One of the prevalent narratives coming into this series was the end of a rivalry. Most of the protagonists have changed since those epic battles between Dallas and San Antonio and there's just not equivalence between a Spurs team that secured the best record in the league and a Mavs team that got the eight seed after a months-long battle with the Suns and Grizzlies.
But at least for one night, the series resembled some of those Spurs-Mavs match ups of the past decade. If you squinted a bit, Devin Harris looked like Jason Terry, as he canned jumper after jumper. Dalembert faded into Dampier. Brandan Wright gave us his best Tyson Chandler impersonation. And the Big Three carried the Spurs to triumph in a close game, just like they have so many times in the past. It might not have been an instant classic but it sure was a throwback.
The game started exactly like everyone except for the most optimistic of Dallas fans anticipated: with the Spurs dominating. Rick Carlisle tried to surprise the Spurs by switching everything but San Antonio simply took advantage of the mismatches to get to the rim. On the other end, Splitter was containing Nowitzki one-on-one and the Spurs were only allowing outside jumpers. Watching the game, the difference between the two teams seemed enormous but the box score didn't reflect it. The Mavs persevered and remained at striking distance, down nine at the end of the first quarter, 12-21.
It looked like a good start of the second quarter by the subs could help seal the game. Unfortunately, the Spurs' bench not only didn't stretch the lead but actually squandered it. The outside shots started to fall for Dallas, with Devin Harris simply carving up Patty Mills. After a 12-0 Mavs run in the first four minutes of the quarter, Pop finally had to send the starters back in.
And here's where Carlisle's bold defensive strategy paid off. As mentioned, the Spurs torched the Mavs to start by taking advantage of mismatches on switches. The problem is they kept trying to exploit those mismatches as the game went on instead of running their offense. The ball stuck instead of moving and, with no role players in rhythm, only individual efforts yielded points. Tony Parker was fantastic, scoring 17 in the first two quarters alone. But that's not the way the Spurs became the best team in the league. Going into the break, only six field goals had been assisted for San Antonio, which explains why they only scored 43 points in the half and trailed by one.
Not much changed at the start of the second half. Duncan and Ginobili shouldered the burden on offense but the team couldn't convert form three and the bench players remained ice cold. Fortunately for the Spurs, the Mavs reverted back to first quarter form, with Nowitzki struggling and only some hot shooting from their guards allowing them to put points on the board. Neither team could string together enough good possessions to pull away; there were four ties in the frame and the biggest lead was four points. Going into the final quarter the game was even at 65.
The Spurs started the fourth with the bench and once again Dallas pounced. They attacked using the pick-and-roll expertly and by the time Duncan checked back in with 9:26 to go, the deficit was six. Dallas made its push and extended their lead to ten points with 7:45 to go. And that's when the Spurs' defense decided to show up. The Mavericks would not score a field goal again until Devin Harris hit a layup as the time expired. Leonard went under screens and dared Ellis to pull up while Splitter shadowed Nowitzki. Duncan rotated perfectly to contest. Everything that hadn't worked up until that point clicked into place.
With the defense in top form and the Mavs missing the few easy shots they could create, all that was needed to complete the comeback was some offense. Duncan, who was fantastic all game long, helped the Spurs cut the lead. And that's where Tony Parker, the Spurs' closer, did his thing. Down two with 4:54 to go Parker assisted Splitter for an open layup. Then he put Devin Harris on the spin cycle to score at the rim. After that he connected on a 14-footer to put the Spurs up by four. The Mavs finally scored their first point in over five and a half minutes on a Wright free throw with 2:05 to go but the damage was done. A couple of Splitter and Ginobili freebies later, the Spurs secured an unexpectedly close win in the opening game of the series.
- Credit should go to the Mavs for making the game this competitive. No one thought they had a chance against the Spurs and they were very close to getting the win thanks to a very smart game plan and surprising individual performances by their role players. Nowitzki won't likely go 4-14 again, regardless of how well the Spurs defend him, so if the others can sustain their level, the series might be more interesting than most imagined.
- That being said, this game has "outlier" written all over it for the Spurs. San Antonio had the highest three point field goal percentage in the regular season yet went 3-17 from outside, with only Manu Ginobili connecting. Patty Mills, Marco Belinelli, Danny Green and Boris Diaw combined for just six points on 3-18 shooting while Devin Harris and Brandan Wright got 30 points between the two. And the Mavs played a big card by starting the game switching everything. The Spurs will be ready next time. This was a huge wasted opportunity for Dallas. There's just no other way to put it.
- The Big Three combined for 65 of the Spurs 90 points, 21 of their 48 rebounds and nine of their 14 assists. The stars won this one.
- The two other players that showed up were Kawhi Leonard and Tiago Splitter. Kawhi didn't have a good shooting night (4-11, 0-3 from outside) and seemed to be pushing a bit on offense. But he pulled down 11 boards and came up with some big defensive plays down the stretch. Splitter did a phenomenal job on Nowitkzi and filled up the stat sheet with eight points, 11 rebounds, two assists and two steals. He also missed a couple of bunnies, as per usual.
- As expected, Pop shortened the big man rotation. Matt Bonner played 2:25 and Jeff Ayres checked in for the last five seconds of the game. The adjustment consisted of keeping Duncan in with the Foreign Legion to end the first quarter and it seems like a fantastic idea. We'll have to see how it works out on a more typical Spurs game.
For those who missed it, here's Pop's interview with Craig Sager's son.
Game two will be played in San Antonio on Wednesday, so the elders on both teams will have time to rest.
For the opponent's perspective, visit Mavs Moneyball