The San Antonio Spurs closed the book on this regular season's rivalry with their Texas neighbors the Dallas Mavericks led by no less than perhaps the longest-tenured Big Three in the league. Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and Tim Duncan accounted for 80 of the team's 97 points, enough to overwhelm the slumping Mavericks team which has seemingly hit a wall in terms of beating top-tier contenders and potential playoff foes. The game featured a blistering start that allowed the Spurs to post an 18-point lead, followed by a furious Dallas rally to tie the game late, all leading to a close finish typical of the Spurs-Mavericks match ups of the last decade or so.
A rather late for a FIGABABA recap, after the jump.
Some classic 90s alternative tune before sending you on your way:
What Makes a Championship Team?
In the midst of prognostications that "the sky is falling"... resilience.
It's a word you might have been reading a lot often these days, what with the spate of calamities around the globe in the last few months, not to mention the sorry state most global economies and governments have spiraled down to in the past couple of years. Perhaps humanity was never challenged as much in the last decade compared to what it's experiencing now, an epic dare by the world-at-large for people to rise up despite the hardest shots the economy and environment have ever thrown since World War II or the Great Depression. The human response to all these troubles has been very typical of us --- we will be put down, but we will not stay down. You can trace this resilient quality as far back as to Adam and Eve's banishing from the Garden of Eden after committing the original sin: they might have failed in their one, true test, but they continued to live their lives, so that others, their future descendants, can keep on living.
Enter sports and the San Antonio Spurs. They've been viewed and respected as the franchise model for consistency, but aren't they also the league's most resilient? This propensity to bounce back time and again is maybe none more evident than its peculiar habit of winning championships every other odd year. Win one, lose it, but no problem. Just reflect, re-energize and reload to get it back the following year. Rinse and repeat. Even in this dynasty's twilight, the recovery factor hasn't faded, as the team has surprised everyone by owning the league's best record from Week 1 this season. Even Charles Barkley and his unforgiving motor mouth has compared the Spurs before to cockroaches that just_won't_die. Perhaps this isn't to insult but more to express frustration of the fact that the league's most "boring" team is, unfortunately, also its most likely to keep on rebounding (as Charles is wont to do).
Resiliency is also one of the things we look for during character-defining moments. A parent can find value in his/her son or daughter getting into trouble by looking at how the child reacts to or confronts it. Will getting a failing mark in a test spur him to action and study harder on the next go-around, or will he allow himself to fall into mediocrity, potentially damaging his academic career? A boss at work relishes the prospect of giving a project to a staff to learn if he/she can handle the responsibility that goes with it, while a teacher would want to see how students react to difficult exam after difficult exam.
Even in sports, coaches love these kinds of moments when they can find out more about what their teams are made of. And while Coach Erik Spoelstra of the Miami Heat has chosen to be preachy and wax poetic in proselytizing fans and media to the Word of LeBron and Co., Gregg Popovich has been somewhat of a totalitarian the past few days in trying to, perhaps rather forcefully, draw out the very material of what his team is made of. The big blowouts to elite teams the Los Angeles Lakers and the Miami Heat has finally forced Pop's hand to more critically examine what team exactly does he have. The Spurs have won 54 games to this point, and yet the team's past troubles against top competition have resurfaced to bring up the idea that they might not have changed, best record and whatnot, after all. "When you have Pop in your ear for three days, it can be a long three days," as Tony Parker attested.
Speak Softly but Start Strongly, and People Will Listen
The game began, how do I put it... in typical CIA Pop fashion? After a brief 42-second back-and-forth that ended up with a Dirk Nowitzki jumper, Popovich did the unthinkable and quickly sued for time. Just 42 seconds in. What the heck? What if the Mavs make another run and he's already burned his share of timeouts for the quarter or half? In a way, Pop can be Ginobili-like in his recklessness to achieve perfection, and his stubbornness in insisting his team not lose focus, be it the first 42 seconds or the last 4 minutes, takes Jacob Riis' insistence on pounding that rock to levels unknown. This early, we already knew that Pop's imprint was going to be all over this game. He was ready. The big question though was, after giving Dirk a free look at the basket just seconds in, is his team similarly ready?
The answer was a resounding yes, as the Spurs went on a 10-0 run to effectively wrest control of the game and put a chokehold on the usually rabid Mavs fanbase. While the game definitely meant a lot for both teams and would have the intensity of a playoff contest, one can sense that the Mavericks fans weren't as loud as they normally were -- maybe owing to the quiet observation and worry that this Spurs team is not unlike those silver and black teams of yore, who almost never seemed to care about regular season games. Mavs fans knew back then that it was only the regular season matchups that they often had in the bag thus rightfully celebrating every win, but now that the Spurs have started to take stock in valuing early regular season success, where will the wins come? The playoffs remain a scary torture chamber to the Mavericks faithful who know all too well that 67 wins can still indicate a first round exit.
Tim Duncan would be the first to answer to the bounce-back challenge by carrying the Spurs offense early on, scoring 8 points in the quarter. Everyone knows the man's timing down the block is impeccable, but perhaps not everyone realizes that his timing when to unleash "Playoff Timmeh" is equally or even more impressive. Duncan knew that he had to set the tone that this game was serious business if they are to keep their momentum going, and after nonchalantly dismantling Tyson Chandler's and Brendan Haywood's defenses on the low block, the team's fire was lighted and Dallas was staring at a 10-point deficit entering the second quarter.
This blazing start would be carried by Manu Ginobili, who's also no stranger to making up for his miscues, allergies, sore throat or broken nose, whatever excuse you might want to hurl. Manu's six-point spurt, punctuated by a short drive, would give San Antonio its biggest lead at 40-22. The dream scenario was to have another rout similar to the past two games against a Dirk-less Mavs, but that would be wishful thinking as both teams just know each other inside-out, maybe even too much that any player on each team will be able to say which player is using what kind of deodorant. Sick, I know, but these teams' familiarity borne out of their decade-old rivalry simply runs deep.
As much as we Spurs fans have bragged about our impressive 9- or 10-man rotation, the Mavericks are also one of the few teams capable of matching up and even surpassing that firepower. With their starters clearly shaken from the dogged determination of the Spurs' starting unit, Dallas' bench again did the heavy lifting as JJ Barea and Shawn Marion chipped away at the lead, Barea doing his best Parker impression to break down the defense and Marion working tirelessly to use and abuse Matt Bonner's putrid defense. Apparently, it's not only the Spurs who need this game to get back on track. The Mavericks could really use one too, after absorbing many of their losses since the All-Star break to Western playoff teams. When two teams who both seem desperate collide, almost always are we assured of a close fight. An 11-2 Mavs flurry allowed the home team to close the gap by 5 points heading into the locker room.
The Per-Minute Manager
Nobody probably noticed, but amidst the BrunoNba-led Bonner hate being thrown at Matty during the game thread, Tim Duncan was relaxing on the bench, legs probably stretched out even while the Mavs made their run. Up to this point, Tim has only played 14 of a possible 24 minutes. While everyone was screaming for Bonner's head to be chopped off, Pop kept his composure and insisted on resting the big man for extended stretches, as has been custom the entire season, even perhaps dating back to as far as three seasons ago when he started this practice.
Despite my pleas for him to get Tiago in the mix, Pop continues to spit in my face and prove time and again why he is so great and unique a tactician that it's usually for the best that we trust him, defensive slump and all. It's very easy for us to call him out on his "mistakes" because we see the game from the outside, but being on the inside, you can just imagine how hard it is to manage rotations and minutes while still being able to keep track of the general flow of the game. Are the refs calling things unusually tight or allowing us a longer leash on physicality? Am I going to show my trust and instill confidence in allowing Matt to stay in the game even if he keeps on getting burned on defense or I won't be as patient this time? Am I going to sacrifice the lead being trimmed in order to keep my best players rested? Are we going to ask Tony to keep attacking or call Four-Down a lot more? Should I tell Tim to lose the fugly beard? Should I give Blair a toy to quell his restlessness? Why is Tiago... sparkling?
These are just some of the bajillion questions going on in Pop's mind during the game, and through it all, he has admirably managed to win games AND keep track of the big picture -- having a healthy core for the most important part of the season. So yeah, maybe the next time we want to "fire Pop", put yourself in his position and see if you're a much better task manager than he is. Also, Blair really needs that toy to keep him from tweeting nonsense.
Turning Point? Might as well call it the Manu Point
After Rick Carlisle proved effective in egging his team that they are more than capable of upending the visitors, the Mavericks continue their rally, tying the game at 60-all after two creamy smooth Dirk-Face jumpers. The too close for comfort affair will progress up to the fourth quarter, when both teams ran into an extremely cold shooting stretch that saw the Spurs get the brunt of it, unable to put points on the board in a six-minute stretch. The game seemed to be slipping away from the good guys' hands after the perpetually underperforming Jason Terry seemed to finally be getting his bearings, canning a jumper and a three-pointer to get the Mavericks within two at 73-71.
Despite gaudy regular season records, I remain of the opinion that the Mavs' roster remains fundamentally flawed if only because they lack the requisite supporting stars next to Dirk. These stars should be of the two-way, offense and defense kind, not just those who can flat out score, and the Mavs bloggers have touched on this by expressing their dismay in losing Caron Butler, who they described as a two-way player.
The Spurs, thankfully, have a reliable Big Three, none more so in the clutch than Manu and his proclivity to be in the exact spot at the exact moment during turning points. The play, this time, came after a McDyess missed jumper forced a scramble for the lose ball. Lightning-quick guard Rodrigue Beaubois grabbed the rebound and appeared ready to streak off for the fastbreak bucket until Ginobili, sensing the significance of the moment, decided to try his luck for the steal instead of coming back down with his teammates to defend the basket. He was never going to catch up to Roddy's speed anyway, so might as well gamble, which is part and parcel of the gung-ho style we've come to love of El Contusion. Get the steal and potential bucket to douse the run, or fail and get blasted by Roddy Buckets for the score and tied game. It was choose your own adventure now, and Gino thankfully chose well and correctly.
After successfully stripping the young French guard, Manu ran towards the basket prepared to make the daredevil layup until a certain Number 14 flashes in The Sickness' periphery. The bench has sucked up to this point, but Gino, who's all too familiar with playing from the bench as one of the best sixth men the league has ever witnessed, knew that if he continues to provide the role players with the opportunity, the team will eventually get rewarded. And rewarded they were as Gary Neal received the zip pass from the corner and calmly sunk the three-ball to give the Spurs a five-point cushion. A big time play, right there. Manu would punctuate his performance with an incredible falling away three-point bomb, which just completely took the air out of American Airlines Arena, and an and-one, right-handed flipper that earned Chandler his sixth foul. Game over, Manu simply wins at life.
Terry would continue to threaten the Spurs with his recovered touch, but Tony Parker and his improving performances in the clutch would have none of it. Parker's bank shot three-pointer eventually broke the Mavericks, and his steady hand at the free throw line (4-4 in the final minutes) secured the bounce-back win.
Post-Script: The Spurs Big Three - often imitated, never duplicated
The Big Three will be the first to tell you that as much as possible, they wouldn't want games like this when they account for 82% of the Spurs' total points to happen often. In this case, however, the team needed it. The team needed its stars to show the way through a suddenly dark-lit place that the Spurs have entered as the season winds down, the race for homecourt advantage intensifying and teams almost finished fine-tuning.
Even if Phil Jackson often preaches that a team is just as good as its 15th or 16th man on the roster, a team's character is just as good or bad as the play of its leaders. Tim, Tony and Manu are not just leaders but natural-born winners, and they knew that this game was the perfect situation to show their teammates how to rise up from adversity. Their play has inspired some brilliant moments from the bench guys, which included Neal draining that clutch three, George Hill and Richard Jefferson effectively bottling up Terry and Kidd, respectively, on offense, and even Bonner, who grabbed some crucial rebounds (6 rebounds) in the 2nd half despite not making a basket. I think ultimately, I would judge the Big Three in this game not by their scoring prowess, but by their ability to inspire their teammates to small yet critical contributions that helped the Spurs win. After all, at the end of a game, in the greater scheme of team play, everyone in the team -- regardless if some played well or poorly -- is automatically better off with a W.
Your Three Stars
3 -- Tim Duncan
2 -- Manu Ginobili
1 -- Tony Parker - his consistency in tearing the Mavs defense is the reason why I put him on top.