After the Mavericks' new German sensation Maxi Kleber drilled his third 3-pointer of the night, making him a near-perfect 9-of-10 from the field, a virulent stream of pessimism seemed to permeate throughout the AT&T Center. Kleber, a rookie who hails from the same town (Würzburg) as his compatriot Dirk Nowitzki, had just put the finishing touches on a spot-on Dirk impersonation, and the Spurs found themselves down 11 with four minutes left in the game.
On most occasions, a double-digit deficit even this late in the game isn't a death knell for the resilient Spurs, but in this particular contest, with Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green and Tony Parker out and few players able to find a rhythm, the challenge seemed a little too daunting. Especially with Dirk and Kleber forming the most potent German tag team this side of the Allianz Arena and Dallas' pair of point guard pests in Yogi Ferrell and J.J. Barea getting into the paint at will.
In order to prevent their third straight defeat, all to Texan foes, the Spurs needed to pitch a shutout and turn around a sputtering offense with very little time and no margin for error. That is exactly what they did, and this is a full account of that comeback.
The comeback begins
San Antonio's miraculous comeback started rather innocuously. The Spurs flowed into a high pick-and-roll after Kleber's three, and Dejounte Murray was able to maneuver around LaMarcus Aldridge's screen and attack Barea off the dribble, drawing a shooting a foul. Rick Carlisle called a timeout in between the foul and the free throws, hoping to impart his closeout plan to his team during the huddle. Instead, it was the Spurs who would emerge from the break with a renewed focus and sense of urgency.
The two biggest stops
When you rattle off a crunch time run like the Spurs did in this game, in hindsight the most important possessions are always going to be the first defensive stops. Without them, the progress is reset, the momentum is delayed or never arrives and the opposition's belief persists.
Coming out of the timeout, Gregg Popovich decided to change up his lineup, subbing out Manu Ginobili for Patty Mills, giving the Spurs an ultra-small look on the perimeter to match Carlisle's own odd-ball setup. Mills joined Murray and Bryn Forbes in the backcourt battle against Barea, Ferrell and Wesley Matthews while Davis Bertans checked Harrison Barnes and LaMarcus Aldridge tried to cool off Kleber.
Dallas began playing into San Antonio's hands here, with Barea settling for a contested three and Barnes going for a turnaround jumper over the smaller Forbes at the foul line rather than backing him deeper into the paint. Both possessions went deep into the shot clock, so Dallas effectively killed some time, but as is the case is most sports, retreating into a shell and playing not to lose at the end of the game often invites more pressure on you than playing normally would, and the Mavericks would find that out the hard way.
The kids close the gap
Having missed a layup in between those two stops, Murray looked to atone for his mishap the next time down the floor. With Barea going under both screens on this double-high pick-and-roll for Murray and Kleber and Barnes staying at home on Bertans and Aldridge, Murray was left wide open for the pull-up jumper from the left elbow and he buried it. It is a shot Murray will have to get comfortable with as teams begin scheming to keep him out of the paint, and the confidence he showed when stepping into this one is a good sign.
After making that jumper, Murray was immediately put to work on the other end as the Mavericks went at him with Matthews in the post. Matthews has always been good with his back to the basket, and he got Murray here with some excellent footwork. But Murray's length gave him a chance to contest his shot anyway, and Aldridge came down with the rebound.
Unfortunately, Murray would give the ball back to Dallas just a few seconds later when Barnes attacked his dribble and created a scrum that produced a steal for the Mavericks. But then, as fate would have it, the Mavericks gave the ball right back. It was really a turnover out of nowhere, with Barea's pass to Barnes hitting him in the hands and falling into Mills' lap. Mills tossed it ahead to Murray, who once again made up for his error with a beautifully-weighted rainbow pass to Forbes in the corner, and Sparty buried the three to make it a four-point game.
Dallas spurns two mismatches
With the Spurs deploying a switch-able lineup, much of Dallas' offense down the stretch devolved into isolations or Barea looking to get a shot off the dribble in the pick-and-roll. While it isn't as effective as the shots they were getting off ball movement and dribble penetration earlier in the game, the Mavericks have had some success in these situations thanks to Harrison Barnes. Only Russell Westbrook, John Wall, James Harden and LeBron James average more isolation possessions per game than Barnes, who shoots 44 percent from the floor in such situations.
But on two crucial possessions in the penultimate minute of the game, Barnes and the Mavs failed to capitalize on the mismatches San Antonio's switches presented them. First, with Mills fronting Barnes at the top of the free throw arc and Forbes darting at Barnes on the catch, Matthews had a wide open look at what would have been a back-breaking three. Barnes was wonderfully composed in tight confines, using his dribble to juke Forbes out of the play while pinning Mills on his left hip on the drive, but Matthews' bow wasn't properly tuned.
On the next possession the Mavericks got a more traditional switch, with Aldridge picking up Barnes in an isolation situation on the right wing. Barnes is one of the few connoisseurs of the dying face-up/mid-post game, but his pull-up jumper has been off to start this season. Nevertheless, he opted for a pull-up midranger that barely caught the glass, and you have to give Aldridge credit for a solid contest.
Manu returns and the superstar arrives
After Dallas' back-to-back misses, Popovich called a timeout and inserted Ginobili back into the game for Mills. The move paid instant dividends, with Ginobili turning what looked like a lost possession into two easy points with one of his patended passes that leave opposing defenders and coaches in a stupor.
Stuck on the baseline without his dribble and with three teammates guarded tightly all the way on the other side of the floor, Ginobili somehow found a way to ignore Matthews' long arms, pivoting into the perfect position to loft an entry pass down to Aldridge underneath the basket. The work Aldridge does to get inside position on Kleber is clever, and though he didn't make the cleanest catch, he recovered the ball just in time to avoid Barea's swipe and take the ball up for an important layup.
Following another Mavericks timeout and another crucial stop on Barea's missed three, the Spurs didn't waste any time getting Aldridge the ball on the block so he could go at Kleber in the post. With four shooters around Aldridge, the Mavericks didn't send any help, giving him the time and space to unleash a sweet turnaround jumper that tied the game at 96.
The only downside to Aldridge's basket was that it came with 23 seconds left, giving the Mavericks a chance to win the game without the Spurs touching the ball again. Carlisle called a timeout after Aldridge's basket to advance the ball and draw up a play, but crucially it was his last TO of the game.
Popovich went with a long and athletic lineup for what could have been the game-deciding defensive possession, with Brandon Paul and Murray coming in for Forbes and Bertans. Assigned the role of inbound irritant was Ginobili, who has somewhat of a traumatic history with inbounds passes at the AT&T Center after Dion Waiters (then a Thunder player) shoved an elbow into his chest during the closing seconds of Western Conference Semi-Finals game two seasons ago.
Now, it must be said that the Mavericks deserve as much blame for this mistake as Ginobili deserves credit, because from the second the referee hands Matthews the ball, the only player who makes any effort to get open in Barea, and it is a half-assed effort at that. Ginobili's initial defensive slide to cover the passing lane to Barea prompts confusion between Barea and Matthews, who both start pointing in different directions; Matthews wants Barea to fade far into the backcourt while Barea wants Matthews to toss it into Dirk or Ferrell.
This is where Dallas' lack of a timeout helped decide the game. Matthews actually did really well to come up with something on the fly to avoid a five-second violation and a live-ball turnover with a bad pass, but his attempt to hit the reset button by tossing the ball off of Ginobili backfired when the ball ricocheted off of him before hitting the ground. It might be a meaningless game in comparison, but I choose to believe this was karma for how the Waiters incident played out.
Perhaps looking to capitalize on the frustration and lack of organization the Mavs' just displayed on their inbounds play, Popovich decided not to call a timeout and kept things simple with his final play call. Both coaches acted quickly enough to make subs, with Pop getting his gunners back on the floor while Carlisle went for a bigger (Dwight Powell for Barea) and more athletic (Kleber for Dirk) look.
With three great shooters on the floor around him and an expert pick-and-pop big to dance with, Popovich put the ball in Ginobili's hands on the left side of the floor and gave him the chance to decide the game. As Aldridge nestled himself into an ideal screen-setting position, Ginobili bled the clock down to six seconds before starting his drive. Dallas was clearly worried about Aldridge catching the ball at the elbow or on the roll, which is why Kleber is hugging him for the entirety of the possession, and that tactic put Matthews on an island.
Once Ginobili dropped his shoulder and set his sights on the rim, Matthews didn't stand a chance. Manu might be on the precipice of 40, but he isn't over the hill just yet, and his first step remains dangerous enough to boost him past a good defender like Matthews in such a crucial situation. With his defender in the dust and the rest of the Mavericks' defense glued to the perimeter, Ginobili was uncontested as he flew to the rim for the winning layup.
With no timeouts remaining and only three seconds left, Dallas could only look for a heave after Ginobili's basket. The Spurs showed good awareness of the situation and switched fluidly, forcing Matthews into a tough half-court shot over Bertans' outstretched arms.
The final buzzer marked the official conclusion of a 13-0 Spurs run in the final 4:11 of the game. It was a comeback that had a little bit of everything: Trademark Spurs defense, with players switching and helping and moving on a string; Building block moments for two young contributors - Forbes and Murray - who came through in pressure-packed moments and showed that their poise is growing along with their games; Two more big-time shots from LaMarcus Aldridge, who has been as reliable as you could want this season with so many other key Spurs in and out of the lineup.
And, of course, another unforgettable scene to store in the memory bank courtesy of Manu Ginobili, whose long list of game-deciding plays and clutch reputation continues to grow well into the twilight of his career.