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There Goes the Sixth Man Award

Game 19: Spurs 97, Mavericks 95

For any windbag who ever tells you that the NBA regular season is a meaningless exercise not worth anyone's time, last night's epic was Exhibit A that they don't know what they're talking about. Getting into my Bill Walton character for a second, "Now THAT was a fun basketball game to watch."

"Guys, guys, what's the big deal? I've been telling you all that the Mavericks aren't that good. Hell, if it wasn't for Manu's dumb foul, we'd have beaten them two years ago..."
(Photo by D. Clarke Evans/NBAE via Getty Images)

And for December 6, it was meaningful as hell, don't kid yourselves. These guys are in our heads, no doubt about it. Well, at least Tony's head, anyway (much more on that coming, as a warning to all you fans of Le Trou Noir). Actually scratch that. It's not just Tony. There's something about facing these guys that makes everyone antsy. Bruce can't shoot against them. Barry's a spastic mess. Our defense constantly gets exploited into mismatches and switches and our offensive chemistry is all out of whack with zero ball movement. Pop lets his friendship with AJ cloud his judgment and even Manu has the chip on his shoulder, knowing he's going to have to hear about "THE FOUL" for the rest of his life, no matter how many rings he wins. The fans are on edge, their announcers are obnoxious punks, and we haven't even gotten into Cuban yet.

And give the Mavericks credit. They play their role as villains to the tee. Manolis was watching the game with me last night and remember, he's a Warriors fan, so he really has no reason to dread Dallas at all, he doesn't have that history with them the way we do. And while we were talking about their various players like Harris, JET, The Big Bug, Stack, etc. the gears in his head started turning and completely unsolicited he offered, "You know, the Mavs sure do have a lot of unlikable players."

Tell me about it. I keep going back and forth over which one of the four I hate more. At the moment I've got the order as Terry, Howard, Stackhouse, Harris, but it's always liable to change in the future. They're all dirty, they're all assholes, and they all take cheap shots, especially against Manu. Harris at least isn't as much of a thug as he is just a shameless flopper, plus he spends most of his time on Tony, so with him I'm more disgusted than upset usually. Still, I think it's amazing that Dirk is the Mavericks most likable player. Sure he's soft, and a choker, but at least he's not maliciously dirty. Really, if you think about it, the backlash against Nowitzki has more to do with how the cast around him and how the team's personality has changed than anything Dirk himself is responsible for.

Remember when Cubes was the only unlikable thing about the Mavs? They had Nash, they had Fin; they scored a lot, played no defense, and were basically harmless, May cannon fodder, not worth taking seriously. But then they brought in Stackhouse, brought in Terry, drafted Harris and Howard, and most importantly, brought in the L'il General to be their coach. Suddenly the Mavs shifted into something darker, uglier. The team tried to copy what Johnson perceived as the most important elements of the Spurs blueprint for success, but he tried to morph Pop's X's and O's with players whose personalities and character issues were more in line to his and Cuban's view of the world.

What resulted from this unholy union was disastrous, both for NBA fans around the world in general and the Spurs in particular. The Mavs were built and continue to be built, top to bottom, to beat the Spurs. They outgrit us, outslug us, they have zero respect for the rules, and their owner intimidates the hell out of the refs, especially in their building. They beat us by combining the ugly, goonish tactics of Pat Riley's Knicks and the boring, unwatchable one-on-one style of play that characterized most of the NBA in the late 90's/early 00's after Jordan retired and all but killed the league before the next generation of stars (and Stern's rule changes) restored some semblance of beauty back into the game. Now, nobody really cares because most people hate the Spurs anyway, but the problem with the Mavs is that they're not chameleons like we are. The way they play us is the way they play everybody, and it's pretty telling that the team has been consistently at the bottom of the charts in assists under Johnson's reign.

And this goes back to my main point: Dirk Nowitzki no longer fits with the Mavericks and should probably be traded. His strengths, his style of play, and his personality have nothing in common with his teammates or coaches. It's a bad fit. The perception that the Mavs are more "interesting" or "fun" for casual fans than the Spurs is rooted entirely with Dirk being the face of the team, and when you think of Dirk, you think of offense and three pointers. The fan's memories of the Nash-Fin-Dirk Mavs haven't caught up to the reality of the Howard-Harris-Terry Mavs. It's a total contradiction as far as what the team's current identity is. To me, when I think of the Mavs, I think of guys I don't like, Cuban, Johnson, Howard, Terry. I don't think of Dirk. And more and more I'm starting to think I'm not alone.

The Big Bug has evolved into the Mavs best player, not because he's the most talented or the most dedicated, but just because he fits their system and their identity more. It's no coincidence that Johnson ran his final play last night for Howard. I'd be surprised if the Johnson-Nowitzki marriage isn't broken up before long. Cuban likes Dirk because he's marketable and a face and a name, and in the end, Cuban likes money and attention. Johnson cares just about winning, at all costs, regardless of how ugly it looks. I fully believe that sooner rather than later Johnson will march into Cuban's office and give him a "Me-or-Dirk" ultimatum, and then things will get pretty interesting in Dallas.

Now, getting into our game specifically, I was shocked and amazed by the turn of events. The middle 38 minutes of the game let's say was very surprising to me. I fully admit it: I did not expect the Spurs to win the game, guilty as charged. But in my defense, I didn't think Manu was going to play. That's what my 104-87 prediction was based on. I mean, if a sprained finger can keep the biggest superduperstar of them all out for four games (and counting...) then surely our frail, rail-thin bench scrub would be out for a month, right? Yet again, The Hustlemaker has made me look stupid for misunderestimating him. However, even with Manu playing, and in the starting line-up no less, I thought we had at most, a 20% chance of pulling it off.

What I did not factor into the equation was Duncan's injury turning into a positive. It finally forced Pop, arrogant and set in his ways to the bitter end, to abandon the status quo of how we play defense against these guys and become hunters instead of the hunted. Timmeh going down was the catalyst for us to resort to Nellie-ball defense, and I for one am convinced that pressuring the ball relentlessly, doubling and trapping their crappy passers, and getting in these guys' grills and getting them flustered is the only way to play these guys on defense. Don Nelson wrote the book on how to beat these pricks, all we had to do was read it and do our homework.

In the end it doesn't really matter whether Bruce is guarding Dirk or Howard. I don't like either match up there, to be honest. It doesn't matter who's guarding anybody because all their guys are practically interchangeable; good at going to the hole, good at making open shots, not so hot at thinking about what to do with a basketball outside of putting it inside the rim. All we have to do is switch and trap, switch and trap and force bad decision makers to make decisions. How many times yesterday did we force Dallas to use all of the shot clock, even on their makes? How many times did we make them go to option three, four, five on a play? I'm telling you, we flustered the hell out of them and they probably thought without Timmy in there that we'd pack the lane, go into some conservative zone shell and give them open shots all night. Ha!

To me the key stat of the game was our rebounding. While switching and trapping and scrambling is the only way to frustrate these guys on defense, it makes you very vulnerable to offensive rebounds, particularly if you match them by going small. Your guards have to stick their noses in there and rebound and to that end I thought both Bowen and Finley did a fabulous job, snatching 15 defensive caroms between them. The Mavs got only four offensive rebounds all night, a terrific number for us.

What I'm curious about now is how we'll play these guys the next time, when Tim is healthy. Obviously we're a better team with him in there, but it certainly appeared as though it took his absence for the rest of the guys to play hard enough or to respect Dallas enough. Will Pop have the smarts to stick to this same style with Timmy back or will it go back to same old same old one-on-one defense? You know which way I'm leaning on this one. I know usually Duncan is the defensive anchor back there, our last line of defense, but over time the Mavs have shown that this tactic just doesn't work against them. When playing Dallas, Timmeh has to embrace his shoe commercial philosophy and just be one of "five;" no more or less important than the rest.

Finally, I've found a fellow human being who looks less comfortable in a suit jacket than I do.
(Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images)

Okay, now the part you're all waiting for, the Manu-diddling. I'm sure when the game started, you all had the same reaction I did - what the hell is he doing out there? His first shot, a banker, was a rock off the backboard, off by like six feet, shot with the touch we would expect from someone like Ben Wallace. His second and third attempts were missed lay-ups (no foul on the third one?). His fourth was a freaking air ball from 18 feet. JEE-zus CHRIST, sit him down already, he's clearly hurt!

But then came a driving lay-in, and another one, with a foul. All of a sudden there was some life there. And then Dallas, led by that punk bitch Jason "I'm an aer-O-plane" Terry started fouling him, hard. Don't make El Gimpo angry, you won't like him when he's angry. I guess it wasn't enough that Terry already threw a shoulder into The Wee Frenchman for a flagrant. No, he was just getting started. Late in the first half Manu drove right and kicked his leg up a bit as he was drawing a foul. His foot found Terry's nuts and JET, in reaction, grabbed Manu's left foot in mid air and held on to it so he fell down right on his stomach. It was a real sneaky play but one that I'm surprised didn't cause more of a reaction from the refs. That could've been very dangerous.

Then, early in the second half Manu drove past a lost Howard and into the path of Erick Dampier, who gave him a standard foul, which was whistled. Terry, perhaps fearful of the continuation, grabbed Manu's right arm and yanked it violently downward and again Manu landed on the ground with a thud. The Mavs WWE-worthy announcing team, of course, blamed the whole thing on Gino's ability to initiate contact and make it look bad, repeatedly ignoring the Terry yank despite numerous replays. Manu's entire body jerked 90 degrees in mid air, but somehow no Maverick had anything to do with it. In the words of Brad Davis, "Really, I don't see anything there."

I drove for an half hour to my mom's house just so I could photoshop Terry's face onto this picture of some other guy I found on Yahoo. Why? Because I'm CRAZY. Also, after an hour of tinkering with it, it still looks like crap. #$#$%^&&#

God, I hate every facet of this organization.

So after an up-and-down 14 point first half, Manu had three quick free throws to start his 3rd quarter. Then a driving lay-up right in Diop's mug to tie the game at 49, the first tie since it was 2-2. Time out, Dallas.

Whatever Avery told them after the break, I'm guessing it wasn't, "Turn the ball over repeatedly" but nevertheless, that's exactly what his charges did for the next three minutes as Tony got himself going with a couple of lay-ups off steals and Fin buried a three off a Manu pass after Dirk had an offensive foul. With the score at 56-54, good guys, we trapped The Big Bug into a horrible pass which resulted in Stack collecting the ball deep in his own end with the shot clock running down. Manu stole it from him just when Jerry was about to heave up a desperation 35 footer and smartly turned his body going for the lay-up, knowing that Stackhouse was going to cream him if he exposed his face. Still, it was a pretty hard foul.

Manu got caught on a switch and gave up a dunk to Diop the next time down but quickly repaid the favor by driving it right back at him for another lay-up. Dirk got off a drive against Fab and Manu, perhaps bored by all of his short bankers, decided that the time was finally right for him to unleash perhaps the second best dunk of his career, trailing only the massive bukkake job he threw down against seemingly the entire Lakers team in the Staples Center early in the '04-05 season.

He drove left and dunked on Howard AND Diop, an outright facial that came out of nowhere. It looked like one of his Youtube clips from his rookie season, which was apt, I guess, since Manu showed up at the arena back with the gay icon haircut that he broke into the league with. Howard, lest we forget that he's just as much of a thug as Terry or Stackhouse are, punched Gino right in the head as Manu was slamming it and incredibly, no foul was called. Perhaps the zebras were caught watching, just like the rest of us.

A frustrated Stackhouse elbowed Manu in the head at the other end to draw a no-brainer offensive foul and Opus was so intimidated by the this maneuver that he drove again, right this time, right at the gigantic Diop, who gave him yet another shot to the noggin. The Dallas announcers approved, saying, "It's about time somebody knocked him down" since you know, he only had something like 10 free throw attempts before that play. Whatever, two more freebies for The Sickness, eight points in a row, and he had totally taken control of the game and made the entire Mavericks team look pitiful and discombobulated. Even Manolis' dad, who was also watching the game and is most definitely not a Spurs fan couldn't help but notice. "Why do they keep hitting him in the head? Is it because he's white?"


As the quarter was coming to an end, AJ put defensive specialist Trenton Hassell in, specifically to stop Ginobili from ending the period with another dramatic statement. Hassell got caught up in an Oberto screen (Fab was masterful setting picks for his friend, teammate and countryman all night) and was perhaps 15 feet away from his man as Manu canned a wide open three from the top of the key to record his 28th, 29th, and 30th points of the evening.

When they build Manu's statue outside of the stadium someday, I want this to be the model: Driving for a lay-up against somebody bigger, stronger and faster and having all the confidence in the world.
(Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images)

Unfortunately, even God took Sunday off, and that meant Manu had to rest a bit. The fourth got hairy and the Mavs started to slowly chip their way into it here and there. Why you ask? Well the main culprit, I hate to say it, was Tony Parker. Sorry, there's just no way to sugarcoat it. He just sucks against these guys. Devin Harris is in his head. Tony has been passing it so well and been so smart taking care of the ball all year, but against these guys he keeps looking like a rookie, going one-on-five, letting Dallas' defense bait him into mistakes and stupid shots time and again.

Hey, nobody is perfect, I know. It is true that both Manu and Tony had four turnovers apiece. But look at the nature of the turnovers themselves. All four of Manu's miscues came on attempted passes to his centers, three to Fab, one to Elson (incredibly, Harris stole all four). At least he was trying to make a play to somebody else who he thought was open for an easy bucket. Now look at Tony's four turnovers: Charge, charge, travel, travel. Four selfish "me" plays. Maybe I'm crazy, maybe I'm just arguing semantics. If Manu didn't hustle down the floor and block Harris' lay-up at the other end after his last turnover (a stupid no-chance pass to Fab that Harris had covered completely) triggering a break the other way that led to two for Bones, Pop very well could have called time out, read him the riot act and benched him and today we'd be discussing something different entirely. Still, 23 points or no, Tony had many, many frustrating moments in this one and his continuing struggles against Dallas remains the main reason I'm not too thrilled about facing these guys come May. His floor game against them is just atrocious and I just don't know where his head is at.

The result of one of the few times that Manu was able to execute the pick and roll with Fab. That's right, both our Argentines dunked in the same game. Suck it, Dallas.
(Photo by D. Clarke Evans/NBAE via Getty Images)

If you think about it, it's remarkable how the play of their teammates has so much to do with the historical perceptions of players. Few people remember that in 2006, in Game 6 of the second round when we were down 3-2 that Tony turned in one his all-time playoff clunkers, just playing an abysmal game (3 of 15, 8 points), and he was bailed by a heroic 30 point night from Manu to send the series to a Game 7. If Manu just had a normal game for him that night, scoring 20 or whatever, Parker would have been labeled the playoff goat that year. Fate's funny that way. Now the guy is the reigning Finals MVP. Go figure.

For the love of all that is good and holy, stop trying to make lay-ups when Devin Harris is waiting for you right in front of the semi-circle, Tony.
(AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Anyway, as I said the game got pretty close, pretty late. Tony was taking all kinds of bad shots, Bruce couldn't hit anything and had a bad turnover, and Fin had that atrocious turnover which turned a six point game with less than a minute and our ball into a four point game. If it wasn't for the two times in the quarter where Pop actually found the brainpower to give it to Manu and tell everyone to get the hell out of the way, we wouldn't have even had a lead at that point as trusting Parker to run the offense without Tim there to occupy defenders was a disaster. He kept dribbling and dribbling and trapped himself into awful spots on the floor or under the basket while the rest of his teammates looked on. The situation looked grim, especially once Dallas figured out that they should have been doubling Gino on the catch the whole game.

If you're wondering how on Earth Opus made that scoop lay-up late in the 4th, this picture gives you as good an idea as any.
(Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images)

With less than a minute to go we were able to beat the trap just enough to get Tony a wide open look from the corner, but that clanked and the Mavs were down 95-91 and called time out with 37 seconds left. I still thought we were in decent shape, thanks to a trio of bombs Finley had buried earlier in the quarter. But then - disaster! Dallas scored, and quickly. JET blew past Tony easily for a lay-up, and-1. Fab went straight up and even though Terry kicked his leg out and drew all the contact, we got a foul call. If there was ever a time to pay back the little puke for all his cheap shots and lay him out, but Oberto, ever the sportsman, simply doesn't play that way. So it looked like it was going to be a one point game, with too much time on the clock and Dallas not having to foul. Terry did miss the freebie though, still keeping it at two, and that was huge.

We got another clean look off the trap, this time to Bowen, but another clank. It was all going to come down to the last possession, as almost all games between these clubs do. Dallas went back to the same play but this time we had Frankie Van Hoojdunk in there instead of Fab, who had fouled out on the play before and FVH managed to leap high enough to swat Terry's floater out of bounds. Still, two seconds remained. I just knew they'd try a three here.

The final play has been discussed and analyzed to death on Spurstalk, and thankfully all the debate has been academic. Some think it was illegal, some don't. Did Dirk go out of bounds on his own or did Elson push him? Was Nowitzki allowed to run between the inbounder and Manu, who was covering the pass right on the end line (I think that was the most controversial part of the play)? Did Dirk re-establish position in bounds before catching the pass? And finally, who screwed up the coverage, the Flying Dutchman or Findog? Most people (including Duncan and Bowen, it seems) seemed to think Frankie screwed up this time, but it could just as easily been Fin's error.

Whatever happened, the play was going to count, the zebras didn't whistle anything and this shouldn't have surprised anyone as they let a ton of blatant cheap shots and infractions go uncurbed all night. It really was ludicrous that there was only one technical foul assessed the whole game. Gino hasn't taken this much of a pounding since Game 3 of the Sonics series in 2005 when Daniel Fortson was openly trying to maim him. Here, just about everyone in the Mavs rotation took a run at him. To Manu's credit, he went to the hole time and again knowing his shot wasn't quite there because of his finger. It's been a long, long time since El Gimpo has made eight driving baskets in one game.

Anyway, karma intervened and Dirk bricked the shot. We did it, we beat these dirty obnoxious cheating motherfuckers and we did it without the services of one of the top ten players in NBA history. I don't care what our record is or what month it is. This was the biggest regular season win for our club since the Sunday afternoon grinder we had at LA last February when the team was at its lowest point, everyone looked old and slow and nobody could make a freakin' shot that day. We pulled that one out with grit, defense, determination, a hellacious Gino block on The Colorado Casanova and Fin's biggest shot as a Spur, the 30 footer in OT. We didn't know it at the time, but that was the game that pulled us from the depths and led us to another late season charge that would culminate in championship number four.

Is December too early to have a season defining win? 99.9% of the time, absolutely. But not against Dallas, not in these circumstances, not with all the dirty fouls we took and how gutty we played. We needed this game, badly. We needed it to wipe the smug shit-eating grins off their faces. We needed it to earn the dread from these bastards that the rest of the league rightfully accords us. We needed it because they keep drafting guys like Howard, Harris, and Brandon Bass while our last competent draft pick was run out of town on a rail and is now the starting point guard for Sacramento. Losing that game on that shot wouldn't have been fatal, but it would've cast a pall on this team that may have led to a two week tailspin. Who knows? As we saw after Game 7 two years ago, one play could change people's perceptions for years. Maybe Dallas would've used their comeback to go on a tear. Maybe Dirk's confidence would skyrocket and he'd start playing like an MVP again. Maybe Cuban would write another dickhead blog entry about it and their announcers would make more condescending comments the next time we played them.

But we don't have to worry about that anymore. Not only do we hold the rings, but we can hold our heads up when we play these bums again. We beat you shits without Tim Fucking Duncan. We beat you with Tony playing mediocre, and Barry doing nothing. We beat you with Bowen scoring no points and Horry playing six unnoticeable minutes. We beat you with little else besides the mummified remains of Michael Finley, a lot of defensive hustle, and the unflappable will of a balding big-nosed sixth man from a country known for their soccer. Not only did we need this game, but Manu needed it. He's certainly played better games, like the 48-pointer at Phoenix in 2005. And he's played this well in bigger games (I contend that his Game 6 last year vs. the Suns was the best all around performance of his career) with at least a dozen superman efforts in the playoffs already on his resume. Hell, the guy even knocked out Team USA in his international career - twice.

Despite all that, I have a feeling that I'm going to always remember this as the quintessential Manu Ginobili Game. That was it right there, with all the odds stacked against us and an opponent who owned us; he refused to let us lose and inspired the whole team to believe they could overthrow our tormentors. Finally, the ghost of Game 7 has been laid to rest forever.

This was the best, most fun, and unexpectedly most satisfying game I'll ever see Manu play. And I can only hope he proves me wrong for the umpteenth time.

[Postscript: I saw this last night, scrolling through the San Antonio Express-News. Here was Pop's reaction to the final play..."I think by the time he turned around and got set to shoot the thing, it was a real tough shot for him, and Manu contested it pretty good. But for Dirk, it was a pretty good shot, and I watched (the tape) closely. "It was good Manu didn't foul him. He could have gotten too excited about it and tried to stop the shot." Unfuckingbelievable. He is NEVER going to drop this. Manu should just slam into him full bore the next time he's chasing a loose ball on the sidelines or something.]

Really this says everything a lot better than I can.

Your 3 Stars

3. Fabricio Oberto - Made all three of his field goal attempts, battled whoever he was on like crazy on defense, and set great picks for Manu all night when our offense had precious little going for it. Finished with a +10 as well.

2. Michael Finley - It never fails; every time I make a point of bashing him in a blog he immediately plays well the next night. God that Michael Finley is a worthless piece of crap.

1. Manu Ginobili - If he doesn't make the All-Star team, I'm not watching the game. There is no way anyone can convince me there are twelve better players in the world, let alone the Western Conference.

Record: 16-3 (holy shit, we're 16-3!)

Up Next: Vs. Utah Jazz
Without Tim these guys are even a worse match-up for us than the Mavs were. Do we let the euphoria of the last game affect us into a letdown performance here? Mayhaps. I read that Timmy has a 50/50 chance of playing and I sincerely hope he gives it a shot, just for rebounding if nothing else. I don't care if he ever crosses the half court line really. Our guards can zoom by their guys with ease on offense anyway and I'm not worried about getting open looks. Also, I expect a big bounce back game from Tony and a solid lockdown job from Bruce, since he knows who he'll be guarding the whole night for once going in instead of having to go back and forth between all sorts of guys the past few games. Spurs win by a half dozen.