It was comforting to see the Spurs start this game as they have started most lately: with a concerted effort on defense and good execution on offense. Tiago Splitter led the way once again, using his herky-jerky post game to punish Nowitzki on one end and his length to contain him on the other. Kawhi Leonard, meanwhile, wreaked havoc on defense and created live ball turnovers while San Antonio made no mistakes of its own. The 12-point lead the Spurs carried into the second period didn't accurately reflect the difference between the two teams during the initial 12 minutes.
But as Pop said in a prescient sideline interview at the end of the quarter, "it's early. We'll have plenty of chances to screw it up."
The bench held on to the lead for a while but what was at one point superior half-court execution on offense shifted to a chaotic, high-pace attack that helped the scrambling Mavericks more than San Antonio. The turnovers the Spurs avoided early plagued them in the second quarter and their stubbornness about exploiting the perceived mismatch of Chandler Parsons on Boris Diaw caused the ball to stop moving with purpose. Monta Ellis and Parsons found paths to the basket and Dallas chipped away at the deficit until they almost erased it with a 26-17 second frame.
After a few convincing wins, the feeling of dread third quarters have caused Spurs fans all season has been dormant. As soon as the game resumed, it came back in a rush. San Antonio continued to turn the ball over in almost comically inept ways, with Parker looking particularly awful. The Mavericks were not capitalizing instantly but with the Spurs reverting back to their early season form, it was just a matter of time before they created separation. A 17-8 run to close the period had Dallas going into the fourth quarter ahead by 10 and all but sealed the win.
The bench threatened to make a run by going small but Manu Ginobili, who looked healthy in his first game back from injury, missed some open three-pointers that could have gotten San Antonio within striking distance. With a game against the Thunder on Wednesday coming, Tony Parker and Tim Duncan never saw the court again. The Spurs have only won three out of 23 games in which they entered the final quarter trailing, so it was smart of Pop to preserve the strength of his old stars. There was not going to be a comeback or a moral victory on Tuesday, not against a Dallas team that was trying to prove something.
The lost felt all too familiar to those who have seen the Spurs play earlier in the season, which makes it deflating after a string of good performances. But it's the way the team has played lately that makes this one not as painful. We know that they can be better than this. Hopefully, we'll get to see that version again soon.
- Tim Duncan has been quietly struggling on offense all March and the game against Dallas was no exception. He finished with six points on seven shots and was invisible at times. That's not a problem if Tony Parker is pouring in points but Tony went 3-for-11 from the field with four turnovers, all on that dreadful third quarter.
- We saw the Diaw-Bonner big man tandem make an appearance tonight and it worked, in a way, as the Spurs outscored the Mavericks by two points when they shared the court. I still don't want to see it again anytime soon. I understand Pop's reluctance to play Jeff Ayres in Aron Baynes' absence but there is a way to stagger the minutes so that one of Splitter or Duncan is always on the court.
- Monta Ellis has taken the belt from Goran Dragic as ultimate Spurs killer. Ellis had been slumping badly on March (16.8 points per game on 38.2 percent from the field) but broke out of his funk with 38 points on 27 shots and five assists on Tuesday. He averaged over 20 points per game in last playoffs' series. There's no one on the Spurs' roster -- not even Kawhi Leonard -- who has been able to contain Ellis.
- Manu Ginobili had a couple of good drives and generally had a solid outing after missing the past four games with an ankle sprain. His shot was off but so was everyone else's, as the Spurs finished the game 8-for-28 from outside.
- The Mavericks did a good job on Boris Diaw, who scored eight points on 12 shots and coughed up the ball three times. The officials allowing contact like they did on Tuesday hurts Diaw's finesse game but I'm putting all "Boris Diaw is back" talk in a moratorium anyway until he plays well for five straight games.
- Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard were solid on offense, combining for 36 points and four assists. They also had six steals but couldn't really keep the Mavericks' wings in front of them. It's tempting to suggest Green should be on Ellis and Leonard on Parsons next time but then the Mavericks could force switches on Ellis-Nowitzki pick and rolls and Green would be taken advantage of by Dirk. Dallas is just not a great match up for the Spurs.
The Spurs will play the Thunder in San Antonio on Wednesday and will get another crack at the Mavericks on Friday at the AT&T Center.
For the opponent's perspective, visit our friends over at Mavs Moneyball