Spurs vs. Mavericks series preview

Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Can the Mavs revive the rivalry by pulling the upset or will this series be as lopsided as most anticipate it will be?

Spurs (1st in the West, 60-22) vs. Mavericks (8th in the West, 49-33)

The Spurs won the season series 4-0

Recap for game one of the season series

Recap for game two of the season series

Recap for game three of the season series

Recap for game four of the season series

The Mavs' strengths and weaknesses

Dallas' strength resides in its offense. The Mavs were in the bottom third of the league in defensive rating, which is not surprising considering they have very few plus defenders on their roster. They sneaked into the playoffs because they have the third-best offense in the league, spearheaded by a rejuvenated Dirk Nowitzki and Rick Carlisle's clever offensive schemes. Free agent acquisitions Monta Ellis and Jose Calderon have provided great second and third options, respectively.

The Mavs are a fantastic shooting team, averaging the fourth-highest effective field goal percentage in the league, and they take care of the ball. Just like the Spurs, they don't excel at getting to the line or securing offensive boards. They simply create and convert good shots at a high rate, usually as the result of an assist. They also are a great three-point shooting team that will move the ball to find the open man or pull up in transition if the space is there. In half court sets, they are fantastic on pick-and-rolls thanks to the bevy of options a player like Nowitzki presents as a screener or floor-spacer off the ball.

Aside from Nowitzki, the Mavs don't really have a great collection of bigs. Samuel Dalembert is a very good shot-blocker but not the type of smart defensive player that can anchor a defense, and he is limited offensively. DeJuan Blair is still a little too prone to gamble when guarding the post and offers virtually no rim protection. He is as crafty as ever on offense but continues to do most of his damage on the pick-and-roll and needs someone else to create for him. The same is true of Brandan Wright, the Mavs' second-best big. Unlike Blair, however, Wright can finish strong as a dive man and has perfect tools to be a very good defensive player. The problem is he has simply never put it all together on that end, alternating great plays with poor ones.

Fortunately for the Mavs, they have one of the best combo forwards in the league in Shawn Marion. Marion can slide up to power forward when Nowitzki rests and continue to be effective on defense and the boards, which helps limit the playing time of the other, less ideal options. Marion is also the best wing on the Mavs roster, especially after rediscovering his three-point shot. The former Sun takes over three three-pointers per game and averages a solid 35.8 percent. Defenses will still play off him but he can make them pay with his shot or his superb cutting instincts. Vince Carter has turned into a very solid two-way player that can go on scoring binges but is more a role player than a difference-maker at this point.

Monta Ellis is the wild card for the Mavs. Ellis, who can play both guard positions but has been pushed off the ball due to the presence of Calderon and Devin Harris, can be an electric scorer when his outside shot is falling, and the Mavs have found clever ways to utilize him. Dirk will be Dirk and Calderon will provide a steady hand running the team and hitting outside shots. So it's Ellis who can take the offense to new heights or drown it with bad decision-making. Defensively, the Mavs distinctly lack any stopper at guard.

How the Spurs match up with them

The Spurs seem to have the right pieces to disrupt Dallas' offense. Tiago Splitter and Boris Diaw have done stellar work on Nowitzki in the post and the Spurs have the option of throwing other looks the Big German's way if he gets hot, by going small with Leonard at the four or switching Duncan onto him. Similarly, the Spurs can have either Green or Leonard on Ellis at all times, both good defenders in isolation.

Where the Mavs can hurt the Spurs if they are not careful is on the pick-and-roll. When Dirk screens, the Spurs' bigs can't drop back because they would be conceding a pick-and-pop, so they hedge and return to Nowitzki. That means the ball handler could get a head start and attack the rim or, if the defender goes under the screen to contain, pull up from three. Ellis is deadly doing the former and Calderon doing the latter.

When Dirk is off the ball, his man can't help. That means after the pick, a perimeter player is going to have to leave a shooter open to help or trust that the rim protector will change the shot. The problem is the Spurs' wings are not quick enough to consistently help and recover and San Antonio can't afford to have Duncan in foul trouble. The decision-making of the guards defending the ball handler and how hard they fight through the screens will be the two biggest indicators of how successfully the Spurs defend Dallas' P&R attack.

Offensively, the Spurs should absolutely destroy a terrible Dallas defense. The Mavs don't rebound well, are terrible at protecting the paint and have no one to stop the Spurs' guards from wreaking havoc. Involving whoever is the second big next to Nowitzki on pick-and-rolls would force Dirk to provide rim protection, which is not something he's ever excelled at.

Parker should have his way with Calderon, and the Spurs' bench should annihilate the Mavs' whenever Dirk takes a break. If the Spurs can also find some opportunities to run against a dismal transition defense, they could break the 100-point barrier easily. The only thing that can save the Mavs on defense is their ability to create turnovers combined with the Spurs' occasional sloppiness with the ball. But even then, it's hard to imagine Dallas containing the Spurs' offense in any meaningful way.

Conclusion

The Mavs are very similar to the Spurs on offense. They use a Hall-of-Fame power forward in the post to initiate offense, rely on two great offensive guards to create from the perimeter and use the pick-and-roll a lot. They also don't prioritize offensive boards, and they struggle getting to the line. Where they don't compare is in points in the paint, which makes Dallas overreliant on jumpers to get buckets. Even with Calderon and Nowitzki on their roster, that's a risky strategy.

Defensively, there's just no comparison. Not only are the Spurs a better team in pretty much every area but they also seem perfectly built to stop the Mavs. Green can take Ellis while Leonard guards Marion and roams the court providing help defense. Splitter or Diaw will handle Dirk one-on-one while Duncan provides the last line of defense. The pieces don't fit nearly as seamlessly for the Mavs on the other end, which will probably force Carlisle to get creative.

Dirk will get his and one of Ellis or Calderon could cause trouble when matched against a bench guard. But unless their role players can make an unprecedented jump in production, the Spurs' defense should be able to slow down their attack and there's not much else than offense to this Dallas team.

Prediction

I usually try to be careful not to upset The Basketball Gods with hubris but this matchup doesn't seem favorable to Dallas in any way. I think the Spurs will sweep and the margin of victory will be rather large.

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