DALLAS – As soon as official Joey Crawford had inexplicably tossed Tim Duncan on Sunday, the conspiracy machinery that forever shadows the NBA started churning with its theories to justify that delirious decision. Here was the Suns' No. 2 seed in the Western Conference still within the San Antonio Spurs' reach and, the thinking would go, the league didn't want those bland, boring Spurs messing with a Suns-Mavericks conference final.
So Duncan goes down for laughing, the Spurs lose to the Mavericks and a Game 7 in the conference semifinal between San Antonio and Phoenix belonged to the Suns. Sheer foolery, yes, and commissioner David Stern delivering Crawford to the gallows was the strongest of messages that the old official's self-important act was most an unsanctioned move.
For a nation dying to see that Suns-Mavericks conference final, here's an unpleasant truth: The NBA champion comes out of the Western Conference this season, and the road goes through the heart of Texas – Dallas and San Antonio.
Here's what's waiting for the Suns in the West semifinals: the NBA's best defensive team, grinding them down, squeezing Steve Nash of his space, reaching beyond the arc to deny those clear-eyed three-pointers and suppressing Amare Stoudemire inside with Duncan's length. The Spurs have won 11 of 15 over Phoenix, including a 92-85 victory on April 5 that one Western Conference scout marveled "looked more like a clinic by (Spurs coach) Gregg Popovich."
When the Dallas Mavericks changed course three years ago by installing Avery Johnson as coach, the thinking was unmistakable: They had tried to chase a championship the Suns' way under Don Nelson but declared it a failed pursuit. Under Johnson, an old Spurs point guard, the Mavericks worked to transform themselves into a defensive-minded franchise. Across three seasons, Johnson has done a fabulous job striking a balance between Phoenix's and San Antonio's style, using Dallas' deep roster to become the most balanced team in the league.
Those three Spurs titles made the Mavericks change course, made them believe they had to take a little from San Antonio to ultimately beat them – which Dallas did in the 2006 West semifinals before losing the NBA title to the Heat. Nevertheless, the Mavericks have delivered one of the best regular seasons in NBA history (67 victories), and they go into the playoffs against No. 8 seed Golden State on Sunday with everything needed to be a champion.
"We pay attention and look to see what other franchises have done, and we adjust when we see what we're doing is not working," Dallas owner Mark Cuban said. "When I first got in, we looked at what Portland had done and thought that was the best model and that didn't work.
"So once Avery got here, we changed our approach. Obviously, his experience in San Antonio had a big impact. It made a big difference in how we approached things."
Here came Johnson, the Little General they call him, with those spitfire words and steely resolve. As a point guard on the Spurs' 1999 championship team, he had come to believe in the iron hand of Popovich. Ultimately, Nelson's laissez-faire temperament can develop offensive teams, but Johnson's persona was needed to change everything on the defensive end.
"Pop was a disciplinarian, which I really liked," Johnson said. "You always knew where you stood with him."
The Spurs trust Popovich. His core of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili has been together for a long time, and he can be hard on them without losing his team. That's tough in the NBA. San Antonio struggled through the first half of the season, dropping to the middle of the pack in defense, and before the trading deadline, there were a lot of calls for the sluggish Spurs to make a move.
" 'We were older than dirt,' " Popovich remembered hearing about his team. " 'We needed to get this guy, or that guy, on the perimeter to get something done.' "
So he walked into the locker room one day and told his team, "We're not going to make a trade. We're not looking for a savior. It's right there in this room."
For all the years of going back and forth between the Mavericks and Spurs, Cuban has struggled to understand why the rivalry hasn't caught on with the rest of the country. He's tried. He took shots at San Antonio, poked fun at the Riverwalk, but it's never completely resonated."
"It hasn't been as dramatic, or impactful, as I thought it would be," Cuban said. "If it was just a natural rivalry, you wouldn't have seen me do some of the things that I did to try to juice it. You don't need to do anything to juice the Yankees and the Red Sox."
For the rest of America, they would just as soon see the Mavericks and Suns with Nowitzki and Nash bringing that MVP race all the way to the cusp of the NBA finals. This year, the Spurs, still the standard in the West, are standing in the way of aesthetics in the West finals. They'll beat Denver in the opening round, and they'll be waiting to grind on the Suns.
This is San Antonio's time of the year. And the fact that Duncan, according to Robert Horry, "is as healthy as he's been this time of year since I've been here," is a troubling truth for the rest of the conference.
The playoffs begin this weekend, and once again, the championship chase promises to go through the heart of Texas. No, the Mavericks and Spurs aren't the Yankees and Red Sox, but theirs is the best rivalry going in the NBA. And here it comes, again.