Sometimes there is beauty in things that are overwhelmingly bad. The Spurs entered Game 4 of their first round matchup with the Dallas Mavericks in a virtual must-win situation. Trailing in the series 2-1 after Vince Carter's "rip your heart out" corner three on Saturday, the Spurs would be staring down almost certain elimination if they didn't win on Monday night. To do so would require Gregg Popovich's squad to get off to a quick start and take the crowd out of the game early.
So naturally the Spur's started by shooting 1-11 from the field and trailed 12-2 late in the 1st quarter.
Fortunately for San Antonio, the bad play wasn't confined to the visiting team as the Mavericks went on a 7-31 run of their own and found themselves trailing the Spurs by 20 midway through the 3rd. It was a dizzying shift in momentum, but far from complete.
Led by DeJuan Blair, the Mavericks went on a furious run of their own to tie the game, and actually took the lead late in the 4th. The violent swings and seemingly endless shifts can be disconcerting, particularly for those of us "lucky" enough to be fans of either team.
The word "lucky" is surrounded by quotation marks to point out the irony in the word in this situation. Because for so many of us, "lucky" is the exact opposite of what we are feeling right now. The last five minutes of the game were physically painful to watch. Battered by constant reminders of Ray Allen and now Vince Carter, it's difficult for Spurs fans to ever feel a sense of ease. And I'm sure the same can be said for the numerous fans in Dallas and across Texas that root for the Mavericks.
This is already a gut-wrenching series, and we're only four games in. The slow pasing of time is partly due to the drawn-out scheduling so far, but it's also because of the natural anxiety and impatience of the fans, and it feels as if this series has been going on for months.
The play on the court has been spectacularly compelling, but not always pretty. The Spurs are heavy favorites but they still feel they have something to prove against the proud and stubborn Mavericks. Tim Duncan. Dirk Nowitzki. Shawn Marion. Boris Diaw. Tony Parker. Monta Ellis. Manu Ginobili. Devin Harris. Gregg Popovich. Rick Carlisle.
It is for these reasons, and those men above, that I began to think about the significance of what is historically a not so significant first round.
By Sunday (at the latest) this series will be over and the winner will move on to the next round. The loser will have a long summer and an even longer list of questions to answer. The games played by the two will be quickly forgotten as only one team marches forward and new storylines emerge.
So before America moves on, I hope the storylines in this series get their due. Manu Ginobili is playing in a time warp. Dirk Nowitzki has yet to score 20 points in a game, but South Texas holds its collective breath whenever he gets the ball. Tony Parker struggles, then explodes, struggles, then explodes. Monta Ellis has been a frustrating pleasure to watch as he shakes his own playoff demons and comes into his own. Tiago Splitter is playing his guts out and Dejuan Blair is too. Tim Duncan has been as consistent as Danny Green hasn't and Rick Carlisle deserves a raise.
But most compelling has to be Kawhi Leonard and Vince Carter. Kawhi, the reluctant superstar, continues his methodical pacing backstage, only occasionally stepping out into the spotlight. But on those occasions when he does, it's something special. Kawhi is one of the few players in the league that will make you grab your remote at home to rewind, just to figure out how or what he just did. Last night during one series in the 2nd quarter he had a blocked shot (ironically on Carter) and a rebound a few seconds later that sent DVRs buzzing.
Which leads me to Mr. Carter's storyline. While some may disagree, I contend that Vince Carter's three point dagger on Saturday was the best thing that could happen to the Spurs.
Most importantly, it seems to have awoken them from their slumber. The Spurs needed a hard slap across the face and Carter obliged. But secondly it seems that his shot also boosted his own confidence to an unrealistic level. Carter at times seemed out of control on Monday night and took several ill-advised shots. His competitive nature and alpha male tendencies manhandled his basketball IQ which led to mistakes and ill-advised shots that the Spurs capitalized on.
But beyond the storylines is a gritty playoff brand of basketball that has been painfully unwatchable at times, yet you don't dare avert your eyes. It has been Patty Mills going into hyper drive, knocking down jumpers and Tony Parker, seemingly in one motion. It's Tiago Splitter, manning up on Dirk Nowitzki and defending him better than few ever have. It's bodies flying and hustle plays and coaches struggling to stay two steps ahead. It's Boris Diaw stepping up big late. It's an appreciation for what these 30 men have been struggling, grinding, scratching and clawing for since late October. And you can feel the desperation palpably rise as the end draws near for half of them.
Late last night, during those painful final five minutes, I considered this series in its entirety and the beauty of bad basketball. It was then that I realized that I really am lucky to get to watch all of this, regardless of how it plays out. There can be beauty in things that are overwhelmingly bad, and sometimes we're lucky to witness them. Even if it's only the first round.
And as the final buzzer sounded I quietly celebrated an ugly Spurs win in my living room, not wanting to wake my wife and kids.