Do their recent stumbles mean the Dallas Mavericks and San Antonio Spurs are losing momentum at the wrong time? Either the Spurs (54-13) or the Mavericks (48-20) will put recent setbacks to rest with a win. It's always something between these two and this edition of the I-35 rivalry is no different in the sense that the clubs that have been so powerful all year (and really, all decade) are concerned about their imperfections.
Dallas comes into Friday 3-4 in its last seven games, despite the four losses being only by a total of only 10 points. But this recent stumble has stirred up murmurs that this Mavs team is no longer "for real."
"Everybody is going to talk about how this is just another game,'' said Dallas' Jason Terry, "(but) not for this team. Not for us. We struggled since the (All-Star) Break against teams that are right there in contention for a championship, so it's a measuring stick for us -- how far have we come?''
San Antonio, meanwhile, is coming off an absolute shellacking at the hands of the Miami Heat in the form of a 110-80 loss.
In addition to the big loss, San Antonio is also playing 5-3 basketball in their last eight games, which is a far cry from the .801 win percentage the Spurs are working with this year.
"They needed the game more than us," Manu Ginobili said after the Miami beating, trying to downplay concerns. "They were more upset than us and they are a great team. We are not playing against a second-division team in Asia. We are talking about the Heat."
And now we are talking about the Mavs. And the Spurs.
Dirk Nowitzki of the Mavs thinks it'll be the Spurs who are "more upset'' on Friday.
It will be a "good test again,'' Dirk said. "(San Antonio) just came off a tough loss against Miami. I read today somewhere that they had a three-hour practice for the first time all year, so you know they're going to be fired up and ready to play. And always when you lose by a big margin you're going to come out swinging, so it should be a fun game. Hopefully, the AAC will be rocking and it should be a fun game to be a part of."
The Storyline: When the Mavs and Spurs met in November, Dallas came home with a 103-94 win at the height of their "swagger" party. The two following meetings were a different story and lacked a certain German flair, as Dirk Nowitzki missed both games with his well documented knee injury. The Spurs did what good teams do though and made easy work of Dallas to secure two solid wins while he was out.
In this case, the Mavs' motivation to win involves the standings and holding off the Lakers for the No. 2 seed. The Spurs, meanwhile, have all but secured the No. 2 seed in the West and are mainly looking to get back to their consistent ways to be ready for an extended playoff run.
Recently, Coach Gregg Popovich made a change in the starting lineup by inserting Antonio McDyess into the center spot (aka "power forward,'' unless you buy that Tim Duncan is anything but a center) for defensive purposes. DeJuan Blair was relegated to the bench because Pop doesn't feel he is big enough to compete with the Dirk Nowitzkis and Pau Gasols of the West, and he's right.
The new lineup for San Antonio will help them in the long term (into the playoffs) matchup-wise, but the adjustments that need to be made may (and have) set them back in the short term.
Look for the Mavs to try to find their way defensively and for the Spurs to test their new-look against a very possible playoff foe.
Key Mavs Stats: The big storyline earlier in the year was that the Mavs were now the team with the strong defense while the Spurs were playing a more freewheeling, offensively focused game plan. Well, in 17 games since February 9th, the Mavs are allowing 102.4 points per game. Now, the Mavericks are ranked fourth in points allowed out West, while the Spurs are less than a point behind Dallas in fifth. Now is as good a time as any for the Mavs to lock in and get back to their early season form on defense.
Another key for the Mavs against the Spurs, as always, is Jason Terry. Mavs observers have harped on him for always seeming to have an off-game against San Antonio, and this year has been no different. In three games this year against the Spurs, Jet is averaging only 9.7 points per game while shooting 26 percent (11-for-43) from the field. It's understood that Terry is a streaky shooter and will have "off" games, but in a match up where his presence is so important, that performance is unacceptable.
Without Jet, it becomes Dirk vs. the Spurs on offense down the stretch. While Dirk has won his share against the Spurs by doing that, it is not wise to regularly rely on that strategy.
Key Spurs Stats: In the four games since McDyess' insertion into the starting lineup San Antonio is 3-1, but also allowing 106 points per game. That's not exactly the result Gregg Popovich was looking for when making that change for "defensive purposes". You can bet the house on the fact the Pop is not sleeping well at night when his team allows 48 percent field goal shooting to the likes of the Pistons, Kings, Rockets, and the at-times offensively challenged Heat.
The Spurs have always taken advantage of the corner three shot in their half court offense. This year though, opponents have to make sure to guard them from any spot beyond the arc as their roster is shooting a collective 40 percent from the three point line. Their 3-point shooting is led by Ginobili (34%), Richard Jefferson (43%), Gary Neal (41%), and you guessed it … That Bonner Character (51%!!). The Mavericks would be all the wiser to close out defensive possessions with high pressure when the shot clock gets low, because lack of range is not an issue for this Spurs team.
The Last Meeting: The Spurs controlled the game throughout on January 14th and propelled themselves toward a professional win against the Dirk-less Mavs. Even the best teams can take a rival lightly when their superstar is out, but that's not the Spurs' way. The Mavericks had to outscore the Spurs by 12 in the fourth quarter just to get the final margin to 12 points.
Tony Parker understood the situation and didn't take too much pride in the win.
"They didn't have Dirk and we took advantage of it, but it doesn't mean nothing because they're not the same team without him," Parker said.
Apparently, Parker doesn't respect fellow Frenchman Alexis Ajinca (who started in Dirk's place and is no longer with the team) the same way he does the perennial MVP candidate.
Tyson Chandler (eight points, two rebounds) tried to keep it in perspective as best he could.
"I think if you lose two star players off any team, they're going to go through the stretch we're going through," Chandler said. "This isn't anything anybody else in the league wouldn't go through."
Now is the time for Tyson and Co. to show that the last result was directly because of those injuries.
The Mavs Locker Room: After the recent skid, all the Mavericks were looking for was something positive to hang their hat onto while coming into the Spurs game. They did that with their six-point win in Oakland against the Warriors, despite being down 18 points on two separate occasions during the game.
The resident Mavs cheerleader Jason Terry summed up the team's growing confidence after the win:
"It's tremendous,'' Terry said.
The Spurs Locker Room: Even for the team with the best record in the league, things aren't going to be rosy after a 30-point loss. Naturally, in a very Popovich-esque way, Coach Pop spun a terrible loss into a more positive light.
"We made a lot of shots in San Antonio and they made a lot of shots here," said Popovich. "What goes around comes around."
Either way, big win or bad loss, any idea that the Spurs won't be ready for a division game against their rivals should be dismissed immediately. San Antonio has also had four days to sit and stew on that loss, so they'll be rested and ready to get that bad taste out of their mouths.
Spur of Note: Tony Parker. Since he returned from an injury that was supposed to keep him out two-to-three weeks (he missed only two games) Tony Parker has been on a tear. He's on a tear to the extent that he is scoring 19.6 points a game, shooting 58 percent, and dishing 5.8 assists. It's usually Manu Ginobili who does the most damage in matchups with the Mavs, but it will be interesting to see how Parker and his current form affect this one.
Mav(s) of Notes: Rodrigue Beaubois. The Spurs haven't seen Roddy B since he nearly shocked them by willing the Mavs to a win during Game 6 of last year's playoff series. You can bet that San Antonio will be more ready for the quick Frenchy now than they were last year, but some of what Roddy does cannot be game-planned against. Watch and see if Roddy B can carry over his influence from last year to this game.
Tyson Chandler. Tyson Chandler was brought in for two reasons: One, to bring defensive energy to a team in dire need of it and two, to guard Tim Duncan types in the low post. There were multiple times in the last few meetings were Duncan took Tyson to the post and might as well have been taking him to the wood shed with how bad he beat him. The Mavs odds of winning games (and Western Conference Finals?) against the Spurs increase dramatically if Chandler can be an effective defender of Duncan in the post.
Projected Lineups: Fish joins Coop on 103.3 ESPN Radio at6:30. Tipoff in Dallas at 7:30 pm. Stars will be out in the front row (we're hooking up with NFL legend Tim Brown! Namedropping!) It is unknown at this point whether or not Brendan Haywood or Peja Stojakovic will be available for the Mavericks, so we will work under the assumption that they will not. The Marion/Terry bench substitution pattern is important to Dallas' success, so we'll assume Rick Carlisle will roll the dice with Corey Brewer one more time.
Spurs: Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Richard Jefferson, Tim Duncan, Antonio McDyess
Mavs: Jason Kidd, Rodrigue Beaubois, Corey Brewer, Dirk Nowitzki, Tyson Chandler
Note: Operating under this projected lineup, the average age of starter in this game is 30.6 years old. That has to be one of the oldest collective NBA lineups ever. … but one of these groups is about to get a feel-young-again boost.