I try generally to stay away from hyperbole since it's hacky in the extreme, but it doesn't seem a stretch at all to suggest that the 2014 Mavericks are the best eighth seed in NBA history.
I know the 1999 Knicks made the Finals before getting thumped by the Spurs, but that was a 50-game strike year and the whole season was pretty weird. Only six games separated the top-seeded Heat from the Knicks and that whole conference was so weak in general it didn't much matter who came out of it, they were all playing to get stomped by whoever came out of the West, pretty much a running theme from 1999-2003, until the Pistons came into power and the LeBron James/Dwayne Wade draft altered the landscape a bit.
The 2011 Grizzlies were pretty solid of course, but they were aided by Manu Ginobili, the Spurs' MVP that year, breaking his right elbow in Game 82. Besides, that Spurs team was a bit smoke-and-mirrors anyway. They were leaking oil badly by the end, losing six in a row and eight of 12 down the stretch. They were reliant upon a billion-year-old Antonio McDyess and Matt Bonner as their second and third bigs, Tim Duncan was dragging his bad leg around because he still big man weight on him back then and Richard Jefferson was prominently involved. Enough said, right? Also, Zach Randolph had the best two weeks of his life. If that Z-Bo was this Z-Bo, the Grizzlies would've already finished off the Thunder in five.
The current Mavericks boast two Hall-of-Famers in Dirk Nowitzki and Vince Carter --though it must be said that both are of the all offense/no defense variety-- and numerous other above average types in Monta Ellis, Jose Calderon and Shawn Marion. Samuel Dalembert, Devin Harris and Jae Crowder bring defensive reinforcements while Brandon Wright is as efficient as it gets on the other end, as far as backup bigs go. They don't have a single guy who's a two-way stud, but no one that's a two-way liability either, which is important this time of year.
Grantland's Zach Lowe had a great note in his column, praising the Mavs for going against the grain in the off-season in signing these above-average vets to reasonable contracts after their efforts to land Dwight Howard failed. Where everyone else went with the max contract stars plus minimum contract scrubs template, the Mavs had a Plan B.
It would appear the Mavs sense a soft spot in the market: If everyone is running like hell from decent veterans, let's stock up on them, and see if we can topple thinner teams that might have starrier names. Dallas's depth has been an asset all season, and the Mavs had the league's best offense after the All-Star break.
Executives around the league are cautious in reading the market, and no one is quite ready to say the crazy unpredictability of this postseason is evidence of some greater parity - of the possibility that a team stocked with "pretty good" guys might be more dangerous going forward. "It's too soon to tell," Mark Cuban says. "I think it really comes down to efficient markets. When everyone does the same thing, it's hard to get an edge. It's better to be a contrarian."
Indeed. And it's worked out well for Mavs coach Rick Carlisle to have all these veterans with chips on their shoulders at his disposal. It's no coincidence that Dallas has had the best offense in the league since the All-Star break, once all their pieces meshed.
That offense is certainly giving the Spurs fits. In Game 4 they got open looks on 15 of their 23 three-point attempts, and the Spurs were quite fortunate that only four of those 15 went in. In Game 5 Dallas got 14 more open looks and converted half of them. However, they also took 13 contested threes (I'm not counting the half-court prayer before half) and made five of them, a pretty good percentage.
It was a regression to the mean for sure, a version of Atlanta's bombs-away detonation in Game 5 at Indiana, and I was kind of braced for it coming into the game. Still, it can't at all be comforting for Gregg Popovich that his guys allowed so many threes, contested or not.
The Spurs not only survived the "Dirk Nowitzki Game," that we all knew was bound to happen sooner than later but also, simultaneously, an unexpected fireworks display from 37-year-old Vince Carter, who sunk 7-of-9 from downtown, even making 3-of-4 with a hand right in his face.
The Mavs also finished with just eight turnovers, the fourth time in five games they gave it up in single digits. For all intents and purposes, they've figured the Spurs defense out. They just happened to miss a bunch of open shots in Game 4 and Nowitzki has been slumping in general, the fourth quarter of Game 5 notwithstanding.
The only reason the Spurs get to go back to Dallas without facing a must-win game, of course, is that their own offense had their best showing of the series as well. After committing a postseason franchise record 24 turnovers in their humiliating blowout home loss in Game 2, they completely shifted to the other end of the spectrum on Wednesday, turning it over but six times, with just two of those being of the "live ball" variety.
One would think that the Spurs had to resort to considerable tactical upheaval to achieve such a stunning care for the ball. Did they slow the game down to a crawl? Did the Mavericks decide to to "Hack-a-Splitter" fifty times? Did Pop lock Ginobili in a supply closet?
Amazingly, the answer is negatory to all three. Instead the Spurs played as fast as they have all series and moved the ball a fair amount, with it getting stuck less in Duncan's hands in the post or in new proud papa Tony Parker's on the perimeter. We weren't necessarily seeing it whiz from one side of the court to the other back-and-forth, and there was still quite a bit of one-on-one play, which Dallas' defense demands the way they stick on the three point shooters, but the Spurs ball-handlers were just making decisions quicker, aggressively chasing that first good look rather than waiting for the perfect opening that may never come. Honestly, for some chunks of the game, especially early on, they looked like a less athletic Oklahoma City, with Parker doing his best Russell Westbrook impersonation for better and worse.
Typically Parker started well, with three layups among his 10 first quarter points, but what was refreshing to see was Kawhi Leonard helping him out with some activity on offense as well. He attempted four short floaters, hitting half of those, and canned two of three mid-range shots as well, which helped compensate for a rough night from the field for Duncan, whose jumper looked awfully flat and wayward.
In the second half, Carlisle anticipated --correctly-- that Parker's balky back and bum ankle would lead to another fade, and he gambled by putting Calderon on him instead of Marion, who'd drawn the assignment in the first half, just as he had all series long. Carlisle guessed correctly, as once again Parker barely ever tried to drive, even with the slower, shorter Spaniard on him, and made just 4-of-12 shots in the second half, missing all six of his mid-range jumpers. As has been his custom though, Parker did come through with the biggest shot of the game, a three from the wing with 1:52 to go after the Mavs had cut it to four. He worked a beautiful pick-and-roll with Duncan on the next trip down, taking advantage of a desperate Carlisle's decision to go small, with Nowitzki at center.
The guy who not only bailed out Parker but really the whole team in the fourth quarter, obviously, was Tiago Splitter, who's unquestionably been the MVP of the series so far. Not only did he finish with his third straight postseason triple-double, but Splitter had a stretch in the final period where he either scored or assisted on 18 of 19 Spurs points, scoring nine himself (with three different Spurs working pick-and-rolls with him) and dishing four dimes, including two bunny layups for Parker.
We've all gone back-and-forth with Splitter, not just this season but throughout his career, mainly because his athletic limitations prevent him from finishing plays at the rim on one end and blocking shots on the other. It's quite easy to show up on the wrong end of the highlight shows when you have that combination working against you.
However, Splitter does need to be appreciated for all that he does bring to the table. We've known for a while that he's a superb dive man on the pick-and-roll. We've known that he's a solid screener and that, despite his lack of leaping ability, he does very well in denying scores at the rim, the Western Conference's answer to Roy Hibbert when it comes to "verticality."
There are other facets of his game that have been slowly improving through the years, and they've shown up in a big way against the Mavs. He's vastly underrated as a passer, to the point where only a handful of pivots throughout the league are superior in that regard. He's improved his mobility on defense, comfortable enough now to get out on stretch fours like Nowitzki out to 18 feet. I can't say I'm exactly relishing the chance to face LaMarcus Aldridge and the Blazers, but it doesn't seem quite as terrifying as before, the way Splitter's challenged Nowitzki.
The biggest thing for me though is the rebounding. Out of nowhere, Splitter has turned into a beast on the boards, on both ends. In his second season as a starter improved his overall rebound percentage from 14.9 to 16.1 and his offensive rebound percentage from 8.8 to 11.4. What was significant about those numbers is that unlike last season, Duncan was healthy all year, so Splitter never got to pad his stats as the main big. In the playoffs his rebounding numbers have skyrocketed, as Splitter is grabbing 16.8 percent of the offensive boards, 25 percent of the defensive boards and 21.1 percent overall while he's in there.
There are very few holes in the Brazilian big man's game right now, and that, more than anything, is the main reason the Spurs have a chance to eliminate Dallas on Friday, even though they just might be the best eighth seed ever.
Quietly, Danny Green had by far his best game of the series, though I suppose simply not playing at all would've just as easily gotten him that honor. Green made both of his threes, including one of his trademark PUJITs, didn't force anything, lost track of a Mav shooter just once in transition and came up with two blocks and two steals during his 15:37 on the floor.
More noteworthy to me, Pop switched things up in the second half, sticking Green on Ellis instead of Leonard. Coincidentally or not, Ellis made just two of eight shots in the third quarter, and one of those was a breakaway dunk after a steal. All of Green's blocks and steals came in that third quarter, so judge for yourself.
The bench --minus Ginobili-- continues to be a problem. Boris Diaw had six assists, but he was a disaster defensively, grabbed just three boards in 21:42 and finished a game-worst -15. Marco Belinelli made 1-of-4 shots, finished -11 and didn't see the light of day in the second half. Patty Mills closed out better on shooters but missed all four of his jumpers, contributing just one acrobatic layup and one assist to the cause. Call me a skeptic, but I think the Spurs are gonna need more than six guys to show up to win a closeout game on the road.
Your three stars:
3) Tim Duncan (6 pts)
2) Tony Parker (6 pts)
1) Tiago Splitter (15 pts)