A chance to exorcise Game 7 demons
There are no more secrets by the time a Game 7 rolls around. Whatever secret game plans, unexpected wrinkles or surprising ambushes existed before, they’ve all been unveiled by now; whatever happens next will be the result of one team’s superiority over the other.
The Spurs set records this season on Gregg Popovich’s path to another Coach of the Year award, dealing beautifully with injuries and a youthful Western Conference uprising around them. They came into this postseason as one of the favorites to win it all, if not THE favorite.
The Mavericks scratched their way into the postseason with a makeshift roster of “chip on the shoulder” veterans, doing everything they could to reach the 50-win plateau and avoid having to play San Antonio altogether. They failed in that endeavor on the last night of the season in an overtime loss to Memphis, sealing their fate as a first-round appetizer for the Spurs.
Except that’s not how it’s played out. To the collective shock of us all — and I think it’s safe to use the word “shock” — we’re preparing to watch a Game 7 in San Antonio between two old rivals that weren’t supposed to be playing in the background of these kind of stakes.
Rick Carlisle threw a wrench in the machine from the get-go, complicating the series for the Spurs before they ever found their legs. Those lethal San Antonio shooters can’t find enough space to fire away, and it’s making life difficult for the aging and flat out old legs of the Spurs’ Hall-of-Fame trio.
But the bigger problem at this point is the defensive issues Popovich is having to deal with. Given the offensive struggles of Danny Green — his recent 7-of-7 game notwithstanding — San Antonio is forced to counter with more offensively capable bench players, and the defense is suffering because of it. The Green, Kawhi Leonard, Tiago Splitter trio was one of the best defensive groups in the league during the regular season, but now their time together on the court is being limited and it’s hurting the Spurs.
San Antonio seems to have figured out the Dallas defense, at least in terms of how it must be attacked. The application of this knowledge still seems awkward at times, but make no mistake about it, Game 7 will be about how well the Spurs defend. Monta Ellis, Devin Harris and the rest of the Mavericks’ backcourt mates can’t be allowed to run rampant in the paint, and DeJuan freaking Blair must be contained and not allowed to wreak havoc off the bench.
It still feels really strange that it’s come to this, but it has. San Antonio is favored, and should be. It is the better team, though that hasn’t exactly played out in this series. A win, and the slate is wiped clean, though previous results won’t be forgotten. Dallas has given the rest of the league a sort of blueprint for how to defend the vaunted Spurs offense, so even if the silver and black sneak by, things will hardly get easier.
A loss, and it would feel like a disaster. It feels like overkill to use that word, but relatively speaking, it’s true. All those accomplishments during the regular season wouldn’t matter a lick, and the Spurs would be left answering questions about their future all summer long.
It doesn’t feel like all that long ago this team was faced with a Game 7 in Miami. The stage was bigger then, but the stakes remain the same. A loss means the season is over much earlier than expected, and a chance to rid themselves of at least some of the demons from last year will be put off until a later date once again.
But this time, the Spurs are playing at home, one of the most significant benefits of owning the league’s best record. Home teams almost always win Game 7s in their own buildings, but it’s no guarantee. In fact, the last time the Spurs and Mavs squared off in a Game 7, Dallas won in San Antonio, and I’m sorry for conjuring up those memories.
Carlisle’s team has done a great job of neutralizing the depth Popovich has on his bench, and the Spurs’ fate may depend on those reserves rising from the dead. Or maybe it will once more depend on the guys who have played on this postseason stage so many times before. For whatever it’s worth, I’d personally be pretty comfortable hitching my wagon to and riding with this Big Three.