The Western Conference is a gauntlet.
Regardless of whether you believed the Spurs should've been favored by as much as they were going into this series (1/9 favorites, per sports betting site Bovada), it's not as if the Spurs were playing the sub-.500 Atlanta Hawks (although that doesn't seem to be going well for the Pacers right about now, either). The Mavericks have one of the greatest scorers of all time, a borderline elite rim protector (Sam Dalembert) and two lightning quick guards, one of which is a Noted Spur Killer (Devin Harris circa 2006) and the other is a man who literally have it all. Predict ease at your own risk (and I did... had the Spurs in a sweep in my work pool), there are no easy games in this, the Bestern Conference.
And really, even if we got Peak Spurs who knows what might happen? For a while in the second and early third quarters, the Spurs seemed to reach that playoff level, where the ball was zipping around exactly where the passer intended it to go, and the shots were finally starting to fall. Whether it be the cause of the run or a residual effect, it was joyous to watch Patty Mills shoot his way out of his early postseason slump. It's not a fantastic sign when the Spurs bench unit can succeed or fail based on the mercurial shooting stroke of a relatively short Aussie, but Mills' confidence returned once his first shot fell, and he was a hellion for the rest of the night. Matt Bonner, whose name will not show up in any recaps other than this one, record five minutes of utterly stat-less basketball, yet in those five minutes the Spurs were +9. For at least a quarter and a half, the Spurs realized what the regular season had been for - blending all of these complementary parts together so that they could more easily gel in times of crisis in the playoffs. Gregg Popovich no doubt had little plans to use Bonner this series. His minutes are the result of equal parts frustration and chemistry, with a little dash of a hail mary pass thrown in. When Tony Romo is in attendance, hail marys aren't the worst idea (editor's note: especially if you're playing the team Tony Romo is rooting for! Sorry Cowboys fans. I had to).
For a little while, all was well. The Spurs were getting back on track. Popovich's not encouraging record in 1-2 series' notwithstanding, it felt like, finally, the Spurs were back in the driver's seat, settling in to playing like the borderline championship contenders they are supposed to be.
But basketball is chaos. There are things you can do to mitigate the relentless effects of random chance in a game where an orange sphere is thrown at great speed through the air into a cylinder. But then there are moments of such profound, utter randomness that one can't accurately begin to describe it with anything other than blank amazement...
DeJuan Blair was the best player the Mavericks had tonight.
Logging only second half minutes, Blair recorded a flawless shooting night (5-5), eleven rebounds (five of them crucial offensive ones), two steals and seemingly endless frustrations of one Timothy Duncan. Playing with a confidence we haven't seen as Spurs fans since Blair went off against Oklahoma City in his rookie year, Blair sparked a rock pounding Mavericks comeback that nearly broke the back of the already ailing Spurs championship hopes. After a season of Spurs tweeters jokingly referring to every Mavs contest as the "DeJuan Blair Revenge Game," chaos and his cruel mistress, the Unbelievable Narrative, almost came back and bit us Internet people in the rear end.
But chaos reigns. So when Tiago Splitter accidentally fell onto Blair as the two were going for a loose ball late in the fourth quarter of a close game, and Blair's brain briefly seized and went into playground schoolboy nonsense mode and told his ACL-less legs to kick Splitter in the head, it was almost poetic how obvious it was that nothing either team was doing really affected the outcome all that much. In the end, the result of what might be the pivotal game of this Western Conference First round match up was decided by two fat men, one of whom couldn't control his temper and another who wisely just kept shooting.
Because if there's one thing these Spur role players need to understand, it's the necessity for them to shoot their own way out of the slumps they may find themselves mired in in the playoffs. Danny Green and Marco Belinelli remain entrenched in the miserable quicksand of second guessing and quickly rotating defense, but for a majority of this game we got aggressive and intelligent contributions from Mills and Boris Diaw, the latter of which was smart enough to go at Dirk Nowitzki every time he found himself matched up with the curiously foul-plagued German. With a certain other Frenchman ailing (or something), it's becoming more and more imperative to get consistently excellent nights from at least two of the Foreign Legion. We got 2.5 tonight. We might get .5 on Wednesday. Who knows? It's chaos.
The playoffs don't get easier, or less random, from here. Statistically the first round is the only round of the playoffs in which regular season head-to-head record positively correlates to winning; whether or not the Spurs win this series, I think we can all agree it's been a much tougher first mile of the marathon than would've previously been thought. But chaos has reigned this entire season - Derrick Rose, the Indiana Pacers, Vince freakin' Carter. To say I have any idea what to expect from the next three games, let alone whatever comes after that, would be a gross misappropriation of my clairvoyance.
Stressful as it is (and it is stressful), isn't chaos the way it should be? Maybe chaos doesn't benefit the fluid, precise bliss of the Spurs' offensive system, but random variations in the perceived norm are what keep life even mildly interesting. That the 2014 NBA Playoffs have an inordinate number of bonkers, inexplicable moments is all the better. There's a reason the first two rounds of the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament are so exciting, and it's not because each powerhouse team's fans ('cept for you Duke HAHA) get to watch their team romp a small art school. It's because every so often, chaos will peek its beautiful head into the mix and toss a curveball into the brackets.
This Spurs - Mavericks match up is one big wrench in the gears of what was perceived to be a pro forma, gentlemen's sweeps week of first round basketball. Instead, three of the four Western series' are knotted at two games apiece, with each of the so-called "favorites" having huge struggles vanquishing supposedly mediocre foes. This week may bring a return to normalcy... the Thunder, Clippers and Spurs get their acts together and romp through lesser teams.
But maybe this week will get even crazier. Hold on, Spurs fans. There's a long ways to go yet, and nothing ever goes quite according to plan.
Standard Pop Quote
You're on fire. You're on fire.
- Pop, either trying to convince Tony Parker to continue shooting despite his terrible performance... or having a seriously strange mid-game hallucination.
Manu Ginobili: 23 points (7-14 shooting), 3 rebounds, 5 assists, 1 steal, 3 turnovers in 28 minutes.
Could easily give this to Boris for continue to take that above the break three point attempt that the Mavs conceded all game... but the Spurs wouldn't have even been close in this one had it not been for the #Manussance. With the Spurs down 12-2 early in the first, the crowd in Dallas enlivened to near Golden State proportions... Manu Ginobili came into the game, calmed everybody down and began to execute the type of Spurs basketball we haven't seen since before Oklahoma City broke our win streak a month ago. Ginobili pushed the action on offense, going hard through screens and immediately kicking the ball to big men or shooters when he didn't see a lane or driving at near impossible angles to the hoop when he saw just the tiniest sliver of daylight. The Mavericks have found a convenient way to flummox Tony Parker (more on that in a bit), but their method hasn't translated to Ginobili, who is the living embodiment of the Popovich-ian ideal of "keep shooting." Matt Moore of the always rabble-rousing @HPBasketball twitter handle is fond of saying this is "1st Round Manu." I don't disagree with him, and part of me is very concerned about Manu's ability to continue to carve up defenses in later rounds (assuming the Spurs get there at all). But even if he falls off a cliff in the West Semis or later, I'll be comforted in the notion that the Spurs would've fallen off of that same cliff a whole lot earlier if 1st Round Manu hadn't kept them afloat. And for dessert, I'll leave you with this stat:
Spurs off rating with Ginobili tonight: 117.6/100. Without: 69.7/100.— Dan McCarney (@danmccarneysaen) April 29, 2014
Tony Parker: 10 points (5-14 shooting), 1 rebound, 3 assists, 4 turnovers in 30 minutes.
Oof. We are a long way from the days when Spurs fans were arguing for Tony Parker as the best point guard in the league. I still believe in Tony Parker. I think he's one of the only Spur players to potentially have that gear that he can just turn on at any moment and become an unstoppable force. And he did make some shots down the stretch after I yelled at the TV questioning why Pop was taking out Patty for Tony. But the Mavericks have thrown their best/biggest wing defenders (Shawn Marion and Jae Crowder) at Parker, and both have succeeded in closing off Parker's sight lines to other shooters and the basket. Tony frequently looks aggravated on the court and sulky off of it, a sure sign he's not getting where he needs to go. The Spurs offense, in turn, gets stuck in some serious mud when he's on the floor. It's a going concern, one that takes a whole new spotlight if Parker is injured, as some scattered reports seem to indicate.
I am not one to be Crazy Overreact to One Game Guy, but my stance is this: start Patty Mills and Manu Ginobili, and move Tony Parker and Danny Green to the bench. This benefits the Spurs in two ways. One, Ginobili is more physically suited to compete with Shawn Marion as his defender while allowing Tony to avoid the long-armed pest. Two, it allows the Spurs to start an offensive lineup featuring their five best players over the past two games, yet still have the potential offensive firepower to hold onto leads when the bench unit (Tony-Danny-Marco-Boris-Bonner) have to spell the starters. Mills also seems more inclined to hound Jose Calderon off the three point line, as Tony has shown little desire to push the dead-eye out of the spots he wants.
But this is probably overstatement. I hope Tony is fine, and I hope he has that one extra level somewhere in his brain. If he doesn't, I fear we can say goodbye to any championship aspirations.
By the Numbers
- 187 - Playoff wins by the San Antonio Spurs franchise, 5th All-Time. Two more would pass the Detroit Pistons for 4th so... motivation?
- 11% - Shooting percentage for the Dallas Mavericks in the second quarter, their lowest quarter shooting percentage since the 2006 Finals against Miami. For one, brief shining quarter, #SpursBorg rose again.
- 4 - Number of above the break threes Boris attempted, making only one. I confess, I audibly yelled when he took that shot. Did not like.
- 2 - More.
Bird is the Word
"Can't believe I kept those braids for so long." ~ a sheepish, bald-faded Kawhi after averaging 21-8-4 in 2016— Tweetgood Mac (@SnottieDrippen) April 29, 2014
Oh god I hope so for all of this.
Kawhi mad. Pop mad. TP poopy.— N (@nikkiyea) April 29, 2014
I don't know why this made me laugh so hard... but it did. Because that's exactly the difference between Kawhi, Pop and Tony's reactions to hardship.
OOF. Not wrong.
The Washington Wizards: 2014 East Conference Finalists.— Tim C (@LASpursFanTim) April 29, 2014
At this point, one of the Eastern Semifinal Match ups is going to be the Washington Wizards versus the Atlanta Hawks. The Eastern Conference is NOT a gauntlet.
This is easily the most Dallas halftime performance I've ever seen.
My favorite '08 Olympics memory is Patty Mills supporting the AUS women's team by wearing one of their bodysuit uniforms to the GM game.— John Schuhmann (@johnschuhmann) April 29, 2014
Anybody got pictures of this?!
Was trying to decide who is more Shakespearean, Parker or Monta, then LOLed thinking about Drake as Hamlet— Bethlehem Shoals (@freedarko) April 29, 2014
Drake as Hamlet is so infuriatingly accurate I can't stand it.
In the end, the Spurs just had the better fat guy.— Caleb Saenz (@calebjsaenz) April 29, 2014
Better rehash than mine.
Odds and Ends.
- Easily one of the most unintentionally comical things I've seen from the Spurs in a long time.
Parker's left arm caught Mills' face, and Tony is the one in pain! https://t.co/WRDlLSd6uu— J.R. Wilco (@jollyrogerwilco) April 29, 2014
- In many ways, I think the Mavericks are a good analogue to the Grizzlies 2011 team that beat the Spurs in the first round. While the two teams are nothing alike, both represented exactly what the Spurs didn't want to see starting off the postseason. In 2011 it was a hungry team whose defense was utterly suffocating against an aging team without a good offensive strategy. Now in 2014 it's a fabulous offensive team with all sorts of pride to play for, up against a team whose defense hasn't exactly been peaking against good teams of late. I'm not saying the results will be the same... it's just very interesting.
- I don't want to comment any further than this, but regardless of whether the audio is actually him, and only taking into account on the record court documents from the numerous suits against him, I will emphatically say this; there is no place for Donald Sterling In the National Basketball Association. That he will likely walk away from the Clippers with a nine-figure profit is repugnant, but at least the basketball world will be rid of him. There. That's all.
Game 5 vs. Mavericks - Wednesday, April 30th @ 6:00 CST - very early start, so be sure to get there on time, Spurs fans. And before I post what I need to post, I must say this. I don't care what the score is. I don't care if you have a job to go to the following morning. We all have lives to lead outside of the AT&T Center. But if you choose to put on Spurs colors, or actively cheer for the Spurs in any way, I find it repugnant that you would even consider leaving a Spurs game early, regardless of the certainty of the outcome. I know I'm in the minority on this opinion, but I feel justified in getting a little soap-boxey because heck, it's the frickin' playoffs. Support your team through thick and thin. Real fans don't leave.
14 More. Go Spurs Go.