Spurs’ Game 7 win sends message, sets West Semifinal stage

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Gregg Popovich’s disposition less than 90 minutes before his San Antonio Spurs tipped off an unlikely Game 7 against a not-supposed-to-be-here Dallas Mavericks team was hardly reflective of the stakes at hand. The league’s pre-eminent coaching curmudgeon seemed downright giddy – teasing reporters, laughing at lame jokes fired back his way and waiting it out in the scrum where he’d normally bolt at the first opportunity to ditch the gathered media in his wake.

The 62-win, title-contending Spurs were facing elimination in the postseason’s opening round, and their lead man was comfortable enough to smile and enjoy the buildup. Or perhaps not. After all, it hadn’t been that long since a similar show was put on display for all the cameras to see.

Only a few hours before San Antonio’s heartbreaking Game 7 loss to Miami in June’s NBA Finals, Popovich delivered one of the greatest press conferences you’ll ever see. By his standards it was a stand-up act, and a wonderful one at that. But it never felt right.

On one hand, it was a refreshing look into what this man is really like. He’s capable of giving quote-hungry reporters chunks of gold but rarely feels the need to do so; or perhaps more likely, rarely feels the lines of questioning are worthy of the desired responses. Still, it wasn’t as if these queries were soaked in more brilliance than usual. It was almost as if, surrounded by a thick cloud of tension, the stone-faced, ever-focused Popovich was uncomfortable in his own skin.

It was almost like he didn’t mind those extra few minutes with the media before a game like the one his team played on Sunday.

“Otherwise you just sit in your chair and think about the game,” Pop said. “I don’t think between now and game time anybody’s going to invent anything that’s like a new light bulb.”

So, on the other hand, perhaps the levity was a sign he wasn’t as affected by the gravity of the situation. Popovich and his players had been there before, and on a stage much bigger than this one. Along the other end of the sideline, Rick Carlisle, Dirk Nowitzki and Shawn Marion were the only ones left from that Dallas title team of 2011; and with nine new faces on the roster this year alone, they hadn’t been through the wars quite yet.

Or maybe it was that Pop knew he hadn’t seen those Spurs yet – the team that rolled wave upon wave through the regular season. His legendary motion offense had been reduced to a stagnant isolation attack through six games against one of the league’s worst regular-season defenses, so perhaps the levee was due to break.

Or, a third possibility: he had no clue. When it comes down to a Game 7, there are very few leftover tricks in the bag and maybe just a pinch of new spice that can be added to the mix. But on the whole, after six games, you’ve basically seen everything your opponent wants to bring to the table.

“I never guess how a team is going to play going into a game. That’s absolutely impossible to do,” Popovich said in that pre-game scrum. “Psychology is always something that exists, I guess. But when the ball goes up, the guys play.”

And for the first time in a while, the Spurs blitzed a really good team. They scored 68 points in the first half of their 119-96 beating of the Mavericks, the highest point total in the first half of a Game 7 since the Baltimore Bullets (now the Washington Wizards) dropped 74 on the Philadelphia 76ers in the first 24 minutes of a Game 7 in 1971.

It was a mixture of things that did it along the way, but first and foremost it started on the defensive end. San Antonio went into lockdown mode, displaying one of its best performances on that side of the ball that I can remember in a long time. Point-of-attack defenders weren’t allowing Dallas ball-handlers to use screens, every single shot was contested, passing lanes turned into “proceed with caution” zones and the overall energy was amped up to 11 in a do-or-die scenario. For all the talk about what the Mavs defense had done to ‘confound’ the Spurs, it was the Dallas offense that was exposing leaks in the defense.

Through those first six games, San Antonio’s offensive frustrations played out on the defensive side of the ball, where it looked nothing like the top-3 unit we’d seen during the regular season. The Spurs nipped that in the bud early in Game 7, forcing the issue defensively and putting the Mavericks back on their heels instead of vice versa. The better team finally took control, and dominantly so.

Most importantly, it was a reminder of what this team can be. The concern prior to Game 7 wasn’t just the game itself. Even if the Spurs were able to squeak out of this very competitive series, a blueprint had been printed and posted in every potential opponent’s locker room: This is how you beat the Spurs, and if Dallas can push them like this, we certainly can.

By Sunday evening, that blueprint was back on the drawing board.

Not that it didn’t work, though. By hiding minus defenders and sticking them to San Antonio’s shooters, forcing Tony Parker to score first, second and third rather than allowing those drive-and-kick forays toward the rim, the Mavericks defense took the Spurs out of their natural rhythm. Yes, Parker is an elite scoring point guard, but he’s at his best when he’s getting others involved. Don’t think for a second Portland Trail Blazers coach Terry Stotts, formerly Carlisle’s right-hand man, hasn’t picked up the phone to talk to the Mavericks’ head man.

But what the Spurs’ Game 7 blowout reminded us: As deadly as the reputation has become for this offense, it’s the defense that generally jumpstarts those killer, momentum-changing sequences. When they play with that level of discipline and tenacity the results can be devastating. Whether it’s a Kawhi Leonard dunk to finish the fast break, a pull-up 3-pointer in transition from Danny Green or Patty Mills or a coast-to-coast Parker sprint to the rim, it’s in these moments San Antonio takes a tight scoreboard and sets it on fire.

The top seed in the league finally broke through against a game but overmatched Dallas roster, and the reward for it is a date with the Trail Blazers – a team that has a better record against the Spurs than any other opponent since LaMarcus Aldridge entered the league.

But for all I’ve written in this post about how the Mavs have provided a blueprint for the Blazers in terms of how to defend the Spurs, San Antonio also got somewhat of a sneak-peek into what Portland wants to do. Much like Dallas, Stotts’ team features a mid-range sharpshooting big man and a lightning-quick score-first guard, and they play off one another quite well. They’ve got shooters all around the perimeter and they’re hardly afraid to launch away when given the opportunity.

But there is a difference here. Aldridge and Damian Lillard are better than anyone the Mavs put on the court, including Nowitzki. This is in no way disrespecting Dirk, but like Duncan, he’s lost a fairly significant step, and you saw that play out in the first round when he was unable to get away from that hilarious but effective pelvic-thrust-looking defense Tiago Splitter used. But Aldridge will burn you if you get too close and is better in the low block than most think, and Lillard is an exceptional 3-point shooter, something Monta Ellis is not. These guys are terrifying, and Aldridge has played better against the Spurs than any other team in the league during his career, shooting an insane 55.7 percent from the floor against San Antonio; not just during this season, but for his career. Think about that.

Popovich said earlier this season, the approach will be to guard him straight up as well as the Spurs can, and if he hits those jumpers all day it’s just something they’ll have to digest. It’s better than the alternative, after all, where the Blazers bomb away from deep out of LMA double-teams and run teams into the ground doing so.

But, as Duncan said after Sunday’s game, Portland has to match up with San Antonio, too. While the Blazers’ defense is better on paper than the Mavericks, it hasn’t been consistently good all season. It has cracks, especially in pick-and-roll coverage; but it’s very good at defending the 3-point line – the Spurs and Blazers allow the fewest opponent 3-point attempts per game in the NBA – and again, expect them to employ a similar strategy to Carlisle’s to help cover up some of the shortcomings. They’ll stick to shooters and sag off of Parker with their big men, so Tony’s going to have to knock down some mid-range jumpers along the way.

Don’t buy into anyone’s talk that Portland is a terrible defensive team, though. It isn’t. It has two glaring weaknesses that make the final product look worse than it is. The Blazers simply don’t force turnovers and they struggle on the defensive glass; but the Spurs don’t care much about hitting the offensive boards, so this might not have the type of effect it would against other teams. The Spurs should still be able to put up points despite what will be a similar offensive grind to the one experienced in the opening round, it’s just going to come down to the defensive side of the ball.

San Antonio got a serious early test that surely scared the sh*t out of its fans, but the Western Conference defending champs sent out a convincing message to the Mavericks and whichever teams follow in the future.

Whatever group that was you saw sleepwalking at times through the first six games of the postseason can wake up when necessary, and when it does you’d better be ready.

Otherwise, it’s lights out.

Game 1 tip-off is at 8:30 p.m. CT on TNT.