If brutally honest, Spurs fans would admit that Dirk Nowitzki and his band of merry Mavs put more of a scare in their hearts than anticipated during their first round playoff matchup. Nine straight wins over an opponent, a 62 win regular season, and a number one seed can cause a fanbase to feel nine feet tall and bulletproof, even before the tequila shots.
And the Spurs themselves may have suffered a bit from overconfidence and overlooking their opponent, but it's hard to blame them. A core group, so close to the promised land a year ago, can understandably get a bit impatient and simply go through the motions, hoping to fast forward to the Finals to claim what they believe is theirs.
But to paraphrase Mike Tyson, that all changes when you get punched in the mouth.
That's exactly what the Mavericks did during this series. Even when knocked to the mat, they'd stumble back to their feet and deliver another haymaker. For Spurs fans it was frustrating, but from a purely sports fan's perspective it was admirable and deserving of respect. During his post-game press conference Nowitzki talked a little about the last two years and the struggles they've overcome. The Mavericks had nine new guys on their roster this year and they took the best team in the NBA (based solely on the regular season) to the brink. Rick Carlisle is a class act. Dirk Nowitzki is a legend. Vince Carter is timeless and Monta Ellis is one of the hardest working players I had the pleasure to watch this season. The Mavericks are a proud organization, and I'm glad I had a front row seat during this series, but the Spurs completely overwhelmed them in Game 7 and the outcome on Sunday was really never in question.
As for the Spurs going forward, the rest (or lack thereof) debate will continue to rage. The line between having an opportunity to play in close games, and respond to pressure situations versus resting the legs of your veterans and saving them for the grind ahead is a very thin one. Popovich mentioned it at the end of the regular season when he said he wanted to have a few close games to see how the team would respond to adversity. The Mavericks were more than happy to grant Pop's wish.
Many Spurs fans feel the team wasted an opportunity by not breezing through the first round and having a well rested group heading into the later series. But here's the rub: the Spurs were a few bad bounces away from having a long summer filled with rest, relaxation and above all else bitter dissappointment, but they prevailed. Sometimes answering the bell is more advantageous than cruising through without being tested. Or worse, getting knocked out before you even get your sea legs.
Gregg Popovich was asked whether it's a benefit to being battle tested for two straight weeks. "Sure... it's logical to say that I guess. If it was rest, you'd say that's great, and since you don't get rest you say, well we're ready to go... It's psychobabble really."
Tony Parker was asked the same question. "I think we'll be fine. I feel great right now. We have a long way to go. I think we're gonna be ready on Tuesday."
It's interesting because the 'rest question' has been hanging over the AT&T Center since the series passed the Game 4 point and has been roiling around in everyone's minds. Popovich was even asked about it before the game on Sunday. The question centered around how psychology plays into a game like this. The Mavs were thrilled to be here, the Spurs not so much.
In typical Popovich fashion, he bristled a bit at the question and shot back "I don't know why we wouldn't be thrilled." But then he did something uncharacteristic. He smiled and went on. He asked if the reporter was implying that the Spurs should've swept the Mavericks, to a bit of nervous laughter. "I'm pretty sure that's not a possibility anymore," he deadpanned, before breaking into another smile.
Now, I'm not a seasoned veteran at any of this. Some of those reporters in the room have more knowledge and more stories in their little finger than I'll ever witness or amass, but Pop's reaction in that moment was striking to me. I felt better about the Spurs chances against the Mavericks and felt better about their chances going forward after that surprising exchange and his crooked smile.
Because, while rest is never a bad thing, sometimes getting punched in the mouth is the best wake-up call. And while they may not win it all, I can guarantee you the Spurs are awake now.
Popovich succinctly summed up the Spurs play on Sunday in his opening remarks after the game. "It was one of our best games of the year and it showed."
And up the mountain we go. The time for rest has passed.