The San Antonio Spurs put on three consecutive clinics en route to the franchise’s fifth championship since 1999, playing the best basketball we’ve seen in a while along the way.
But the lingering thought among Mavs fans — and many others, for that matter — is how were the Mavericks able to contain San Antonio for so long? Dallas, after all, beat the Spurs three times during the teams’ first-round matchup, including once in San Antonio, one of only two times the Spurs lost at home all postseason. After Game 7 of the first round, the Spurs rattled off 12 wins against just four losses, winning every game in convincing fashion. That was not the case against Dallas, a team who fought valiantly and could have very well won the series. So how’d it happen?
Two main theories have prevailed. The first is that San Antonio was sleepwalking through its first-round matchup until Dallas took a 2-1 series advantage on Vince Carter’s buzzer-beating three-pointer to win Game 3. But that argument objectively and subjectively makes no sense. The reasoning goes that many of San Antonio’s main rotation players were almost too rested heading into the playoffs and it took them a few games to get back into the swing of things. However, that wasn’t the case last season, or the season before, or the season before, or during any season in which San Antonio has been one of the top seeds in the West heading into the playoffs. Head coach Gregg Popovich is too good a motivator to allow complacency from his team.
What’s more, Carter’s buzzer-beater didn’t signal an immediate change in San Antonio’s demeanor. The Mavs led in the fourth quarter in Game 4 and, were it not for DeJuan Blair’s ejection, Dallas realistically could have won the game. Meanwhile, in Game 5, Dirk Nowitzki put on an offensive blitzkrieg in the fourth quarter to bring the Mavericks back into what was at one point a relative blowout, and the Spurs only ended up winning by just six points. Dallas then turned around and won Game 6 at home. Game 7 is when the Spurs found the groove that carried them to the championship, but to even argue that it took San Antonio six games to “wake up” is to discredit not only the Mavericks, but also the Spurs. No team at any level of basketball is going to push itself to the edge of elimination before finally finding itself.
That leaves the other theory: Dallas gave San Antonio its toughest test because Mavs head coach Rick Carlisle is Popovich’s most dangerous coaching adversary. Carlisle was able to counter most every move Popovich made through the first six games of the series before the Spurs finally prevailed in seven at home. This belief is far more fair to Dallas, as it doesn’t completely dismiss the team from the conversation. However, even simply pointing to Carlisle alone isn’t enough to explain how the Mavericks were able to give the Spurs their toughest challenge. Though Carlisle definitely and rightfully earned a heap of praise for the job he and his staff did against San Antonio, the Dallas roster had a lot to do with that, as well.
In terms of matchups, Dallas turned out to be the type of team that gave the Spurs fits, especially on the offensive end. The Mavericks as a team posted a 106.8 offensive rating against San Antonio, meaning the Mavs scored 106.8 points per 100 possessions in the series. For the rest of the playoffs, including against two efficient offensive juggernauts in Portland and Miami, San Antonio allowed just 98.6 points per 100 — a mark that would have led the league this season.
The Spurs are known to build defensive gameplans around taking an opponent’s best offensive option away, but Dallas proved that the strategy doesn’t exactly work against a team like the Mavericks. For starters, it’s a challenge to limit both Monta Ellis and Dirk Nowitzki. The Spurs relied on Tim Duncan’s rim protection to slow Ellis down at the rim, and Popovich leaned on Tiago Splitter to face off against Nowitzki on the perimeter. The plan worked in that Nowitzki shot below his season average and Ellis often opted to take jump shots, but other Mavericks around them each enjoyed moments where they thrived. Sticking to tightly to Nowitzki on the perimeter left the rest of the team able to play 4-on-4 basketball on the other side of the court. Blair, for example, had a field day inside as Duncan often left him to worry about the driving Ellis. The Spurs threw their best defenders at Monta, leaving Devin Harris or Jose Calderon against San Antonio’s weaker guard. You can’t stress enough the importance Nowitzki’s presence alone had on San Antonio’s gameplan. The German forced Popovich to play Splitter heavy minutes, when later in the playoffs he was supplanted in the starting lineup by Boris Diaw. Splitter is a fine player, but Diaw fits in better alongside Duncan, as the French forward can stretch the floor as a three-point threat and also possesses a superior ability to pass the ball both from the perimeter and the interior. Splitter’s offensive presence by itself took away one more three-point shooter for the Spurs, which played right into the Mavs’ gameplan.
Finally, and most importantly, Vince Carter and Calderon each presented their own set of problems to the Spurs, because both of them can drive the lane and create for others. Harris and Ellis can do the same, and even Blair and Nowitzki have very nice inside passing games. No other team San Antonio faced during the playoffs had so many different creators offensively. Portland relied on the driving ability of Damian Lillard and the isolation work of LaMarcus Aldridge, but that alone won’t beat the Spurs. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook did their best to dissect the Spurs’ solid defense, but even they couldn’t crack the code by themselves. And as we saw in the Finals, LeBron James often scored at will, but he was the only Miami player who could manage to break down the defensive wall along the perimeter. Dallas, however, often had three or even four players on the court at once who could snake their way toward the rim, and in today’s NBA that opens up all sorts of opportunities on the wing for open shots. The Mavs were easily the most versatile offensive team San Antonio had to face.
Ball-handling ability aside, the Mavericks bench was also an enormous thorn in the Spurs’ side. San Antonio’s reserves are considered to be the best second unit in the league. Led by Manu Ginobili, that bunch deserves the praise it’s drawn. But the Dallas bench simply outplayed the Spurs’ in the series. The four Mavericks with the best on-floor point differential in the series were all reserves: Blair, Jae Crowder, Carter, and Brandan Wright. Meanwhile, San Antonio’s Patty Mills, Boris Diaw, and Marco Belinelli — all key players off the bench who each saw more than 90 minutes of playing time in the series — finished with a negative on-floor net rating. (Against the Spurs’ three other playoff opponents, only one player finished with an on-floor net rating of less than +9.7, which is simply remarkable.) If the Spurs had the deepest roster this year, a strong case could be made that the 2013-14 Mavs were the second-deepest. The Dallas bench not only kept the team in games, but that group won them contests. Blair’s energy was key in Games 4 and 6, and Carter’s buzzer-beater will live on for years to come. Harris, meanwhile, put up 11.4 points and 4 dimes a game, strong numbers for any reserve.
For as much criticism as the Mavericks defense drew during the playoffs, Dallas was able to limit the Spurs attack better than any other opponent. The Spurs scored 110.2 points per 100 possessions against the Mavericks, but that number inflated to higher than 113 against Portland, Oklahoma City, and Miami. Carlisle and the Mavs organized a defense that would take away the Spurs’ complementary players, including Danny Green, Belinelli, Mills, Diaw, and others, in favor of allowing Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili into pick-and-rolls with Tim Duncan and Splitter. Miami’s mistake in the Finals was trying to remove Parker from the equation by attacking the Spurs’ pick-and-roll sets, which often resulted in sharp ball movement that led to open three-pointers. (The Mavericks beat Miami in 2011 by doing similar things offensively.) That Kawhi Leonard (who won it) and Diaw were among candidates for the Finals MVP award shows just how far the Heat’s plan backfired. Dallas, meanwhile, concentrated on the peripheral players and instead forced the Spurs to run entirely through Parker and Ginobili. In this case, it’s easier to see why San Antonio couldn’t have just “woken up” after Game 3, 6, or any other contest in the Mavs/Spurs series. Dallas defended San Antonio completely differently than its other opponents.
There’s one lengthy explanation of why Dallas was able to give San Antonio fits that no other team could repeat. The Mavericks had a unique roster this season, made up of versatile, smart players who could execute solid gameplans to a tee. There’s no telling how far the Mavericks could have gone in the playoffs had Game 7 or any of the other first-round losses gone the opposite way, but if San Antonio’s sprint to the Finals following the first-round matchup is any indication, it’s safe to say that maybe, just maybe, the Mavs weren’t as far from a nice postseason run as you might think. It’s obviously silly to say the Mavs would have won the title, as after one round there’s still a lot of basketball to play, but Dallas had the star power and supporting cast that head coaches crave, and it also had the coach that talent longs to play for.
There’s certainly no such thing as a moral victory, but the Mavericks gave the NBA champs their toughest fight, and that does mean something: This year’s club was one of the best in the league.
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