Tony Parker was asked the other day about how as a one-seed just how close the Spurs were from being bounced in the first round by the Mavericks, being forced to play an elimination winner-take-all Game 7. Immediately, the memories --good and bad-- came flooding back for the future Hall-of-Famer.
"We all know our history," he explained. "In 2004, Derek Fisher hit that shot and every time we won and every time we lost it's a fine line."
Sure, there have been plenty of close calls that broke up repeat efforts in the past, from Fisher's infamous 0.4 turnaround miracle to Manu Ginobili's ill-timed foul on Dirk Nowitzki in 2006 to nemesis referee Joey Crawford ignoring an obvious foul on a wayward Brent Barry three-pointer in 2008. Of course, the Spurs had their share of bounces that went their way in title runs too, from trailing in the fourth quarter in Game 6 of the Finals against the Nets in 2003, to Robert Horry's huge clutch three in overtime against the Pistons in Game 5 in 2005 and to Amar'e Stoudemire's boneheaded suspension in 2007.
As the old saying goes, "it's a make-or-miss league," so it was entirely fitting in the season opener of their latest title defense that the Spurs managed to get off to a winning start only by the slimmest of margins with a 101-100 victory as Chandler Parsons, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban's high-priced addition to a Dallas squad that pushed the Spurs to the limit last spring, missed an open wing three with less than two seconds to go.
"It felt great," Parsons said afterward of his fateful miss. "It was kind of a broken play where I got a good look, but looking back, I may need to make an extra pass to Monta (Ellis), but I didn't know exactly how much time was left."
Parsons had a miserable debut in Mavericks colors --fans of Arrested Development might say that he blue himself-- hitting just 2-of-10 shots and finishing with five points. He probably would've been better off indeed to toss it over to Ellis who sank 11-of-21 and scored a game-high 26.
The hero for the Spurs, meanwhile, just happened to be the same wee Frenchman who spoke of the fine line between winning and losing, and he delivered the winning points, after the Spurs had blown a nine-point fourth quarter lead and found themselves trailing 100-98 on a classic Nowitzki one-legged dagger from the baseline, by burying a long-range bayonet to the gut of his own, a three from the left wing with 1:07 to go, with countryman Boris Diaw providing the assist.
It was Parker's only bucket of the fourth quarter, but it gave him a team-leading 23 for the night and, more spectacularly, it was his fourth three-pointer of the game, matching a career-high set six times previously, all of them coming before Fisher ruined their season in May of 2004. In the decade since the three was decidedly de-emphasized in Parker's arsenal, but he has gotten back to shooting them in recent campaigns, though primarily from the corners. He canned his first three shots from downtown from the right corner, which has historically been his less-preferred side of the court and the final one from the left wing, which is rarer still. Parker usually makes only a handful of wing threes all year long.
"(Spurs shooting coach) Chip Engelland works with him every day on it," said an admiring Gregg Popovich afterward. "He shoots those all the time. The corners are a place where he has gotten confident. I don't want him being Chris Mullin, coming down in transition and shooting threes all night, but when the ball swings and he's open like that we have confidence when he gets his feet set and shoots it. That's Chip's work."
Credit must go to Parker not just for knocking the shot down but being so open from the beginning about working with Engelland when many of the guys he's shared the locker room with over the years have seemed loathe to have the shooting guru tinker with their wonky jumpers.
Speaking of which, Ginobili broke a string of 21 consecutive missed threes overlapping the preseason and the real one by finally making, of all shots, a desperation fadeaway three with the shot clock expiring late in the third quarter. He said it felt like the first shot he'd made in two weeks, while Popovich helpfully estimated that the 37-year-old Argentine "was like zero for 50 in the preseason, and had like 19 turnovers per game."
Ginobili wasn't quite that bad (though it wasn't far off) and once more he defied all expectations once the bell rung for real, scoring 14 of his 20 in the second half while adding six assists and "only" three turnovers to help turn an eight-point halftime deficit into a 96-89 lead after Danny Green coolly hit a corner three off Ginobili's short pass with 3:27 to go.
The legendary sixth man admitted he was bothered by his poor preseason form. "It's not that I was so down or worried, but I didn't like it," he said. "I was feeling good before that. I was shooting well in practice, but in the games I wasn't doing my thing and I wasn't confident, so yes, it worried me."
Then, summing up the importance of the preseason in 12 short words, Ginobili finished with "But at the same time I knew that the beginning was today."
Ginobili was hardly the only Spur who pleasantly surprised after some lackluster exhibition showings, and the result was 31 points better than what Popovich had predicted pregame, but it didn't mean that the grizzled old coach was a ray of sunshine after, grumbling about the fashion in which his guys allowed an 11-2 run to surrender the lead, necessitating Parker's big shot. What particularly galled him were two open threes Marco Belinelli --who scored 15 points starting in place of the recovering Kawhi Leonard-- conceded to a notorious Spurs-killer.
"We gave up six points to Devin Harris," Pop said. "We didn't pick him up and he made two threes in a row, which could have cost us the game. We turned it over twice on calls, so I thought we were pretty poor down the stretch in execution."
The Spurs struggled to care of the ball throughout the preseason and had 21 giveaways tonight compared to Dallas' 10 and allowed the Mavericks to shoot 48.7 percent from the field and 38.1 percent from downtown. Their saving grace even better marksmanship in their own right, 52.9 percent overall and a scorching 50 percent --14-of-28-- from three. Parker made all four of his attempts and Belinelli and Green, two fellows used to taking and making them, each hit 3-of-6. Five Spurs finished in double-figures overall, with Tim Duncan recording the 14th opening-night double-double of his career, scoring 14 points and hauling in a game-high 13 rebounds.
It was by no means a perfect game but the Mavericks are an opponent that's going to win over 50 games and the Spurs were lacking not only their Finals MVP in Leonard but also Tiago Splitter and Patty Mills. Popovich said Leonard has been cleared by their medical staff to practice and play and that he expected him to be available Friday night at Phoenix. Splitter, however continues to be a mystery, as what was originally a strained calf has now turned into some sort of back ailment. There's no telling when he'll return but it doesn't appear it will be anytime soon and until he does the Spurs interior defense and rebounding will be compromised.
To put it bluntly, I was shocked that they won and I suspect most of them were as well.
In the end what worked in their favor was the "corporate knowledge," that comes from a team having years of experience playing with one another. If there's anything the Spurs excel at, it's adapting on the fly to guys being out of the lineup and adjusting to circumstances within games. The opponent may have been more talented on this night, but many of their pieces were unfamiliar with one another and that lack of cohesion hurt them just enough. The Spurs didn't win their five rings by not knowing how to scramble and claw their way to an ugly win, but a 1-0 record is a fine line any way you slice it.
Your Three Stars:
3) Tim Duncan (1 pt)
2) Manu Ginobili (3 pts)
1) Tony Parker (5 pts)