The Playoff Margin: Not quite the difference we expected
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SAN ANTONIO — It’s been a while since a matchup between the Spurs and Mavericks could be described as a defensive battle, but that’s the mud in which San Antonio found itself on Sunday afternoon. The offense was bogged down into one-on-one, off-the-dribble matchups, and 3-point shooters weren’t left alone for more than a second at a time. The Spurs survived a 90-85 slugfest, but more so, it survived an unexpected wrinkle that was thrown into the mix.
- The biggest question mark punctuating this series prior to Game 1 was “Just how in the hell are the Mavericks going to defend the Spurs?” Saying Dallas struggled in this capacity over the course of the regular season would be an understatement; and for a group that lived consistently in the bottom-third of the league in terms of defensive efficiency all year, attempting to match up against a whirring San Antonio offense seemed like a fool’s errand, and they had no choice but to play the part of ‘fool.’ However, on Easter, they were anything but. Rick Carlisle employed a switching scheme against the Spurs’ vaunted pick-and-roll attack, and it threw Gregg Popovich’s group into fit of stagnant isolations — the antithesis of Spurs basketball. The Mavericks got what they wanted on the defensive side of the ball, which is not something they’ve been able to say often this season. But the offense, on the other hand…
- It was only the second time this season Dallas has allowed 90 points or fewer and still lost (the last came against the Hawks on Nov. 29). As bad as the Mavs’ defense has been this season, the offense has been consistently elite. Dirk Nowitzki and friends have averaged 109 points per 100 possessions throughout the season, relying primarily on a pick-and-roll/pick-and-pop game they hadn’t utilized as often in years past. The PnR/PnP (pick-and-roll/pick-and-pop) ball-handler or roll man has finished the play with a shot, free throws or a turnover on 31 percent of all Dallas possessions this season; on Sunday, that number spiked to nearly 45 percent of all plays. The Mavs’ bread-and-butter guard actions worked fairly well thanks to Devin Harris’s big game, but Dirk and Monta Ellis combined to shoot 8-of-28 from the floor, and Dallas hit just 4-of-14 of its spot-up opportunities. The Mavericks led the NBA at 1.06 points per spot-up over the course of the season, so I wouldn’t expect that trend to continue. San Antonio was a bit fortunate.
- All that switching the Mavericks did pointed to one concern that apparently outweighed all others for Carlisle: his team was not about to let the Spurs beat them from deep. From that standpoint, Dallas was very successful. Not only did the ball stop moving for San Antonio, but nothing materialized from the 3-point line. Danny Green, Marco Belinelli, Patty Mills, Kawhi Leonard — the Spurs couldn’t shake anybody loose on their way to a 3-of-17 shooting performance from the arc. Green said following the game the main focus over the next couple of days will be watching film and finding ways to create more ball movement, which will be imperative moving forward. San Antonio has had its issues in the past against teams that switch, but the Mavericks aren’t nearly as athletic as Miami and Oklahoma City, for instance. It’s still a concern, though, because the Spurs don’t have the type of personnel that punish individual mismatches. If Dallas keeps switching, this series will likely be much more of a grind than originally anticipated.
- Tony Parker looked pretty damn good. He hasn’t exactly looked like himself for a while, but Game 1 served as a reminder that he can still flip that switch. And really, Parker’s been in cruise mode all season. He understands how crucial he is to the Spurs’ engine, and any championship chances come and go with the relative health of his legs. The Mavericks were giving him next to nothing in this one, too. Shawn Marion spent a ton of time defending him, and when the Spurs ran pick-and-roll Dallas was waiting with even more length on those aforementioned switches. He had tiny alleys through which to dribble, drive, cut or pass, and Dallas was covering out on all of his pressure valves along the perimeter. Yet he still went 9-of-16 from the field, scored 21 points and dished out six of the team’s 14 stinkin’ assists. And by the way, that’s just the third time this season the Spurs have dished out 14 of fewer assists in a game, and the first time they’ve been victorious when doing so.
- Parker wasn’t the only one to help carry the load. Duncan went for 27 points and seven boards after leaving the game late in the third quarter following a knee-to-knee collision with Ellis, and the Spurs needed every bucket he could give them. They faced a 10-point deficit with 7:45 remaining, but a Duncan turnaround off the glass started a 19-4 run over the final 7:22 of the game, sealing a 1-0 series lead along the way.
That was ugly, but the playoffs can often be more push and shove than the regular season. Game 1 was an unexpected stress test — a grind on which the Spurs hadn’t planned. They’ll retreat to the film room and the practice court in an effort to find a way to manufacture more player movement against that switching Mavericks defense. I don’t believe Dallas has suddenly transformed into a world-stopper on the defensive end, but the plan they hatched certainly worked well over the first 48 minutes of the series.
San Antonio is going to need a lot more from its bench on Wednesday evening, too. Manu Ginobili scored 17 of the second unit’s 23 total points, and while the Big Three won yet another game for this franchise, it’s going to need the ‘Foreign Legion’ to return to its normal self. It might not be necessary now, but I promise you it will be later.
Game 2 is on Wednesday. Let’s see how San Antonio responds.