The No. 1-seed San Antonio Spurs have occasionally struggled in their first-round series against the in-state rival Dallas Mavericks, dropping two of the opening three games to find themselves in a surprising hole. While the defending Western Conference champions did take a very competitive Game 4 in the final minute, they have not controlled the series to the extent that many analysts (including me) thought they would. That's a credit to the Mavs, obviously, but also an indication that the Spurs aren't quite at peak efficiency.
The team's performance in Wednesday night's Game 5 should serve as a reminder of San Antonio's longstanding tendency to control a pivotal playoff game. In a familiar display of steady play and focus, the Spurs topped the Mavericks 109-103 to open up a 3-2 series lead.
Under Gregg Popovich, the Spurs have shown a consistent ability to identify several likely paths to victory, excel in those areas, and end up with a big win. It's a form of basketball triage, not so much an announcement of dominance as a case of high-stakes problem-solving. Wednesday's victory qualified as just that sort of success story. The Spurs have struggled at times to limit the Mavericks' high-efficiency offense of several capable scorers. In this contest, however, they kept the visitors at bay despite the team's three key players — Dirk Nowitzki (26 points on 10-of-20 FG), Monta Ellis (21 points on 8-of-18 FG), and Vince Carter (28 points on 10-of-16 FG) — all performing ably. No other player scored more than eight points, and only Brandon Wright (2-of-3 FG) hit at least half his attempts. It also helps that, for a team that hits jumpers as well as any in the NBA, the Mavericks missed their fair share of open looks on their way to 43.6 percent shooting for the night.
At the offensive end, the Spurs succeeded in spreading the opportunities around. Tony Parker, playing just one day after the birth of his first child with fiancee Axelle Francice, was the most profligate shooter with 23 points on 8-of-23 from the field, continuing a run of poor games by field-goal percentage. The rest of the San Antonio attack was quite balanced — Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Kawhi Leonard, and Tiago Splitter all totaled in the range of 10 through 16 field goal attempts and 14 through 19 points. Like in many classic Spurs wins, they played with a clear sense of their strategies and tactics.
The Mavericks mounted a comeback from a 12-point fourth-quarter deficit, but Parker's three-pointer with 1:52 on the clock made it a 101-94 game and appeared to serve as the dagger. For all Dallas's scoring ability, this one felt like it belonged to San Antonio.
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