Tonight could very well be the end of the Mavericks’ season, but I wouldn’t dare eulogize Dallas before they’re dead and buried. Certainly not in a series that has been so close and so competitive, regardless of how dismal things look from the 1-3 abyss.
With the last three games decided by such a slim number of possessions, it’s not impossible to imagine a world in which the Mavs are 2-2 or even 3-1. Dallas has had chances to seize the day and the series, but consistently seemed to bump into an invisible wall of their own creation. They settle for a jumper when they should drive, they sag off defensively when they should pressure, and they box out everyone but the offensive rebounder who will break their spirits. These are the types of mistakes that happen all the time in basketball games, even games involving truly elite NBA teams. The Mavs just don’t have the same room for error that the Cavs or the Magic have. After all, stumbling against the Bulls isn’t quite the same as stumbling against the Spurs.
Of course at this point, there are no more do-overs. There is little time, even less opportunity, and no excuses. The Mavs need to win three straight games to advance to the second round of the playoffs, and avoid their third first-round exit in four years. It’s really not as impossible as one might think, but it’s certainly an uphill battle against a team playing exquisitely at present. The Spurs have won three in a row by way of will and breaks alone; they forced their way into the paint, hit shots when they needed to (Parker hit three consecutive long two-pointers — the most inefficient shot in basketball — to win Game 3), and were perpetually rotating and contesting. I know it’s one thing to spell out how a team won and another to deny them from doing the same yet again, but in this case it really is that simple.
The Spurs have played pretty excellent defense in this series, and every Mav but Dirk has struggled offensively. The results? 50-50 games at the end, and the coin flip came up tails three times in a row. In Game 2, the Mavs had to battle back just to have a chance, but came up just short in the fourth. In Game 3, tired legs and a worn approach gave way to Manu Ginobili upon his return. In Game 4, Dallas surrendered their first-half lead and for all of their defensive success against the Big Three, had no answer for George Hill and DeJuan Blair. Those are three games in which the Mavericks fought even if they did not win, three losses in which they competed even if they did not finish.
There are countless factors that could have altered the result between opening tip and final buzzer in each of those games, even if the Mavs’ usual shortcomings seemed to be featured prominently; shot selection, predictability, stopping penetration, and interior defense have been the hot topics of the past week, and rightfully so. Those failings don’t change just how close the Mavs were to winning the last three games, though.
Expecting Caron Butler to radically change his shot selection, Erick Dampier or Brendan Haywood to score consistently while posting up Tim Duncan, or Dallas’ man-to-man defense to drastically improve is a bit ridiculous at this point. The Mavs are who they are at this point in the season. There are no switches to be flipped or magic buttons to be pressed, but there is still a team that can pose some problems for San Antonio if they can work out a few kinks. Whether those problems will be enough to win Game 5 (much less Game 7) is incredibly hazy, but this tale could potentially be far from over.
Or it could end tonight. Who knows? My point is that we thought coming into this series that Dallas was good enough to beat San Antonio, and they still are. The only problem is that they probably won’t. Too much has gone wrong too quickly, and though anyone without a close eye to the series will think that the Spurs dismissed the Mavs easily in five/six/seven games, that hasn’t been the case. That won’t be the case even if Dallas drops the game tonight.
The Spurs have played better basketball than the Mavericks over the course of this series, and I suppose that makes them the “better team.” If we’re really looking at these games, though, as a way to evaluate the differences between Dallas and San Antonio, I still have a hard time understanding how anyone can form any kind of conclusive thought one way or another. It’s not as if the Spurs have blown the Mavs out of the water on any particular occasion.
An immense amount of credit should go to San Antonio for winning three out of the first four games, and doing it with such gusto. Honestly, it’s impressive. Not because the Spurs are head and shoulders above the Mavs, but because I still see these teams as being on relatively equal terms. This series reinforced things that we already knew: that Dallas really isn’t a championship-caliber team and that San Antonio is closer to the top of the Western Conference playoff squads than they are to the bottom. Other than that, the only surprises are that the games have played out as they have, consistently going the way of the Spur, and that this terrific series could be finished tonight.