The Official Two Man Game Official Dallas Mavericks Versus San Antonio Spurs Official Playoff Preview for the Official 2009-2010 Official Post-Season
It’s a date: the Mavs savor the thought of playing the Spurs, and the Spurs apparently aren’t too intimidated by the Mavs. That much was certain based on how each coach chose to play the regular season’s final game, and now everyone gets what they want.
This series is going to be excellent. I’m talking 2006 Western Conference semifinals excellent. It’s anyone’s guess as to whether or not this series is going to go the distance, but based on how Dallas and San Antonio match up, I’d honestly be shocked if there was a single blowout. We’re looking at at least six games of stellar, well-executed, well-coached, and entertaining basketball.
Let me get this out of the way early: if you’re a Mavs fan and you think this series is going to be a cakewalk, you’re sadly mistaken. Many a MFFL fancied this match-up over a series with the Thunder, (healthy) Blazers, or Suns, but a lot of that is familiarity. The Spurs are so familiar to Mavs fans because of their status in the Southwest division, their location, and their frequent playoff battles with Dallas. So in this case, I think the fans (and possibly the Mavs) prefer the devil they know…even if they don’t know him all that well.
The Spurs that we’ve saw in last season’s playoffs barely resembles this model, largely because a healthy Manu Ginobili is capable of making an MVP-level impact. He’s certainly one of the top shooting guards in the game, and not only has he been out of his element a bit over the last few seasons, but he skipped last year’s playoff series with Dallas entirely due to injury. As a result, the Mavs won in 5 and the games honestly weren’t as competitive as precedent would have predicted. Dallas’ 2006 win over San Antonio was a huge step in the evolution of the rivalry, but the 2009 series between the two teams had a completely different dynamic. Even though both series fell well short of the Spurs usual title aspirations, the 2009 playoffs brought something new to San Antonio: shame. They can excuse away the loss with Manu’s absence, but never before had the Spurs been so thoroughly embarrassed by the Mavs.
The storylines from San Antonio are primarily concerning those two elements: Manu’s renaissance and the Spurs’ revenge. Understandably so, as Ginobili should be both feared and respected, and the same should go for this entire San Antonio team. They’re quite formidable. If the Mavs’ offensive and defensive ratings for the season are a bit misleading due to the trade and — Dallas hopes — a legitimate mini-surge to close the regular season, the the Spurs’ are even more so. Tony Parker missed 26 games this season due to injury, and while he isn’t quite up to his 2008-2009 scoring level, he looked more than capable against the Mavs in the regular season finale.
That’s significant. If Parker is as ready as he seems, he could end up causing a lot of match-up problems for the Mavs alongside Ginobili. If it’s just Manu doing considerable damage, then the Mavs are well-equipped to contain him. Shawn Marion’s perimeter defense has been superb this year, particularly against elite opponents. Ginobili certainly qualifies. Caron Butler also has shown himself to be an aggressive defensive alternative for highly productive wings as well, with perhaps his keynote performance coming just five games ago against Brandon Roy. Like Ginobili, Roy is an atypical cover; he’s not a 2 that’s reliant on incredible athleticism, and his strength lies in his ability to change speeds and confuse defenders. I wouldn’t say that Ginobili is an extremely similar player, but he and Roy are similar in their deviance from the 2-guard norm. That doesn’t prove that Butler is a great option for defending Manu, but it does at least show that Caron can defend unconventional off guards. Beyond that, Jason Kidd is terrific defender at the two, and DeShawn Stevenson has done fine defensive work over the last two weeks.
Unfortunately, it’s never quite as simple as locking in one defender on one opposing player and calling it a day. The Mavs’ general defensive strategy against teams such as the Spurs is to overload on the initiator of the offense, which in this case would be Manu. Even if Ginobili has technically been listed at the two, the team is in his hands when he shares the floor with George Hill. It’s not an issue of who plays what position but who takes on what roles, and Ginobili’s spot in the Parker-less Spurs’ offense is to initiate. He’s the one triggering plays and he’s the one making entry passes. As a response, not only does Dallas typically cover such a threat with a long-armed, athletic wing defender, but they throw all kinds of pressure at them. You’ll see the Mavs completely blitz the ball-handler on the pick-and-roll. You’ll see them trap the initiator as soon as he crosses half-court with the ball. You’ll see double teams coming from all over the place at various times, just to throw a stud like Manu off his game. The price of that is leaving Brendan Haywood or Erick Dampier to their own devices against Tim Duncan, but Rick Carlisle and the Mavs’ coaching staff have deemed that an acceptable risk.
That strategy works pretty well, but if Tony Parker is as healthy and dominant as he’s capable of being? Trouble. Big trouble. Parker is the one player on the Spurs that the Mavs don’t have a good match-up for. Should Tony start feeling like his former self, it’s likely that Dallas would be forced to go with speed without considerable defensive skill (J.J. Barea, Rodrigue Beaubois) or size without considerable speed (Butler, Marion, Stevenson). Both could work, as J.J. showed in spots in last season’s playoffs, but if you’re Rick Carlisle, do you feel particularly great about those players trying to handcuff a fully-effective Tony Parker?
Brendan Haywood and Erick Dampier are thus far more useful than simply acting as the large bodies between Tim Duncan and the basket. Don’t get me wrong, their post defense is still important. Really important. But should Parker start revving up, Haywood and Damp’s ability to protect the rim will be fairly essential. Neither has to be Dwight Howard, but having some kind of deterrent in the middle will be Dallas’ best shot at curtailing Tony’s production.
Then again, Tony Parker hasn’t been himself this season. He isn’t playing like the player that torched the Mavs a year ago, and even if he is, Dallas is a better team than they were then. The Mavs aren’t a great team, don’t get me wrong. I still stand firmly committed to the fact that this team has, on the whole, played mediocre basketball, regardless of whether you want to look at their season-long or simply post-deadline performance. But Dallas knows and matches-up with San Antonio so well, that the only thing putting the Spurs way over the top is a suddenly resurgent Parker.
Otherwise, we’ve pretty much got a coin flip on our hands. No one on the Spurs’ roster can really cover Dirk, and he’s not going to be flummoxed by Popovich’s defensive pressure. Tim Duncan will likely be prevented from completely dominating, though he’ll still be very productive. Jason Kidd will hit big spot-up threes and run the offense expertly, but the Spurs defense will be ready and waiting. Jason Terry and Caron Butler can combine to eclipse Manu Ginobili’s scoring, Shawn Marion can cancel out Richard Jefferson’s production, and the Mavs’ bench offers more versatility than the Spurs’. Rick Carlisle is an excellent coach, but Gregg Popovich is an all-time great coach. It’s point-counterpoint all the way up and down the rosters, and while that’s not likely to let MFFLs sleep easy over the next few weeks, it’s absolutely brilliant for this series’ entertainment value.
The only conclusive fact that anyone should have to say about this series is that it’s going to be close. If you’re resolved that either team should win outright, you’re probably wrong. Every game will be a battle, but I’ll take Dallas in seven. I’m picking the Mavs because I think Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry are in a great offensive rhythm right now, and I trust in the Mavs’ ability to contain Manu Ginobili. I think home court advantage matters, and a playoff atmosphere should remedy Dallas’ woes at home. I don’t trust Tony Parker’s ability to dominate the series like he did a year ago, but I do trust the balance of the Mavs’ offense. As good as George Hill and DeJuan Blair are, I don’t think they’re going to step out of themselves to become x-factors. This Dallas team is in a good place right now, is brimming with confidence, and knows they can beat the Spurs.
All that’s left is for them to go out and do it.