Let’s get this out of the way upfront: I think the Mavs will win this series in six games.
Now that you know the ending, let’s see how we got there.
It’s almost frightening how little we actually have to go on for this series. The Mavs have been without Josh Howard for most of the season, and the decisive hammer of Manu Ginobili’s prolonged absence didn’t fall until late in the season. That restricts this version of the Mavs to just one single regular season contest against these Spurs. It seemed pretty meaningful around March, but does that one game really set the precedent for a series of complex strategies, extremely specific approaches, and series-long adjustments?
We shouldn’t throw out the one piece of evidence that we have on these grounds, but just don’t expect an instant replay every time out. Unless you expect Tony Parker to go for 35+, because that’s something we’re going to have to get used to.
Manu Ginobili’s injury is going to hurt the Spurs, and it’s going to hurt them a lot. But this is the playoffs, and Tony Parker, Tim Duncan, and Gregg Popovich are going to bring their A+ game. That’s just the way the Spurs roll. So I fully expect TP and Timmy to step up their games and almost fully compensate for Manu’s lost production. The problem lies in the fact that in doing so, they’ll have to completely force the issue, dominate the offense, and probably tire themselves out. For two teams that have a history of taking games to the wire and potentially beyond, that’s gonna be a wee bit important.
For everybody that’s hoping for Tim Duncan’s ever-so-slightly injured knee to suddenly explode, think again. I know he doesn’t have that much playoff experience under his belt, but that young man’s going to be pretty darn good some day. And you know what? Odds are he is going to blitz Erick Dampier, Brandon Bass, and whoever else is unlucky enough to guard him. That’s just how he do. The key with Duncan is to make his work as difficult as possible. Dampier isn’t an ideal match for Duncan defensively, but he’s the best we’ve got. He has to bother TD enough to sandbag that field goal percentage, put a hand in his face, and make Duncan really go to work. He’ll get his, but it won’t be easy.
With Parker, I don’t even know where to begin. Antoine Wright, Jason Kidd, Jason Terry, Josh Howard, and J.J. Barea will likely all get their shot, and I don’t think any will have much success. The best strategy is to try to give Parker space, and force him to make jumper after jumper. But giving a player like Parker that kind of space is pretty counterproductive. He’ll simply rear back and charge full speed ahead into the lane, using that extra space to generate the momentum to get right to the cup. Parker is a helluva finisher, and on top of that he’s a master of theatrics. It’s practically a lost cause. But what is there the Mavs can do, really? Hopefully the length of Howard and Wright can bother Parker for stretches, but I’m not counting on it. The key is to find a way to endure the onslaught, and strike back with some vigor on the offensive end. Duncan and Parker can’t do everything, and they will make mistakes. The Mavs just need to force a few extra mistakes, pressure as much as possible, and limit the contributions of the rest of the bunch. That and pray that Parker doesn’t go into God-mode.
Photo by Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images.
When you look at this series, it’s easy to focus on the 2006 pieces; it’s Dirk, Josh, and JET vs. Parker and Duncan. But save a big of your attention for Jason Kidd, who just so happens to be an incredible point guard. I doubt that Kidd will have another big scoring night against the Spurs. Most of his points figure to come off of spot-up threes. But what Kidd does is open the floodgates for the Mavs that aren’t always creating for themselves. Erick Dampier is suddenly throwing down oops. J.J. Barea is getting wide open looks at threes. Brandon Bass is fed in just the right place in the post. James Singleton catches a bullet pass right under the basket. These are things often overlooked, but none of it happens without Kidd. The volume scoring is going to come from the brightest of stars, but Kidd is chipping in 6 points here and 8 points there by setting up the ‘other’ Mavs with easy buckets. Huge.
On an individual basis, let’s look at what the Spurs have defensively. Roger Mason Jr. is likely guarding Terry, Michael Finley and Bruce Bowen will take turns with Howard, and Matt Bonner/whoever else Pop digs up will draw the short straw with Dirk. How is any of that beneficial for San Antonio? Each of those three Mavs is fully capable of eclipsing their counterparts and more, and seems poised to do so based on each Spur’s defensive inadequacies. Mason is a nice player and a great shooter, but lacks the discipline to effectively hound the JET. Bowen has lost a step since he’s lost a step, and even then Howard gave him trouble. Michael Finley is Michael Finley, and try as he might, those legs are spry no longer.
The Spurs Dilemma in 2006 was this: Bruce Bowen couldn’t guard both Dirk Nowitzki and Josh Howard at once, and whoever was free of Bowen’s shadowing went off. Howard knew just how to attack the Spurs inside with his array of post-ups and runners, and when Bowen was switched on him, the Mavs went straight to Dirk at the elbow. This year’s model shares that in common with the Spurs of old, but with one notable exception: Bruce Bowen just isn’t the lockdown defender he used to be. If Bowen can’t significantly limit the production of one of the two, and another Spur doesn’t have unexpected defensive success, how exactly does San Antonio hope to stop the Maverick attack?
I will say this: to his credit, Matt Bonner has played Dirk unusually well. He’s big but not too strong, not particularly quick or athletic, and doesn’t seem to have any specific attributes that fit the bill for the thorn in Dirk’s side. But he doesn’t give up ground, doesn’t fall for Dirk’s fakes, and holds his own. Unfortunately for Bonner and the Spurs, that’s not enough. Without Manu storming from the stables, the Spurs will need to completely clamp down on at least one of Dallas’ big scorers. Their best shot just so happens to be against one of the most deadly and resilient scorers in the league today, and one who isn’t going to go down quietly against San Antone.
The bench play will need to be enormous if Dallas wants to take the series. J.J. has shown flashes of Devin Harris in him, exactly the kind of quick, penetrating point guard that has given the Spurs trouble in the past. Brandon Bass has the midrange shot and the quickness in the post to give Tim Duncan a headache, not to mention enough strength to bully a bit. James Singleton and Ryan Hollins will have their turn, and whatever they can offer could make for advantage – Mavs. I doubt very much that you’ll walk away saying that Brandon Bass won or lost this series, but that doesn’t make his contributions any less important. These two teams have such incredible players at the top that they’ll trade blow for blow all series long. Establishing and reaping the benefits of the players farther down the chain of command is where the series could very well be decided. Of course that could very well work against the Mavs, if the Spurs can get their peripherals in a groove and negate the impact of the Mavs’ reserves. In J.J. and Bass we trust.
The Mavs have to hope that home court advantage doesn’t come into effect. Take care of business at home, and steal some momentum on the road. A potential game seven would be where everything favors the Spurs: an army of clutch performers, one of the best strategists and motivators in the game, and a roaring home crowd. I’m not sure the Mavs would be able to overcome. But if all goes according to plan, it hopefully won’t have to come to that.
Photo by Dustin Chapman.
Pop’s impact cannot be denied. I’ve got nothing for respect for the Spurs’ ringleader, and am sincerely jealous of his beard-growing abilities. But for just one second, let’s show Rick Carlisle some love. Carlisle has shown exactly the kind of creativity and adaptability that every team should want of its coach, and what he’s lacked in motivational polish he’s made up for in his willingness to try anything and everything to get the Mavs a win. He’s not Popovich. His ring-less fingers make that painfully apparent. But Carlisle is no scrub. He knows what he’s doing, he’s been here before, and he draws one mean out-of-bounds play. The coaching advantage undoubtedly goes San Antonio’s way, but the margin may be slight enough to have its impact discounted.
Carlisle (and the rest of the Mavs staff, notably Darrell Armstrong) will have quite a task in managing Josh Howard’s…situation. Howard hasn’t shown any signs of reverting to his jumpshot-happy self, but Carlisle needs to ensure that it stays that way. Howard’s understanding of his role in the offense will be absolutely paramount if the Mavs are going to make it out of this series alive, and that requires Josh and the coaching staff to be fully in sync, from head to ankle. Health is only a subplot. Howard is going to be slightly limited, and that’s something the Mavs will have to deal with. Off-days in between games will nurse tender joints, and there’s nothing an ice pack, a band-aid, and some good ol’ fashioned aspirin can’t fix, right?
Making playoff picks is tough because there are so many internal forces at work. But for once, my job seems easy. My gut, my heart, and my head are all telling me Mavs in six. The series is close enough to be a toss-up, but every force in this universe tells me the Mavs are going to pull it out. File these thoughts away as the delusions of a Mavs fan if you’d like, but I’ve got a feeling. And a thought. And an instinct. All together that has to amount for something.