After fighting and clawing all season to sneak back into the playoffs, the Mavs were given the reward of a first-round series with the Spurs, a team who swept them in the regular season. While Dallas is one of the most unbalanced teams in the NBA, San Antonio has the league's third rated defense and seventh rated offense. They have the best record and best point differential in the NBA - there aren't many obvious weaknesses to attack.
With Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili in their 30s, the Spurs don't beat teams with athleticism, especially on the offensive end. They put five skilled players on the floor, they move the ball and they execute in the half-court. San Antonio forces you to play defense for 48 minutes, which is a problem against a Mavs team that has a lot of trouble stringing together consecutive stops.
On the defensive side of the ball, they rely a lot on Kawhi Leonard and Tiago Splitter, who have quietly become as important as the team's Big Three. Leonard and Splitter give them the length and athleticism to match up with the best frontcourts in the NBA while still providing a ton of value on the offensive end. If there's a secret for the Spurs, that's it -- almost all of their players are good at both ends of the floor.
None of their players averaged more than 30 minutes a game this season, which makes their regular season accomplishments all the more amazing. Gregg Popovich will increase his starters minutes as the playoffs go on, but he has a ton of options coming off his bench, which allows him to match-up with any team in the league. If Dallas isn't careful, they are going to be a road bump.
At 31, Parker is the youngest of the Big Three and the player they run most of their offense through. Most of their sets start with him running the pick-and-roll -- and he rarely makes the wrong decision. After having his minutes carefully rationed during the regular season, there's no reason to think he can't match last year's playoff averages -- 20/7 on 45% shooting.
Green is a classic 3-and-D shooting guard -- he usually takes the tougher defensive assignment on the perimeter and spots up along the three-point line on offense. He took almost five threes a game and knocked them down at a 41.5% clip. The Mavs can't afford to give him an open look. He's not a guy who will kill you if you force him to put the ball on the floor.
At 6'7" 230 with a 7'3" wingspan, Leonard is their most versatile defensive player and they use him in a role similar to Shawn Marion in Dallas. He's a good three-point shooter, a developing playmaker and an absolute monster on the offensive glass. When Marion is not in the game or is playing at the four, the Mavs don't really have another guy who can box him out.
Splitter doesn't get much publicity and he isn't one of the most graceful players in the league, but he plays a crucial role for the Spurs. At 6'11" 245, he gives them the size to help Tim Duncan in the paint without compromising them too much on offense. He's exactly the type of player Dirk Nowitzki can destroy, so expect to see a lot of Boris Diaw in this series.
The legend. At 37, Duncan is no longer the hub of the Spurs offense and defense like he was in his prime, but his per-36 numbers are still eerily consistent -- 19 points, 12 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 blocks on 49% shooting. If he can get Sam Dalembert in foul trouble, it will be a serious problem, since none of the other Dallas centers have the size to match up with him in the post.
Of their Big Three, Manu has been the one most affected by age. He's still a player capable of shooting the Spurs in or out of a game, but the highs don't come as often and aren't as big as they used to be. The addition of Marco Belinelli has been a big boon to his game, relieving him of some of the ball-handling and playmaking responsibility on their second unit.
Boris seems to get bigger every year, but he still has quick feet that belie his rotund frame as well as an excellent feel for the game. While he's turned himself into an effective three-point shooter, he's most effective in a hybrid point forward role out of the high post. He fills up the stat-sheet and he is one of the best Dirk defenders in the NBA.
Belinelli and the Spurs has been a match made in heaven. At 6'5" 210, he's one of the best shooters in the league as well as an inventive ball-handler and playmaker who gives Gregg Popovich a ton of lineup options coming off his bench. His shooting numbers speak for themselves - 48.5% from the field, 43% from three.
Mills has taken control of the backup PG job from Cory Joseph by embracing an instant offense role. With Manu and Belinelli setting everyone else up, Mills can come in the game and fire up shots. He's really fast, he can dribble, he can shoot and he doesn't turn the ball over - he's a guy who can change a game really quickly.
If there's a weak link in their rotation, it's their tenth man and their fourth big man. Ayres doesn't have great size at 6'9" 250 and he's not particularly skilled. He's there only to eat minutes and rest Duncan.
A shooting big man whose seen his role decrease over the last few seasons. He may not play much, but if he is on the floor, he must be guarded out to the three-point line.
Keys to the Series
Take something away
The Mavs aren't going to be able to stop the Spurs offense, that's a given. They need to pick something -- either defend the paint or the three-point line. San Antonio moves the ball and shoots it too well to pack the paint, so Dallas is probably better off forcing Duncan and Parker to beat them one-on-one.
Control the tempo
The Mavs have to take care off the ball and take good shots - if the Spurs can get run-outs into open 3's, this is going to be a very short series. If there's a formula for victory, it's keeping it close for three quarters and letting Dirk carry them to the finish line.
Attack when Duncan is out
Duncan is still the key to the Spurs and their most complete big man. Neither Dirk nor Brandan Wright can really guard him one-on-one, so Rick Carlisle can only use the Dirk/Wright frontcourt when he is on the bench. That's the Mavs most effective lineup and their one trump card in this series. Every minute Duncan is not in the game is precious and can't be wasted.
Shorten the rotation
There's a reason DeJuan Blair left San Antonio for Dallas -- there weren't many minutes for such an obviously flawed player in their rotation. The Mavs can't afford to have Blair and Jae "The Beast" Crowder on the floor for very long. That's why tempo is so important -- if Dirk, Marion and Vince Carter are playing major minutes, they can't be going up and down too often.
Miracles still happen in our modern world. It never hurts to ask.
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Barring a significant injury, it's hard to draw up a scenario where the Mavs beat this Spurs team four out of seven times. Nevertheless, San Antonio doesn't have the athleticism to run Dallas off the floor, so if the Mavs can take care of the ball and execute their offense, they should still be able to stay in most of these games. At the very least, they can make the Spurs work and finish the season off with some entertaining basketball.
This might not be a very long stay in the playoffs, so Mavs fans should soak it up while they can. Dirk is 35 -- who knows how many opportunities he will have left. If there's any magic left in his legs, he might be able to steal a home game from the best team in the NBA.
A gentleman's sweep might not be what Mark Cuban was expecting when he let Tyson Chandler walk three years ago, but it will still be a thrill to watch Dirk and Duncan duel two more times in the AAC.