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The Mavericks vs. Spurs playoff series that should have been

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More than one win in late March, this was the latest - and possibly last - chapter in an ongoing saga.

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Every Spurs fan remembers 2011 for one thing: The first-round loss to Zach Randolph and the Memphis Grizzlies. (You're throwing rocks at me already, aren't you? Mental ones, anyway.) The series infamous because the seedings of the participants alone, but it also seemed to spell the end of Tim Duncan's career as an effective basketball player, and thus the end of the Spurs as a serious title contender. But there's a bit more pernicious consequence of San Antonio's ignominious Beale Street butt-whooping; for a clue to its nature, you only have to look at the team who actually won it all that year. That's right, the 2011 Champs were not the marauders from Memphis, nor even the newly constituted "Big 3" of Miami, but instead the Dallas Mavericks.

The Spurs' loss to the Grizz not only robbed Duncan of a precious chance at a pre-Kawhi fifth title, it robbed the Spurs-Mavs rivalry of its capstone. A decade in the making, their perpetual tussle had become the league's fiercest throughout the 2000s, having begun May 5, 2001 during the first half of Game 1 of the Western Conference Semifinals, when erstwhile Fab Five member Juwan Howard took down the Spurs' Derek Anderson, a proto-Manu and apparent fulfillment of the team's manifest destiny to have a competent swingman to pair with Duncan in his prime. The Spurs won the series despite losing Anderson, and the seeds of bitter conflict sown by Howard would reach harvest with the coming of Peak Dirk. Two years later, the teams met again the Western Conference Finals, where Steve Kerr happened and the integrity of Dirk's ankle didn't. In 2006, the confrontation reached new heights in a 7-game series that ended with what I personally call my bitterest moment as a Spurs fan.

I was living near Dallas then, and no one in North (or South) Texas suspected at the time that Spurs-Mavs had reached its competitive and dramatic apex with a Jason Terry nut punch and a dumb Manu foul. But over the next four years the rivalry was reduced to a first round playoff matinee, with each team prevailing once only to flame out in the next round, as the Kobe Train rolled on by to the Big Show. Duncan v. Nowitzki had gone from being the Real Finals to a mere curiosity, with the Spurs seeded so low in 2010 (a 6 playing a 3) that their 4-2 series victory actually qualifies as the only time in Duncan's tenure that his team pulled off what could be considered a major upset.

But in 2011, the groundwork was again laid for an epic battle in the Western Finals, pitting all the stakes of 2003 with the intrigue of 2006. The Mavs upheld their end of the bargain, even sweeping away Phil Jackson's bid for a fourth 3-peat. But the Spurs never showed. What if they had? What if Manu hadn't gotten injured the last game of the season? What if Gary Neal's crazy shot was the precursor to a comeback from 3-1? What if Z-Bo hadn't hit that 3-pointer to seal SA's fate?

Who would've won the WCF that year? The Mavs had a better than fair chance. They knew it was their year, and a date with their fellow members of the Mutual Hate Society wouldn't exactly have squelched the cause. Regardless, last year's Round 1 seven-gamer proved that no team with Dirk Nowitzki at the top of the arc and Rick Carlisle at the end of the bench should ever be taken lightly.

Friday night's Mavericks/Spurs rematch proved the same thing, with the Spurs getting revenge for Tuesday night's helping of Montaball with a 94-76 blowout-that-wasn't-until-it-was. Danny Green in particular was sublime, as he was Wednesday night against OKC, and Boris Diaw, who was beginning to seem like the basketball equivalent of permafrost, continues to awake with the spring, nullifying what was otherwise a fairly nondescript game from the starting unit. Oh, and Patty Mills posted a +64 net rating despite air-balling a corner 3 so badly it ended up somewhere in Bandera County. Yee-haw!

Mark Cuban, always willing to fan the flames and the embers alike, claimed afterward that the Spurs revenged themselves a bit too hard on Mr. Ellis. But that's the kind of thing you say when nearly 15 years of competition is perpetually decided on the thinnest of margins. It's fascinating how Cuban's shameless, and fruitless, pursuit of big name free agents over the years has led to him using trades and the waiver wire during the season to acquire the eBay versions of those same free agents. Who needs to spend big to sign Deron Williams when you can grab Rajon Rondo for spare parts? Why mortgage the farm for Carmelo when Amar'''''''e Stoudemire is sitting right there with a "Buy It Now! $Veteran Minimum" tag stuck to him? Obviously, landing LeBron would've been a game changer, but it's tough to argue that the Mavs are in any worse position for the way they've gone about team-building, especially by adding previously underutilized talent like Ellis and Tyson Chandler. Trouble is, they play in the West, and their rebounding and defensive ceiling just isn't high enough to carry them past the elite bunch.

In Stoudemire's case, he showed flashes of his old self, both on the offensive and defensive ends. The cognitive dissonance we Spurs fans feel at seeing him in Mavs Blue must pale in comparison to the shock he and Boris Diaw now share when these teams play. Oh, what the Phoenix versions of STAT and Bobo would say if they could see themselves now:

You guys signed with who? The Mavs and Spurs? Seriously! And, you're both coming off the bench?

Oh wait, that part makes sense somehow.

So, Friday's game wrapped up the regular season series. Fittingly, each team won two games. Right now the Spurs are comfortably ensconced in the 6th playoff spot while the Mavs have taken up residence in SA's familiar 7th spot, which means in all probability these teams won't meet each other again this year, crazy Western Conference aside. Since Duncan is now in year 4 of his retirement tour, we have to at least consider this is the last we'll see both he and Nowitzki on the floor at the same time. That's too sad for me to dwell on right now, so in the meantime fans of the endangered Spurs-Mavs rivalry will cross our fingers and our toes for one last late-round playoff battle - if only to make up for what we lost four years ago.

Other Stuff

- It's tempting to give the Spurs' defense all the credit for holding one of the league's top offenses to 76 points. They certainly deserve some credit, but in truth both teams took several shots they had no business missing, and any film of that third quarter should be destroyed and disavowed by both teams forthwith.

- This was the 15th consecutive game the Spurs have held a double-digit lead. That's not exactly like a 15 game winning streak, but somehow it feels like the next best thing.

- If you haven't read this about Kawhi, do it.  The best line is this one:

And in 2015, even the nerdiest basketball observers still fail to to adequately assess the very thing Leonard is really good at: defense.

- So, I don't know how prepared you are to hear this, but Leonard didn't have the greatest game Friday night. He was hesitant and tentative on offense and fairly invisible on the end he's "really good" at. He had the lowest net rating of any Spur to play more than 10 minutes, and he repeatedly drew criticism from Sean Elliott (Sean Elliott!!) for passing up shots and not attacking on mismatches against Ellis and Rajon Rondo. I'll admit to being a bit frustrated myself. "He should be insulted that they put Chandler Parson on him!" I'd say to my traditional second quarter bowl of Cheetos and Pibb, "and then go dunk on his stupid frat-boy head!" But that's ridiculous, especially if you've read Kirk Goldsberry's article above. (You did, right?) For about six weeks now, not to mention the foreseeable future, Kawhi Leonard is and has been asked to co-carry the team's offense while locking down the opposing team's best scorer. If Kawhi is learning one thing from Tim Duncan during his extended tutelage (Franchise Player 101, if you will) it's to pick his spots. He's learning a lot more than that, but you get the gist. In any case, he's earned an off night or two as far as I'm concerned.

Yeah, a lot of that going on too.

- Via Dan McCarney, Manu had a great post-game quote about what Diaw means to the Spurs

- Another blast from the past, Richard Jefferson, entered the game to loud boos. Jefferson quickly wasted no time showing that he is as ready, willing, and unable in Dallas as he was in SA, stuffing the stat sheet with a turnover, a bad foul, and an air-balled layup within the first two of his seven minutes of playing time.

It's okay, Mark. We all make mistakes, and sometimes we make the same mistakes others have already made several times before.

- On Sunday, the Spurs will face the reeling Memphis Grizzlies, who are coming off back-to-back blowouts on their home floor. A Spurs win, combined with a Wizards loss to the Rockets, would knock Memphis down to the 3rd seed. That would line them up for a first round meeting with... the Spurs (now in Plucky Underdog Edition!)

Before we Go, A Few Select Tweets and Vines