pop's rotations neglected the defensive end of the court until it was too late.
The teams are too evenly matched for Pop to author another blunder and the Spurs come out on top. Rather than trying to be the hero, Pop needs to rely on common sense. Don't try to fit a square peg (a struggling player) into a round hole (playing time). Don't overreact to matchups that don't favor the Spurs (See: Nowitzki, Dirk). Don't be afraid to play those who have performed well all season (See: Blair, DeJuan). In other words, don't out-think things.
The one overriding aspect that has tipped the balance of power in Dallas' favor in recent years is rebounding. In the 2006 series, the Mavs outrebounded the Spurs in all seven games. The 2009 series saw the Mavs outrebound the Spurs in every game except for one: Game 2, the sole contest the Spurs won.
Small ball is the most obvious culprit, though the Mavs having superior rebounders at the swingman positions has also been a leading reason. This year, the Spurs can contend on the glass -- but the coaching staff must resist small ball as much as possible, find minutes for Blair and urge each and every player to gang rebound. (By the way, if Jefferson is searching for an area where he can most help, rebounding is the answer.)
1. Manu Ginobili
Without question the absolute top key for the Spurs in this forthcoming series against the Mavs is the play of Manu Ginobili. Since the All-Star break, the Spurs have been Ginobili's team. If he can be at the top of his game, the Spurs will be a difficult out in the playoffs -- for any team in the league.
Ginobili's importance is magnified against Dallas. First of all, the Mavs have the post-defenders and help-defenders to slow Duncan in the low block. Secondly, Parker is still rounding into form following his hand injury. Last but not least is the fact that the Mavs don't truly have a defender who should have much success against Ginobili. It just so happens that Dallas' biggest weakness defensively plays right into Ginobili's hands. Hopefully he's ready to take advantage and coldly serve the revenge.