Previewing the past: The Spurs and Mavs meet again
THE PRESENT — Itâ€™s strange to think about the emotional arc of the last twelve months: The soaring heights, the seemingly bottomless depths. This team tossed me around like a rag doll, while all along, without us knowing it, history was set on loop.
The San Antonio Spurs will face the Dallas Mavericks in the first round of the NBA playoffs. The basketball gods, in an act of esoteric vengeance, have charted a path to redemption that includes dinner and drinks with our demons.
Few people think the Mavs will handle the Spurs in the same tidy manner as they did last year, despite the fact that, at least according to the simplest statistic– winning percentage –the Mavericks are better than in â€˜08-09 and the Spurs are worse.
The most glaring difference between last year and this year is the presence of Manu Ginobili. It would be a Herculean task to articulate why he is a game-changer for the Spurs. If you tried to draw a line around what he does well and the intensity with which he does it, Youâ€™d end up drawing an infinity sign.
And yet, as is always the case, Ginobili is not the point from which the teamâ€™s success will emanate. Just because Jupiterâ€™s having a good day doesnâ€™t make it the center of the solar system. If the Spurs are going to win this series, Tim Duncan needs to be a beast out there.
And thatâ€™s why Iâ€™m optimistic about the Spurs chances this series. I believe that, despite the slide in his level of play since All-Star break, Duncan will make it do what it do. Heâ€™s not going to be winning any fiddle contests with the devil, but his most underrated attribute is his indomitable spirit. When the Spurs lost last year, he was furious. I think heâ€™s gonna let some of that fury out of the box.
Need I remind you that Duncanâ€™s contributions during the â€˜08-09 season took a similar turn around all-star break and, nonetheless, he played excellently during our brief trip to the postseason. Part of me wonders why I even need to make this point. All the doubters in the world donâ€™t change the fact that heâ€™s Tim Duncan.
Alright, letâ€™s put the strained allusions and creeping deism aside and get down to the nitty gritty. Thereâ€™s a lot of reasons why the Spurs are better prepared to counter the Mavericksâ€™ style and talent than they were last season.
Throughout last yearâ€™s series our woefully shallow bench was exposed by the likes of J.J. Barea and Ryan Hollins.Â With the continued maturation of George Hill and the deus ex machina that is DeJuan Blair, Iâ€™m confident our depth can now match, if not surpass, theirs.
There are some lingering questions as to who exactly will make up our second unit, the most prominent of which is who will start, Hill or Parker? Originally the combination of Parkerâ€™s rust and a concern for offensive consistency relegated him to the bench, but when Hill aggravated his strained right tendon on Wednesday, that approach required reconsideration.
Personally, if Hill is healthy, Iâ€™d rather him start. I like the idea of allowing Parker to come in with the second unit, where his ball-dominant tendencies canÂ flourish. But if Barea proves to be the annoyance he was last year, I could envision Pop coupling Hillâ€™s minutes more closely with his. Either way, the most important thing to know is, unlike last year, weâ€™ve got options.
The Mavericks also have options. A lot of options. Iâ€™d argue that Dallas possesses the most versatile lineup in the NBA.
When the Mavericks traded for Caron Butler, like mostly everyone, I considered the move to be aggressive yet savvy. Against nearly every team in the league it makes the Mavs more competitive. Except the Spurs. I say that because Josh Howard caused San Antonio all kinds of problems, while our defensive schemes are more naturally tailored to counter Butlerâ€™s offensive skills.
To be honest, Iâ€™m more concerned about the impact of Shawn Marion than I am Caron Butler. Marion is the x-factor. He is one of the most versatile defenders in the league and could be seen covering anyone from Manu Ginobili to Richard Jefferson to Antonio McDyess to Tim Duncan. Although he is hardly the most important player on the floor, the success of Marionâ€™s defensive efforts could be one of the most accurate barometers of this series.
A less accurate barometer will be the play of Dirk Nowitzki. Win or lose, Dirk is going to play well. His scoring ability is transcendent. And yet, many people overestimate his effectiveness against the Spurs. If you remember correctly, the Spurs successfully harassed Nowitzki into a comparatively mediocre series last year. By throwing everyone from Tim Duncan to Matt Bonner to Bruce Bowen to George Hill at him, Pop never allowed Dirk to find a rhythm.
A similar strategy could work this time as well, although we need to couple that with a greater concern for the Mavericks perimeter shooting. The ferocity with which we focused on Dirk backfired at moments, as he was able to pass out of a packed interior, back into the arms of awaiting shooters such as the two Jasons. One could argue that last years series was lost outside the 3-point arc (at the time I certainly did).
Itâ€™s worth noting that harassing Dirk for three quarters wonâ€™t get the job done. There may be no one in the entire association whose ability to take over a game during crunch time scares me more than Dirk Nowitzki.
In closing, Iâ€™d like to leave you with the thoughts of my good friend and colleague Rob Mahoney, who, over the next couple of weeks, will be the opposing camp’s voice of reason:
This series is going to be excellent. Iâ€™m talking 2006 Western Conference semifinals excellent. Itâ€™s anyoneâ€™s guess as to whether or not this series is going to go the distance, but based on how Dallas and San Antonio match up, Iâ€™d honestly be shocked if there was a single blowout. Weâ€™re looking at at least six games of stellar, well-executed, well-coached, and entertaining basketball.
As for my prediction: Spurs in 7, which is basically the equivalent of me shrugging my shoulders and sayin’ “letâ€™s give â€˜em hell.”