Oh no, you were thinking. Not again. Not to these guys.
The Spurs, having played their customary perfect first half --well let's say 21 minutes to be accurate-- were up 52-31 with 3:25 to go in the second quarter on Dallas after an 11-foot jumper from Kawhi Leonard. They had it all working, from a team-wide commitment to ball movement, which led to spread out scoring, which begat an active and engaged defensive effort by all involved.
Then, inexplicably, it ground to a halt. The Mavericks chipped away, with a 23-6 run over the next 8:42, overlapping the second and third quarters and cut the Spurs lead to four, to the dismay of the AT&T Center crowd. I couldn't see from my vantage point, but I imagine Mark Cuban was cackling with glee. Were the Spurs really going to blow this again?
As you all surely remember, San Antonio had blown a 14-point lead just four days before at Dallas, with the Mavs blitzing them 59-37 in the second and third quarters on the way to a 101-94 victory. The Spurs wounds were mostly self-inflicted in that game. Not only did they miss a bunch of shots, but they were sloppy with the ball, with 14 turnovers in those two quarters. They were also inattentive and uncommunicative on defense against Monta Ellis, who went off for 38 points.
This time however, though the Spurs didn't get the results they were looking for in another god-forsaken third quarter, the process was sound and the effort wasn't lacking. They shot 6-of-23 in the period. Tack on the five consecutive shots they missed after taking the 21-point lead late in the second quarter, and that works out to 21.4 percent over a 15-minute stretch of the game. Still, what allowed the Spurs to take an eight point lead into the final stanza was the fact that they took care of the ball, with just two turnovers in the third quarter and that they never let their misfires on offense diminish their defensive intensity. If anything, it made them play harder in their own end.
"I thought everybody was more scrappy than I've seen them," said an impressed Gregg Popovich afterward. "We need to do that with 50-50 balls, loose balls under the bucket, not letting guys get easy layups and going for the ball. If they go to the line then they go to the line, but not just giving it up that easily. I thought their activity down their in the trenches was pretty good compared to the last game [in Dallas]."
The Spurs held Dallas to just 7-of-17 shooting in the third quarter, and never did let Ellis get going, with mostly Leonard but also Danny Green at times limiting him to 10 points on 5-of-10 shooting over 23 minutes. No doubt the home side caught a break though when Ellis had to leave midway through the third quarter after injuring his right calf. Obviously you never want to see anyone hurt, and rumblings out of the Mavs locker room suggested that it's not a minor injury. Cuban for one was incensed afterward, complaining that referees continue to look the other way when his leading scorer gets hit.
Without Ellis, no one else on the Mavs was much of a threat, with Dirk Nowitzki sadly invisible in his 28:42. Really, the Spurs didn't do anything exotic against the greatest European player of all time. No aggressive double-teams or anything of the kind. He's just about ready to concede the fight with Father Time is all.
More damning for Dallas was another anonymous showing from Chandler Parsons --nine points on 4-of-11 shooting-- and more glaring ineffectiveness from Rajon Rondo, who scored seven points on ten shots and had four turnovers to negate his five assists. Not to put too fine a line on it, but if Rondo looked like this as a prospect coming out of college, nobody would've drafted him.
The home side survived a rare blah game from Leonard, at least offensively, and Tim Duncan and Tony Parker had their share of struggles as well. Manu Ginobili looked livelier than he has in a while, competitive on both ends and showing a finely attuned floor game, but he was also only 2-of-7. Someone had to put the ball in the hole for the Spurs.
That someone, again, was Boris Diaw, who equaled his season-high of 19 points for the second consecutive game and sank 8-of-11 shots, including a stellar 3-of-4 from downtown. He had another one of his trademark finger rolls from six feet away and also made A'mare Stoudemire look silly, working a two-man pick-and-pop with Green to can a three.
Ginobili was philosophical when asked about his French friend's recent surge, with Diaw averaging 15 points over his last six games.
"In 82 games, you're going to have ups and downs," Ginobili explained. "You're going to have moments where you make shots and others that you don't. You lose confidence, then you look great.. it's a long, loooong season, and at this point he's feeling good and he's making shots, and when he makes shots, it makes everything much easier because opponents have to make decisions and they usually let him shoot. When he's making shots it's hard for them to [cover] the pick-and-roll, so it's great to see him play like this, with this aggressiveness, both offensively and defensively."
The Spurs pulled away in the fourth quarter, and though 94 points in the end may not seem like a whole lot, they did rack up 28 assists on their 37 field goals (including this beauty from Ginobili to Diaw) with seven different Spurs dishing out at least three dimes. It wasn't a "beautiful game" type of performance, mostly because they didn't shoot well, but truth be told Pop probably gets more satisfaction out of holding people to 76 points on the other end anyway.
What these guys have to figure out next is how to pack that scrappiness in their Samsonites to take on road trips. Winning ugly in hostile environments used to be the calling card of this franchise, but it's been ages since they've managed it. Every blue moon they figure out how to score away from home, but they haven't shown the resolve yet to fight and win a low-scoring affair against a good team. With home court advantage in any round looking less and less likely, the Spurs old dogs are running out of time to remember one of their oldest tricks.
Mr. Cuban, do you have anything you'd like to add to this recap?
Your Three Stars:
3. Tiago Splitter (34 pts)
2. Danny Green (66 pts)
1. Boris Diaw (38 pts)
[A player gets 5 points for first place, 3 points for second place and 1 point for third place. The numbers in parentheses are their accumulated points for the season.]