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Shorthanded Spurs can't complete the upset, fall to Mavericks 99-93

The Mavericks had to fight harder than expected against the Spurs' bench players to get the win in Rajon Rondo's debut.

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The Spurs had no shot against the Mavs playing the way they usually do. The talent gap is simply too big between the two teams when San Antonio doesn't have Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, Tiago Splitter and Patty Mills available. Those seven guys -- along with Boris Diaw -- were the main rotation players in the title run. There was no way to make up for the quality minutes the team was missing.

Knowing that the odds were against them, Pop got experimental and had the bench guys rely on a zone defense to cover up for individual deficiencies. It surprisingly worked for the entire first half. The Mavs, who predictably looked a bit off as they were trying to integrate Rajon Rondo to the offense, couldn't find the holes in it and when they did the shots didn't fall. Only Monta Ellis looked like himself out there and he carried the team offensively while Chandler Parsons and Dirk Nowitzki combined to shoot 4-15 from the field in the first two quarters.

With the defense settled and their effort level above the Mavericks', the Spurs still needed to figure out how to put points on the board. The individual talent needed to break down a defense -- even a mediocre one like the Mavs' -- just wasn't there. So the team relied on constant movement off the ball to generate easy looks. As the Mavericks defense tightened up to prevent open looks, the Spurs pulled out a weapon that is not normally in their arsenal: The mid-range jumper. San Antonio took 13 shots from inside the arc and outside the paint in the first half, exactly the same amount as shots at the rim and three-pointers combined.

With Marco Belinelli leading the way with 14 points and Matt Bonner pitching in 10 off the bench on running jump hooks, the Spurs mustered up enough scoring to go to the break leading by five, 47-42.

As exciting as it was to watch the Spurs take the Mavericks by surprise in the first half, there was a sense that the performance wasn't sustainable. Rick Carlisle is too good a coach to let a 2-3 zone stop his team's offense. Surely enough, Dallas adjusted by having Rondo at the free throw line, in the middle of the zone, while Dirk Nowitzki occupied spaces near the baseline, opening up room for others to attack. Devin Harris came in off the bench and, as usual, torched the Spurs with three three-pointers. The Mavs scored 33 points in the third quarter and when they tied it up with 5:11 to go it seemed like they were finally about to step on the gas pedal and create separation. But the Spurs refused to go away quietly.

A couple of questionable calls rattled the Mavs while the good guys remained calm even when their defense was falling apart. Baynes scored 10 points as the Spurs started going inside more and more on offense. Being in the bonus early also helped San Antonio, as their perfect 9-9 from the line in the frame allowed them to keep Dallas at bay. Going into the final period the Spurs' lead was two, 77-75. The Spurs had survived the Mavs' big push and the upset seemed like a real possibility. Alas, it was not meant to be.

The game remained close throughout. The Spurs went to Boris Diaw on offense but Bobo couldn't deliver, missing six of his eight shots, including two threes, in the fourth quarter. Monta Ellis continued to kill the Spurs and Tyson Chandler controlled the defensive glass to limit the San Antonio's second chance points. At around the two-minute mark Ellis got back-to-back buckets to give the Mavs the lead after a couple Belinelli free throws. Unfortunately Marco would go on to commit consecutive turnovers, one of which resulted in fastbreak points to give the Mavs a four-point lead. The Spurs missed and an Ellis layup with 45 seconds to go sealed the game.

Game notes

  • The past three games have been brutal, with the team falling short late. It's easy to succumb to a doom and gloom mentality after losses like that. The reality is the Spurs have come close to beating three Western playoff teams despite missing key players. No four-game losing streak can be spun as something positive but it's hard to get too worried about the team right now. There might be more losses coming since the December schedule is unforgiving. The most important thing remains having everyone back healthy and ready for the playoffs.

  • The fun thing about the times in which the Spurs are severely shorthanded is that Pop is more engaged with the action than in most other games and we get to see some extremely weird lineups. At one point the Spurs trotted out a Joseph-Daye-Bonner-Diaw-Ayres unit and it wasn't in garbage time. Fun stuff. 

  • So far this season Boris Diaw hasn't been able to find that extra gear he showed in last year's playoffs. The team needed Diaw to lead the charge on offense but his outside shot has abandoned him and his touch around the rim was not as smooth as it usually is. There's time for him to get back to form but his play is something worth monitoring at this point.

  • Cory Joseph and Marco Belinelli looked good on oversized roles. Sure, Joseph needed 15 shots to score 14 points and Belinelli turned the ball over five times. But in the areas in which they are counted on to contribute when everyone is healthy (scoring for Marco, rebounding and floor management for Joseph) they delivered good performances.

  • The Spurs didn't miss once in 26 attempts from the line. After some of the woes from the charity stripe from past games, that was nice to see. Also, Matt Bonner had as many makes tonight (eight) as he had all season coming to this game.

  • Aron Baynes finished with a double-double and had a couple of pretty buckets in the post against Greg Smith. He continues to look like a viable rotation big. Jeff Ayres rebounded well and was physical. A good night for the centers, overall.

  • Kyle Anderson had 11 points, eight rebounds and two steals. He forced the issue a couple of times on offense, resulting in off-balance shots he missed, but he's been making the most of his opportunity to play.

  • I'm going to reserve judgment on Rajon Rondo's fit with the Mavs because it's only been one game -- and a weird one at that. But it seems clear Dallas is going to miss Brandan Wright. Greg Smith couldn't handle Baynes and Charlie Villanueva made an appearance. That's the sign of a shallow big man rotation.

The Spurs will face the Clippers at home on Monday, looking to right the ship with a win. Parker and Leonard will probably still be out but the rest of the team  -- minus Patty Mills, of course -- should be available.

For the opponent's perspective, visit Mavs Moneyball