It's been a common refrain this postseason from the basket-blogger community at large, but it's worth repeating...
These playoffs, man.
San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich has been saying virtually his entire career that seedings don't matter in the insanely deep Western Conference, that home court doesn't matter, records don't matter. Anybody can beat anybody. Just about every year I've dismissed those comments as typical cliches, stated just so his guys wouldn't be overconfident and the opposition wouldn't have the dreaded "bulletin board material." The fact of the matter is that as far as the Spurs were concerned during the Tim Duncan Era, the first round has been a formality just about every year that the team had a top-3 seed and was healthy.
In 2000, Duncan was out. In 2009, Ginobili was gone. In 2011, Ginobili played, but with a broken elbow. Otherwise, it's played true to form.
This season though, the "anybody can win" mantra certainly hasn't been a cliche. Not only are the Mavericks giving the Spurs everything they can handle and then some, but the Grizzlies are 2-2 with the second-seeded Thunder and a couple of bounces from a 3-1 lead; the third-seeded Clippers are tied 2-2 with the Warriors and mired in all sorts of distractions and controversies not of their own making; and the fourth-seeded Rockets are down 3-1 to the Blazers, who look like the best team in the conference right now, at least offensively.
You want to predict who's going to come out of the West as of Tuesday morning? Good luck to you.
The Mavericks, who won 49 games and would've challenged for the best record in the Eastern Conference, have been a match-up nightmare for the Spurs through four games. Certainly we knew that Dirk Nowitzki would create some problems, but a number of other things have caught the Spurs by surprise. Some, we should've seen coming. Others, completely unforeseeable.
We should've seen Rick Carlisle coming. He's a fantastic coach and I don't think it's hyperbole to suggest he's taken Pop to the woodshed so far. I've long maintained that Popovich is the best regular season coach in NBA history, but the playoffs are a different animal and his system doesn't get role players open shots at nearly the same rate once a committed, talented opponent has time to specifically game plan against it. Once the playoffs become a battle of the stars, the Spurs tend to come up short because their guys, as fantastic as they've been throughout their careers, are all near the end.
Carlisle's schemes have taken Danny Green, Marco Belinelli and even Kawhi Leonard away as far as open three point looks go. In Game 4 the Spurs got seven open threes from the half-court offense the entire game. Five of them were by Boris Diaw, which was a specific pick-your-poison game-planning decision that Carlisle has made, and just about the whole league plays Diaw this way. The other two looks were step-backs by Manu Ginobili and Patty Mills when guys went under the screen on them. Nothing off a catch-and-shoot by anyone other than Diaw though, in a 48-minute game.
Even more impressive --and concerning for the Spurs-- is that the Mavericks were fantastic in covering the three in transition. The Spurs didn't get a single transition attempt the whole game. Granted, a lot of that was they just didn't have many opportunities. The Mavs only committed nine turnovers and very few of them were of the live ball variety. The Spurs only had four steals all game, similar to their Game 2 struggles in that regard. The few times the Spurs did get a run out, it was of the breakaway variety where they got layups or dunks instead of that "secondary break" we saw Green specialize in all year.
The other familiar bugaboo, the infernal three off the offensive rebound, also wasn't available for the Spurs. They attempted just one such shot all game, by Kawhi Leonard after a board by Tiago Splitter, and even then Vince Carter got out to Leonard and contested the shot pretty well.
Overall 10 of the Spurs 17 three-point attempts were contested, including all five of Ginobili's misses from downtown. That's just incredible defensive discipline for the Mavs and an indictment on the lack of ball movement for the Spurs.
San Antonio, meanwhile, wasn't nearly as disciplined in taking away the three on the other end. They contested just eight of Dallas' 23 attempts. The Mavs got seven looks in the half court (making just 1-of-7), five in transition (2-of-5) and four off offensive rebounds (1-of-4, though one of those was contested).
I cannot overstate how fortunate the Spurs were to win Game 4, given how many wide open threes Dallas missed. The basketball Gods definitely paid us back for Game 3 and then some.
We probably should've seen Tony Parker's struggles coming too, since he's had difficulty all year staying healthy and get on any kind of consistent roll. It's pretty much been one good game, then a bunch of average ones, then another good one, etc. At times he's masked average performances overall with some clutch play late.
It's been the same deal every game this series. He comes out fine, full of vim and vinegar, but once he sits he can't regain that trademark zip the rest of the game. The floaters are short, the layup attempts few and far between and the free throw line a long lost lover, fading in the memory.
For the most part Parker got good looks in the first half, even though they weren't layups. There was one particularly painful sequence in the second quarter where Leonard had a ferocious block of Carter, Parker missed a running floater on the other end, Leonard stole the offensive board from Samuel Dalembert, drew the double in the post, dished it to Parker wide open under the rim, and he blew the bunny layup. Just awful.
The afternoon got worse for Parker at the 1:40 mark of the second quarter, when he turned his left ankle. After that he quit trying to take on Shawn Marion or Devin Harris entirely in the second half, causing the offense to stall with his indecision and aimless dribbling. The Spurs were stuck in the mud and their spacing was off. The two times the Mavs erred defensively, with Jose Calderon or Monta Ellis switched onto Parker, he attacked them immediately for layups, making one and missing the other badly.
Either the Spurs bigs aren't setting screens effectively enough or Parker isn't being decisive and aggressive enough in attacking those seams on the screens. He's letting the big recover off the switch and then can't buy room against them to get his shot off. He's also not backing it out and letting the offense reset to take advantage of the resulting small-on-big mismatch down low after the switch. Everything gets low on the shot-clock and the spacing is a mess. Parker couldn't shake Carter either the couple of times Vinsanity was switched onto him.
Ironically, Parker played his best defensive game of the series. Even the couple of times Calderon hit a three over him, Tony wasn't sucked in that bad. Calderon just seems to hit everything against the Spurs.
Still, unless the head-of-the-Spurs'-snake makes a miraculous recovery, they're toast, this round or the next. It's asking entirely too much of Ginobili to be the team's primary shot-creator/play-maker for 35+ minutes a night against the best perimeter defenders of the opponent, especially when he has to work from a deficit for the minutes he's not in there. Duncan also is having to work too hard for shots. What happened to the pick-and-pop? Needless to say, the ankle injury is not a good sign when Parker was already compromised. Not too many rest days ahead, either.
We should've seen the marginalization of Marco Belinelli and Patty Mills coming. Minutes shrink for bench guys in the playoffs, Pop has vowed (rightly so) to play Leonard more and since the Spurs aren't playing small, that means fewer opportunities for Belinelli and Green. Mills had by far his best game of the series in Game 4, and perhaps he'll have more chances to shine with Parker being so limited. Pop actually played the two of them together in the second quarter for 2:45 and the Spurs were plus-7 in that time. Curiously, he never went back to it in the second half, though Carlisle was careful not to play Calderon and Ellis too much together after the first nine minutes.
We definitely should've seen the bonehead play from DeJuan Blair coming. He's not a bad guy and can be an offensive asset when he's pumped up, but man, he's just not the brightest. That, more than anything, is why the Spurs dumped him.
The things that have been more unpredictable, to me, have been the regression of Danny Green from productive starter to D-League vagabond , the disappearance of Leonard's mid-range game, and Nowitzki's play sinking to the depths where he's almost singlehandedly kept the Spurs in this series. And dammit, yes, also Matt Bonner.
First, Green. It's one thing that the Mavericks' defensive schemes have taken away his three point looks, but he's shrunk to the point where he's not even touching the ball. What happened to a pump-fake and a dribble drive? What happened to transition threes? It's all gone. He's been completely invisible, to the point where it's 4-on-5. In the second half he forced three shots, all long twos, and made one. Even more damning for Green were his brain cramps on the other end, where he lost shooters in transition a couple of times and got yanked each time. Pop's just about had it with him.
I think Pop has to seriously consider starting Belinelli. Perhaps he can use a pump fake to get by Calderon or shake free on a back cut or two. Defensively they'll no doubt post up Marion against him, but I can live with that. Maybe if Green plays on the second unit with Ginobili he can get a couple of open looks that he's not getting with the starters. I'd even consider starting Mills alongside Parker and then going to Joseph if I have to as the backup point. Green with the starters just isn't working. It's in his head.
Leonard has found ways to be effective in spurts thanks to his athleticism and ability to do things on defense and on the boards, but he's not finding much room in the half-court offense. He was the team's best mid-range shooter in the regular season and he's not trying that shot at all, even though Marion is usually occupied elsewhere. On post-ups they're doubling him quickly (except for one mistake which quickly prompted a time out from Carlisle) and he doesn't have the experience to make the proper pass out of it. His PER is 11.2, down eight points from his regular season average. I'd still like to see Pop put him on the point guards to disrupt their offense.
Just about the only thing that's gone right for the Spurs, besides Ginobili playing at nearly 2005 level so far (minus the dunks), has been Nowitzki looking almost as lost as Parker. Make no mistake, he's been Dallas' worst rotation player so far, and I love Dirk. Obviously, even when he's struggling Nowitzki has an impact on the game because he changes the shape of the Spurs defense. He can only be guarded by a big and he pulls them away from the basket, leaving Duncan as the only rebounder/rim protector. Still, only Splitter is remotely capable of putting a hand in his face and Nowitzki has missed plenty of wide open looks all four games.
Where Dirk's really hurt Dallas though has been on the other end. His defense has been atrocious. He doesn't play the pick-and-roll nearly as well as their other bigs. He gives up too much room to Parker or Ginobili, doesn't hedge at the right angles, and is powerless against the bigs in the post. Diaw got just about all his threes against him as well. If Dirk was playing at all his typical level, the Spurs would've been swept already, leaving all of us dumbstruck as to what the hell happened.
Finally, I cannot deny that I noticed Bonner's positive contributions, even though he posted a 4 trillion in the box score. It's obvious the offensive spacing is so much better with him on the floor, especially for Ginobili. The Heat and Thunder are athletic enough to suck in the paint and still get out in time on him but the Mavs aren't. Defensively, the Mavs went right at him three straight times in the post, salivating the way we do when Leonard has Ellis on him, and they got nothing. They had six empty trips in all against him.
I have to sheepishly admit that it might be worth playing Bonner more the next couple games, but only with Duncan or Splitter. Can't get rebounds otherwise.
The Spurs are in uncharted territory now. Since I've started following them in 1989, they've lost a road Game 3 in a 1-1 series seven times (including the injury-influenced affairs of 2000, 2009 and 2011). In all seven cases they lost Game 4 as well, and eventually, the series. The one time the Spurs won a road Game 4 down 1-2, it was in 1995 to the Rockets, when they were down 0-2 at home and had already won one road game in Game 3 to give themselves the confidence and momentum that they could do it again.
Then they got destroyed in Game 5 at home. Just obliterated. When people remember Hakeem Olajuwon killing David Robinson that series, they remember Game 5.
The Spurs won Game 4 at Dallas despite a fourth period where they went without a field goal for nearly seven minutes from the 8:24 mark to 1:37, with Parker's jumper over Marion breaking the drought. In the interim they missed eight shots and turned it over twice. Thankfully they made 8-of-9 freebies to stay in it. Blair's idiotic kick to the noggin of Splitter probably changed the game.
Still, I have no idea what to think about Game 5. I'm certainly not taking it for granted. Look at Indiana's Game 5 effort against Atlanta. The Mavs can get that hot from three too, if you let them. The Spurs were outscored in three of four quarters in Game 4. Which one is the real team, the one we saw in the second quarter or the other three?
You can tell me they'll win by 20 or the Mavs will win by 20 and any outcome in between and I can picture it.
These playoffs, man.
Your Three Stars:
3) Tiago Splitter (10 pts)
2) Manu Ginobili (11 pts)
1) Boris Diaw (3 pts)