What To Watch For: Mavs at Spurs

Practice Report: Dirk Nowitzki

With Kawhi Leonard, Tiago Splitter, and Patty Mills out for tonight’s season opener, the Mavericks are in a position to give Tim Duncan his first-ever loss in ring ceremony games.

That said, the Spurs aren’t strangers to playing without key rotation players. Head coach Gregg Popovich is known to rest his entire starting lineup for a game or two every season, and his teams have historically performed very well in such contests. Just last season, for example, Mills led a Tony Parker-less Spurs team to an April victory in Dallas. The lesson: No matter who’s suiting up, opponents should never take San Antonio lightly. And, to that end, you never know just what to expect from San Antonio on any given night.

OFFENSE
Dallas Offense Spurs Defense
Points/100 poss. 111.2 (3) 102.4 (3)
eFG% 52.6 (T-4) 48.2 (4)
TOV% 12.7 (5) 12.8 (23)
Off/Def Reb% 24.6 (23) 76.4 (4)
FT/FGA .201 (20) .184 (3)

How, then, can the Mavs use this to their advantage? For starters, the absence of Leonard and Splitter will change the way San Antonio defends Dallas. Leonard, the reigning Finals MVP, is the ideal defender for a player like Chandler Parsons, a large small forward who can handle the ball. Leonard’s combination of size, speed, and strength goes a long way toward limiting Parsons’s effectiveness on the perimeter. He’s also a tremendous rebounder on both sides of the floor — he’s a lethal offensive rebounder, so his presence would have forced Parsons to box out for boards instead of leaking out for potential fast breaks. The new Maverick averaged 13.5 points and four assists in two games against Leonard-less San Antonio last season.

Instead of squaring off against the Spurs star, Parsons will likely be checked by Danny Green for long chunks of the game, as well as possibly Austin Daye and maybe even rookie Kyle Anderson. Green will also be spending time chasing Monta Ellis around the floor, meaning he’s in for a hard night’s work: Parsons and Ellis were two of only 18 players in the NBA who ran at least 2.5 miles per game last season, per SportVU. (Parsons and Jimmy Butler tied for the league lead at 2.7 miles per game.) The other primary Spurs wings, Manu Ginobili and Marco Belinelli, aren’t as quick as Green and I’m not sure Popovich will want either of them guarding Ellis and Parsons for extended periods of time. It’s important to mention that Leonard likely would have spent a few minutes here and there guarding Monta, as well.

Splitter, meanwhile, did about as well as any seven-footer can do against Dirk Nowitzki in the playoffs last season. Nowitzki definitely had his moments in the seven-game classic, but Splitter was effective at knocking him off his spots and limiting his breathing space as much as possible. Boris Diaw will likely take the starting job in his stead, and Diaw is no poor defender himself, especially when it comes to guarding Dirk. Normally Nowitzki has no trouble against bigger, slower players, but both Splitter and Diaw have the strength and length to force Nowitzki into difficult shots. That’s why having players like Ellis and Vince Carter was so important in last season’s series. Nowitzki can’t do it all by himself. That’s also the same type of contribution Ellis and Parsons will look to make tonight.

Despite the slew of injuries, though, the Spurs are still a stout defensive team. As long as Tim Duncan mans the middle, San Antonio is going to be formidable at the rim. However, playing without Splitter gives the Spurs one less rim protector, meaning if Duncan rests — or if the Mavericks can play him out of position with high pick-and-rolls or misdirection sets — free looks at the rim should open up inside. It’ll be up to Ellis, Parsons, and the other guards to generate and finish such opportunities. You don’t get many clean looks against San Antonio — the third-best defense in terms of efficiency last season, per Basketball-Reference — so you’ve got to take advantage of the ones you do find.

The chips are in Dallas’s favor here, as the two starters San Antonio will be without would have been guarding the Mavs’ best offensive players. The team-centric gameplan will always lean slightly toward Nowitzki, Ellis, and Parsons, so I would guess that will be the case tonight — perhaps even more than usual.

DEFENSE
Dallas Defense Spurs Offense
Points/100 108.7 (22) 110.5 (6)
eFG% 51.5 (T-24) 53.7 (2)
TOV% 14.8 (T-5) 13.5 (12)
Def/Off Reb% 72.7 (25) 22.7 (24)
FT/FGA .229 (22) .188 (27)

Leonard might be the defending Finals MVP, but he’s far from the only scoring threat for the Spurs. Tony Parker led the team in scoring last season at 16.7 points per game, and five others averaged double-digits. (Two of those players, Leonard and Mills, are out tonight. Splitter, meanwhile, averaged 8.2 points per game, ninth on the team.) Parker is one of the best pick-and-roll point guards in the NBA and generated 11.8 team points per game off of drives to the rim in 2013-14, third-most in the NBA. (Ellis’s 12.4 led the league.)

Normally, the gameplan would be to try to shut down the opponent’s leading scorer and risk letting role players win the game. However, Dallas found success against San Antonio in last year’s playoffs when it did the opposite. Rick Carlisle essentially tried to remove players like Green, Diaw, and Belinelli from the picture in that first-round series in favor of letting Parker and Duncan work pick-and-rolls in the center of the floor. It very nearly led to a Dallas upset. It’s also a strategy the Mavericks might try implementing again tonight, as Leonard, Splitter, and Mills are three of the Spurs’ top scorers.

As great as Parker, Duncan, and Ginobili are, one of the biggest keys to San Antonio’s recent success against the Mavs has actually been Danny Green. The wing has hit 26-of-39 three-pointers against Dallas during the past two regular seasons, including three games with at least five made treys. However, he had just one game with more than two made three-pointers in the playoff series: Game 7, when he was 4-of-6 in the Spurs win.

Containing Green, Belinelli, and the rest of the Spurs shooters is no easy task. Six Spurs hit at least 40 percent of their threes last season, and only one (Mills) will not be playing tonight. San Antonio led the league by a mile in three-point percentage in 2013-14, hitting 39.7 percent beyond the arc. The next closest, Dallas, hit 38.4 percent — still an insanely high number to be fair. Not surprisingly, the Spurs made most of their hey on catch-and-shoot three-pointers, which they hit a third-best 40.7 percent of the time, per SportVU. The deadliest player of them all, Belinelli, hit a blistering 46.1 percent on those shots, tied for fifth-highest in the NBA.

Again, it doesn’t really matter who’s playing for the Spurs, because all of their players are dangerous. They’re the defending champs, after all, and their “next man up” mentality has played a huge role in the team making two consecutive trips to the NBA Finals. This is the single-toughest team you could possibly open the season with. Add to it that it’s ring ceremony night, and Dallas is going to start its season in a pretty tough environment. It won’t take long to find out what this Mavs squad we have such high expectations for is made of.