Spurs lose in gut-wrenching fashion -- again

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

It took me 24 hours after the game to calm down enough to write a recap. At my age, that can't be healthy.

I have a hard enough time being a rational person about the Spurs during the regular season. Once the playoffs arrive, I turn into a full-blown sociopath.

The good news, I think, is that I'm at least aware of this.

I mean, on one hand, as a reasonable adult of (let's humor me here) average intelligence, one would come to the conclusion that concepts like jinxes, omens, past playoff failures and things of that nature have no bearing on the current team. My rational brain understands that Ray Allen's Finals-turning three-pointer from last season and the fact that the Spurs haven't rallied from a series deficit since 2010 (and that just a 0-1 hole to these same Mavericks) has nothing to do with the 2014 season. My rational brain understands that just because the Spurs have never won a playoff series where they lost Game 3 after being tied 1-1, that it doesn't necessarily spell doom for this campaign.

I don't believe in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny or curses.

All that being said, man, do endings like yesterday's make it ever hard to keep believing.

This nagging feeling in the back of my brain, "It's not meant to be," just keeps itching, firing its corrosive message to the other lobes, infecting every synapse.

There's another feeling, a lead anchor at the pit of my stomach, weighing me down, dragging my whole soul earthbound, whimpering, "They should've won it last year. That was their chance. You know it."

Are the basketball gods punishing Gregg Popovich for removing his best player, one of the handful of all-time greats, for the final 28 seconds of a five-point game in what should've been the crowning achievement of his career?

Well, unless they win it all you can't technically prove it's NOT true. Who are three people who've never been in my kitchen?

Anyway, if you get past the doom-and-gloom and all the spiritual and existential crises and just focus on the nuts-and-bolts basketball of the series, you'll probably come to the same conclusion as I have. The Spurs are still the better team, the trends of series are subtly shifting in their direction and even though their margin of error has shrunk to practically nothing, they still stand a pretty good chance of advancing in this series if they can just win this next game and take back the momentum.

Offensively, there is much to like. In quarters 1 and 4 the Spurs scored 68 points. They got whatever they wanted, even when they did miss. Their looks from the three-point line were wide open. The ball movement was much better. The exploited the mismatch with Kawhi Leonard posting up Monta Ellis numerous times. They rediscovered the long-dormant Manu Ginobili-to-Tiago Splitter screen-and-roll. Marco Belinelli showed signs of life (and probably deserved more minutes than he got), as did Patty Mills. Boris Diaw did numerous good things, offensively. (We'll get to the other end of the floor later.) And as loathe as I am to admit it, they might have even found something with Matt Bonner, because the floor was really spread out while he was in there.

The fourth quarter in particular was encouraging. The Spurs scored on 16 of 23 possessions, with just one turnover, an unforced one at that, coming from Mills on a travel. Otherwise the other fruitless possessions were missed jumpers from Danny Green, Tony Parker, Mills, and three of them from Ginobili, who played one of his trademark "Looks like the best guy on the team even though he can't throw in the ocean" games. Only Green's shot, which came at the end of the shot-clock, was a contested look. Everything else was clean. The Spurs could've easily cracked 40 points that quarter.

I think it's rash to say that the Spurs have "solved" the Mavericks switching defensive schemes per se, but they certainly looked less confused about where to go with the ball and what to do than they did in Game 2. Dallas has quite a few mediocre-to-bad defenders and they can only hide so many of them. 26 assists to 15 turnovers is an acceptable ratio, right around their regular season average, and really the only aspect of their offensive game that was lacking on Saturday was three-point accuracy -- and we're talking micro-samples here. They shot 6-of-18, for 33 percent. If one more ball goes in, it's 38.8 percent, right in line with their regular average.

So, no, I'm not really concerned about the offense, except for one notable --and predictable-- exception, which we'll get to. For the most part, as long as the Spurs don't turn it over they'll score just fine against Dallas.

The problems were all on the other end of the floor, and honestly, there were quite a few possessions where I felt like I didn't even recognize these guys. There were just so many breakdowns and brain cramps, all over the floor.

For one thing, the transition defense was horrendous. It's one thing to give up lay-ups on live-ball turnovers, but there were far too many instances of run outs and wide open shots coming off simple missed shots. There was even one play, a couple minutes into the final quarter, where they got caught after a make from Leonard, with Dallas' Shawn Marion finding himself all alone at the other basket, and the Spurs had to foul there just to avoid the easy layup. They allowed 10 offensive boards and 38 points in the paint to a team not known for their brutes down low.

The aspects of the defense that really bothered me were in the half court, where there didn't seem to be any kind of coherent plan for side pick-and-rolls. Dallas' guards frequently got to the rim via the baseline without a big waiting to reroute them. And Leonard, who aside from a few early steals, was a glaring negative in his own end against Ellis.

It's one thing to go under the screen against guys, but what Leonard was doing was absurd. He didn't just go underneath the screen, he looped entirely behind the screener, to the point where Ellis repeatedly had nobody within six feet of him on his jumpers from the top of the key. He canned nearly every one. Leonard also sucked in for no discernible reason on numerous drives, allowing the guard easy passes to Marion at the wing for wide open threes.

I've written it all series and I'll continue to do so: I strongly disagree with the strategy of putting Leonard on Ellis. He's too small and too quick. Put Green or a point guard on him and take your lumps there and shut down everyone else. An idea I think worth exploring would be to try Leonard on Dallas' point guards, whether it's Jose Calderon or Devin Harris. Neither of them -- particularly Calderon -- are as quick as Ellis and having the lengthy Leonard on them could disrupt their high screen-and-rolls. Leonard can do a better job of staying at the hip of those guys and either swiping at them from behind or contesting their shots. He's being wasted on Ellis, who's driving by him with ease and using screens to shake Leonard without difficulty.

The bigger issue, and the main one I had with Pop, was his use -- or rather lack of use -- of Splitter. The Brazilian has been doing a fabulous job against Dirk Nowitzki all series long and was having a fantastic all-around game with 14 points and 13 boards. Inexplicably, Pop subbed Splitter out with 4:06 to go and never reinserted him into the game, despite the Mavs playing with two bigs of their own (either Brandon Wright or Samuel Dalembert) the whole time.

Diaw has been a disaster defensively. He gives up too much room to Nowitki on jumpers, like he's afraid he's gonna get blown by on drives. He doesn't have nearly Splitter's length. He doesn't rebound or contest anything at the rim. Even if you favor his offense over Splitter's, there were numerous chances to sub offense-for-defense and Pop never did.

The defense as a whole was atrocious all game, allowing 53 percent shooting and 39 percent from three. The Mavs scored at least 27 points in three of four quarters and 32 in two. They scored on 15 of 24 possessions (including the final six) in the final period, with five of those nine empty trips coming on turnovers. The Spurs came away with a stop and a board just four times in the whole quarter.

Clean up the transition defense, play Splitter more, do a better job on the boards and tighten up on the screen-and-roll with Mills, regardless of who's on him. Beyond that I don't know what they can do.

But my single biggest concern is with Tony Parker, who was a flat out disaster in the second half. The offense simply went into a dark cave and hid while he was in there. In the first half he buried a few long jumpers off the switch with the big man, but in the second half he didn't have as much room and for the most part he was just dribbling aimlessly, draining the clock, creating nothing for himself or others. Parker even managed to ruin a 3-on-2 fast break, choosing to not take a layup himself or pass to Leonard but instead just dribbling it back out and settling into a stalled possession, for no reason.

If anything is gonna derail the Spurs season, it's Parker. I wonder if he has the stamina to put two good halves together, let alone two good games. He just can't be healthy -- or he's turned the corner in age where he just can't be what we want him to be anymore. It's very troubling, and all the more reason that Leonard's development has to be accelerated. They have no other choice. A Parker that can't get to the rim and finish is not enough for this team.

Finally, I didn't like how the final play was defended. Why not put your lengthiest guy, Leonard, on the inbounds man, or at least Ginobili, who has good timing getting deflections on that play. Instead, there was a short guy, Cory Joseph who hadn't played all game, in that spot and he didn't bother the inbounder at all.

Oh well, Game 4 on Monday. No big deal, just the season at stake.

Your Three Stars:

3. Kawhi Leonard (1 pt)

2. Manu Ginobili (8 pts)

1. Tiago Splitter (9 pts)

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