For nearly two decades, the rivalry between the San Antonio Spurs and Dallas Mavericks consisted of two team from Texas and two top 10 —sometimes top 5 — players in the league. Year after year, the Tim Duncan led Spurs had to find ways to deal with the Dirk Nowitzki led Mavs, with their toughest matchups coming in the playoffs. Because of this, some of the best moments in Spurs history came against the Mavs, as well as some of the worst (still can’t believe Manu fouled Dirk).
Nowadays, the rivalry looks a little different. Sure, they’re still two teams from Texas that play in the same division. It’s just that one team has that top 10 player, and right now, he’s probably top 5, and the other is looking to find theirs.
Luka Dončić was known as the Wonder Boy before ever stepping foot on an NBA court and was one of the best Europeans prospects to enter the draft. Since then, he’s led the Mavs to the playoffs in three of his four seasons and made some unforgettable moments. Mavs fans can count on the fact that as long as he’s lacing them up for their team, they should be seeing plenty of playoff basketball, with a trip to the NBA Finals in their sights.
The Spurs, on the other hand, have some of the pieces that it takes to be a playoff team, but they are still lacking that Hall-of-Fame caliber player. As good as Keldon Johnson and Devin Vassell are at the moment, they’re still a few steps behind the top players in the league. And because of that, the Spurs are more likely to land a top 5 draft pick than a top 5 seed in the West.
The four games these two teams play against each other in the regular season may be close, and the Spurs might even win a few of them. But until the Spurs find their Luka, it could be a while before new playoff moments are created between these two franchises.
- Luka Dončić is a nightmare for every team in the NBA. Don’t worry, Spurs fans. Luka has been doing this to everybody, especially as of late. Last night, he became the 11th player in NBA history to score 50 or more points against the Spurs, the 6th since the Spurs traded away Kawhi Leonard. And even he doesn’t guarantee stopping Luka.
- Christian Wood is the Mavs X-Factor. While Luka was doing Luka things, Wood was having himself a ballgame in his own right. He scored 25 points on 10-15 shooting, 4-7 from three, and showed why the Mavs went out and got him. His ability to stretch the floor makes it harder for defenses to plant a big man in the paint to help derail Luka’s drives. If he’s able to consistently play like this, it wouldn’t be surprising to see another playoff run for the Mavs.
- The Spurs top-end talent may not match others, but their depth (when healthy) helps them stay competitive. As noted above, Keldon Johnson and Devin Vassell aren’t quite in the stratosphere of Luka. However, when you put a solid rotation around them, you get a team that can hang in a lot of games. Even without Vassell last night and with Luka going off, the Spurs were able to get to the point where a Tre Jones free throw would’ve likely sent the game into overtime. That was because they had four of the six best players in the game. Once the top-end gets figured out, this Spurs roster could be back in the playoffs soon.
- Drop coverage was getting killed by Luka. It’s the most common way to guard a pick-and-roll, but some nights, it’s just not the answer. Sean Elliott was letting everybody watching know that last night was not the night. It’s definitely easier said than done, as this is the predicament Luka, and players of his caliber, put teams in. When you have the big sag back to be sure they can contest the rolling player, it opens up room for the ballhandler to get to the rim, shoot a floater in the lane, or pull-up from midrange. Then, if the big steps up to contest, the ballhandler can just lob the ball over the top for an alley-oop. Time and time again last night, Luka just waltzed his way around screens to get into advantageous scoring positions, leaving Sean aghast. It’s possible that hedging hard on the screen to make Luka pass the ball doesn’t work, and the rest of the Mavs make up for the scoring Luka did. But when it’s coming so easy and efficiently for a player, you have to at least try something different – even if you’re putting a lot more pressure on rotational defense.