DeJuan Blair provided Mavs with gritty play, toughness this season

DALLAS — Although he wasn’t the most heralded offseason signing for the Dallas Mavericks last summer, big man DeJuan Blair would eventually show his value to the team when it mattered most.

Finding himself in the doghouse during his fourth and final season in San Antonio, Blair would go from starting 150 combined games the three previous years to just 16 during the 2012-13 campaign. He then looked to exact some revenge on his former team during the Mavericks’ first-round playoff series against the Spurs, emerging as a key contributor off the Dallas bench to help push the top-seeded squad to seven games.

“He did a (heck) of a job out there,” teammate Shawn Marion said of Blair’s impact during the series. “He made his presence felt inside. He was getting some great rebounds. He has some unbelievable hands for his size. He might not be as big as most bigs in the league, but he is very active and he uses his body very well.”

“Tons of activity and [Blair] brings us a real physical presence,” Mavs coach Rick Carlisle added. “He clears out a lot of space in there.”

Sharing time with first-string center Samuel Dalembert and fellow big man Brandan Wright at the 5 spot, Blair would start 13 of his 78 appearances this season while averaging 6.4 points and 4.7 rebounds an outing during his 15.6 minutes per game. The undersized Blair also connected on 53.4 percent from the field, quickly earning the confidence of his teammates and Carlisle.

But it was Blair’s production in the playoffs that may have garnered the most attention while also impressing Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, providing the Mavericks with grittiness and toughness inside during the heated first-round series.

Averaging 6.7 points and 6.2 rebounds in just 13.5 minutes of action during the series, Blair also collected a team-best 2.0 steals a contest on the defensive end. Blair’s presence was also sorely missed in Game 5 of the series while he served a one-game suspension for kicking Spurs center Tiago Splitter in the head, leading to a 109-103 defeat for the Mavs.

Still, after putting up a fight against his former team, Blair left the court feeling like he had vindicated his exit from San Antonio while Popovich and 14-time All-Star Tim Duncan praised the former Pittsburgh standout’s play at the conclusion of the series.

“He just said, ‘Way to hand it to us,’ Blair recalled Popovich telling him as the two embraced following Game 7. “He said, ‘Way to hand it to us in our rear end.’ That’s what he said. … I still have respect for all of them, but it didn’t work out (in San Antonio), so I had to go somewhere else. It was a fun series. I had a good time.

“[Duncan] said he was proud of me, too, and just keep going. And he was happy for me, you know, and that’s what everybody was saying. Just coming out and playing like I did was great.”

But where does Blair, who is just 25 years old, go from there?

Entering free agency for the second straight offseason, the 6-foot-7 big man hopes to return to the Mavericks as the team tries to take another step forward next season. However, with Dalembert and Wright already signed through next year, it remains to be seen if Blair’s services will again be called upon in Dallas.

“I think I did a good job this season and this series, playing hard and playing how I know how,” Blair said after the Mavericks were eliminated from the playoffs. “Hopefully I can come back to Dallas and we can get another shot at it.

“I think I can bring that energy and toughness,” he added, “more toughness to our team. We’ve just got to click as a team.”