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Spurs survive Mavericks' trickery in Game 1

First Rick Carlisle used the radical "I'm going to play my best players" gambit and then, when all was lost, Gregg Popovich countered with the "I too will play my best players" counter maneuver.

Chris Covatta

Western Conference Quarter-Final Game 1: Spurs 90, Mavericks 85     Series: 1-0

San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has gotten a lot of plaudits over the years, but particularly so the last couple of months, for being among the best, if not the best, in his profession. He is the odds-on favorite to win his third Coach of the Year trophy, a trinket he values about as much as the wine selection at the local H-E-B, probably, since it's not voted on by his peers but rather media types whose opinions he values not a lick.

Game 1 between his heavily-favored, top-seeded Spurs and the eighth-seeded Mavericks was a quick reminder, however, that the fella on the other bench, Rick Carlisle, is not half bad himself. Carlisle, one of three active coaches in the league besides Pop to win a championship in the league (Miami's Erik Spoelstra and the L.A. Clippers' Doc Rivers being the others, with the latter of course having won his with Boston), knows what he's doing out there, and while it's a fair bet that Pop never took the match-up with Dallas for granted, despite his team's nine-game winning streak against the Mavs, shame on the rest of us who did.

Fred had a fantastic breakdown of what the Mavs did tactically to confuse the Spurs offense, which I readily encourage all of you to read. Where I disagree with Fred a bit is in his thesis that it was a negative for the Spurs to play in such a one-on-one, post-up, Iso-heavy offense. No, ideally, it's not what you want. It's not really Spurs basketball, it's not all that attractive or entertaining to watch and it kind of uglies up the box score to see a low number in the assist column and for the scoring to not be spread out over eight or nine guys like we're accustomed to.

At the same time, it's worth remembering, and we tend to forget about this at times as fans, that the other guys are paid to win too. They're under no obligation to play defense in a fashion to be the Washington Generals for our amusement, cardboard cutout victims for our regular pass-and-shoot nirvana. It wasn't pretty to watch but the Spurs took what the Mavs gave them defensively. They adjusted. It was reminiscent of Games 5 and 6 of the Finals, really, where Miami's trapping and switching got Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili one-on-one on the perimeter against the likes of Ray Allen and Norris Cole, and the Spurs' Hall-of-Fame backcourt responded by taking it to the hole in Game 5 and then they posted Duncan up a ton in Game 6.

As ugly as the game got for the Spurs -- and 81-71 with 7:45 to go is pretty ugly -- the key stat for me was that they committed only ten turnovers. The game could've really gotten away from them if they were sloppier and forced passes that weren't there. Actually, the game I was most reminded of as I was watching from the upper catacombs of the AT&T Center (where the lady behind me was just letting Parker have it whenever he missed a shot) was an early regular season tilt against Sacramento where the "Big Three" dominated down the stretch to overcome a double-digit fourth quarter deficit. While it's not something you want to have to count on regularly, it's still comforting now and again to watch Duncan, Parker and even Ginobili (before the fourth quarter turnover gremlins caught up to him) take over large chunks of the game. An "oh yeah, they're pretty good," moment.

As Pop pointed out in the post-game presser, he rationed regular season minutes for a reason, to save his front-line players for the games that matter. It's just naive to think it's going to be this sports movie one-for-all, all-for-one perfect democracy, where everyone contributes equally. No, the rotation will get tightened up, with Marco Belinelli and Patty Mills in particular not getting much rope to hang themselves with. If they don't have it going early, they're not gonna play much in the second halves of these games.

More interesting to me than Carlisle's tactics, necessarily, was his lineups. He bamboozled the Spurs by trying something utterly brilliant and out-of-the-box (and I'm only saying this half-sarcastically): He played his best players more and his worst players less.

In the regular season the Mavs' best rotation players in terms of net rating were Jae Crowder, Devin Harris, Brandon Wright, Dirk Nowitzki and Vince Carter. Their worst four were Shawn Marion, Jose Calderon, DeJuan Blair (surprise!), and Monta Ellis.

We'll remove Nowitzki from the discussion for a second because he's the one constant, a living basketball demigod who happened to have a bad game on Sunday.

During four regular season games versus the Spurs, Marion, Calderon, Blair and Ellis combined for 423 minutes and finished a cumulative -118. In those same games Crowder, Harris, Wright and Carter played 260 minutes and were -14.

In other words, their prominent players averaged -.28 points per minute against the Spurs this year. Every four minutes they played San Antonio, they were outscored by a point. Their bench however got outscored by a point every 20 minutes against the San Antonio. These trends were especially borne out in the last regular season meeting between the teams, where Dallas' bench kept them in the game for most of the night.

On Sunday Carlisle played the Harris-Carter-Crowder-Nowitzki-Wright lineup for 10:58, nearly a quarter of the game, over two separate stretches in the second and fourth quarters. In that time they were +16. In fact, four of those guys played the final 16:56 of the game, with only Ellis replacing Crowder for 11:43 of those nearly 17 minutes. In the 5:13 he played, the Mavs were +6. In the other 11:43 they played with Ellis, they were -11.

This underscores the larger point that was raised by's Tim McMahon, which is that Monta doesn't really have it all in the playoffs, you guys.

In fact, if you recall as good as he was during the regular season in 2007, Ellis had to be benched by Don Nelson in the playoffs because he was so poor against the Mavs and the Jazz. The numbers get even uglier when you look at the advanced stuff, believe it or not...

Season Age Tm Lg Pos G MP PER TS% eFG% FTr 3PAr ORB% DRB% TRB% AST% STL% BLK% TOV% USG% ORtg DRtg OWS DWS WS WS/48
2006-07 21 GSW NBA SG 11 238 8.6 .466 .396 .341 .110 3.6 8.2 5.9 6.8 2.1 0.7 17.5 21.2 88 112 -0.3 0.1 -0.2 -0.041
2012-13 27 MIL NBA SG 4 152 12.3 .459 .464 .291 .345 1.5 9.5 5.2 27.1 3.5 0.6 18.4 23.6 86 109 -0.2 0.1 -0.2 -0.050
2013-14 28 DAL NBA PG 1 36 4.9 .349 .286 .286 .143 2.7 3.4 3.0 4.5 3.0 0.0 6.0 22.6 75 102 -0.1 0.1 -0.1 -0.070
Career NBA 16 426 9.6 .453 .411 .318 .199 2.8 8.3 5.4 13.8 2.7 0.6 16.9 22.2 86 110 -0.6 0.2 -0.4 -0.047
1 season GSW NBA 11 238 8.6 .466 .396 .341 .110 3.6 8.2 5.9 6.8 2.1 0.7 17.5 21.2 88 112 -0.3 0.1 -0.2 -0.041
1 season MIL NBA 4 152 12.3 .459 .464 .291 .345 1.5 9.5 5.2 27.1 3.5 0.6 18.4 23.6 86 109 -0.2 0.1 -0.2 -0.050
1 season DAL NBA 1 36 4.9 .349 .286 .286 .143 2.7 3.4 3.0 4.5 3.0 0.0 6.0 22.6 75 102 -0.1 0.1 -0.1 -0.070

So, yeah, I think the Spurs are in good shape this series. I'll stick to my five-game prediction, the gentlemen's sweep as it were, but I wouldn't have minded a Game 1 loss too much because of the quick parallels we could point to with 2003, 2005 and 2007. All us writers care about is narrative, don't you know?

If anything, the Mavs' defensive tactics gave the Spurs practice for how the better, more athletic clubs will play them in the upcoming series and how the Spurs will have to attack those teams when the passes are too difficult to squeeze in there. Also, we need to cut them some slack. Not only was it a noon start but they hadn't played a meaningful game in nine days, as some geezer I met on Sunday was quick to point out. A few Spurs definitely were not ready to play and were a bit overwhelmed by the difference in intensity from the regular season to the playoffs. Hopefully everyone will be more comfortable by Wednesday and it'll be a more comfortable win.

Bottom line: Dallas has Dirk and Carlisle, but not much else.


Your Three Stars:

3) Tiago Splitter (1 pt)

2) Tony Parker (3 pts)

1) Tim Duncan (5 pts)

Kawhi Leonard deserves credit, obviously, for shutting down Ellis, but we don't need to go overboard on this. Ellis has long been one of the most overrated players in the league and whatever scorn the basket-blogging community have heaped on him has been well deserved and then some.

Tiago Splitter, on the other hand, deserves considerable kudos for his work on Nowitzki, particularly in the fourth quarter. Splitter was a beast on both ends, his rebounding was impressive and he even held his own (+4) in 2:38 of small-ball, where he pulled down a few boards despite not even having Leonard out there to help him. My only quibble with Splitter was that play at the end where he tried that gooey, soft, finger-roll instead of dunking the ball after he pump-faked Nowitzki back to the stone age. You're seven-feet tall, Tiago. Just dunk the ball.


It's one game, so too soon to panic, but the bench -- beside Ginobili -- sure was awful on Sunday. Boris Diaw couldn't finish inside, couldn't rebound, and blew a couple pick-and-rolls defensively. Marco Belinelli couldn't buy a shot and he was letting 85-year-old "Vinsanity" blow by him to the rim. Patty Mills went under every screen for Harris (I'm guessing it was a part of the game plan or else Pop would've aired him out) but he didn't offer much on offense either. Let's hope it was a one-game blip, but I got those awful flashbacks to 2012, where the bench was sensational all year and then a complete disaster in the playoffs.


Real funny, Basketball Gods. Ginobili has a clean three quarters turnovers-wise and then commits four of them in the fourth quarter, the first playoff game since the 2013 Finals. Y'all are just hilarious.


Duncan's knee injury was only mildly terrifying. I've been able to breathe normally for at least the past two hours.


This was my first close win at the AT&T Center. I was there for two blowouts over Utah in 2012, and the Game 1 loss to Memphis the year prior. My buddy and I had a whole road trip through the southwest planned and when we left the whole team was perfectly healthy and predicted to win the Finals. By the time we got to San Antonio Ginobili had a broken elbow and everything was lost. Good times.

Matt Bonner almost saved that game --WE WERE SO CLOSE TO HAVING "THE MATT BONNER GAME" BE A REAL THING PEOPLE-- but Parker was a disaster down the stretch and he left the dastardly Shane Battier wide open at the three-point line. Ugh.

So yeah, I preferred this game to that.


Pop's interview with Craig Sager Jr. where he broke character to say a few heartfelt things to the ailing sideline reporter through the camera was moving, but anybody who was surprised by it doesn't understand the man at all. I was totally expecting him to be sincere and kind there, just like I'm totally expecting him to be a jerk to J.A. Adande or whomever the next time. A pattern to these things has been well-established.


I met JRW after the game. Click here to find what that was like.


Welcome to the planet, Luca Ginobili. How are you already better at basketball than me?