SAN ANTONIO – They traded elbows, bruises and fouls, two old Lone Star rivals cracking each other, and somewhere from this scrum the ball fittingly found its way to the man with the bandaged, busted nose. Manu Ginobili(notes) rose from the corner and buried a long, arcing shot, thrusting one more dagger into this Texas blood war.
These San Antonio Spurs don't scare easily, and that explains as much as anything why they're one victory from flooring the Dallas Mavericks. They entered the West playoffs as a No. 7 seed and could emerge from their opening series as the conference's heavyweight. Ginobili's fearlessness has always given the Spurs reason to believe, but this also now spreads from the youngest on their roster.
The Mavericks now realize as much. On Sunday, the teams combined for three flagrant fouls, one technical and an ejection. Eduardo Najera(notes) slung Ginobili hard to the court by the neck, and this was after Ginobili already looked like he'd gone three rounds with a school bully, his fractured nose hidden beneath a mound of tape and gauze. Jason Kidd(notes) and Dirk Nowitzki(notes) also took hard fouls.
"It was a brawl, a street fight," Nowitzki said.
Hill and Blair felt right at home in the middle of it. Young and hungry, both from hardscrabble backgrounds, they have given the Spurs an edge, a toughness, they haven't always had in recent years. They look the part – between the two of them they have more tattoos than the Spurs' past three championship teams combined – and also play it. With Duncan making just a single shot and Ginobili missing 12, with Tony Parker(notes) looking almost as ordinary, Hill carried the Spurs' offense, shedding his defenders with a series of crossovers and step-backs, throwing in five 3-pointers on his way to 29 points, just two fewer than the Spurs' three stars totaled.
The Mavs couldn't keep a body in front of Hill or Blair, who scrapped and fought, frustrating the Dallas big men with his limitless energy. Richard Jefferson(notes) scored 15 points and Antonio McDyess(notes) hounded Nowitzki, each also fitting just like the Spurs dreamed they'd fit. Three minutes into the second half, the Mavs led by 12. By the end of the third quarter, they were down seven, losing their grip on the game and maybe the series.
Over the course of a week, Gregg Popovich's dog pound had somehow transformed from poodle to pit bull.
"We're not going to back down, we're not going to take hits and let them keep doing it," Hill said. "…We can deliver the blow, too."
One moment illustrated that. Nowitzki became entangled with Blair while waiting on a free throw. Blair stepped into Nowitzki, who flung Blair's arm off him. The officials hit Nowitzki with a technical, and Blair smiled as he slowly backed away.
"Dirk being Dirk, me being me – and that's not good," Blair would later say with a laugh.
Blair celebrated his 21st birthday just three days earlier. Hill will turn 24 in another week. The Spurs don't usually win with players so young and with their stars contributing so little. Still, all of their championship teams owned the same trait: From Mario Elie to Stephen Jackson(notes), from Steve Kerr to Bruce Bowen(notes), from Malik Rose(notes) to Fabricio Oberto(notes), the Spurs' supporting casts were cut from the same sturdy fiber that Hill and Blair now share. There's a reason why Jaren Jackson left the Spurs with a championship ring and Hedo Turkoglu(notes) didn't. To survive in San Antonio, one must not only withstand the heat of the playoffs, but also Popovich's personal fire.
Flame-retardant players aren't easy to find. The Spurs took Hill late in the first round of the 2008 draft, and nearly every other team in the league asked why. The Spurs had moments where they wondered, too. They liked Hill's length, toughness and work ethic, but a horrendous summer league performance left them questioning whether he'd ever have the offensive talent to match. Hill looked even worse when he initially arrived in San Antonio to work out. In one pick-up game, he was outplayed by the teen-aged son of Spurs director of player personnel Dell Demps. Popovich went from wondering whether Hill could make the roster to debating whether he needed to clean out his front office.
But the more time Popovich spent around Hill, the more he found to like. He has since called Hill "my favorite player of all-time," and there are reasons for that, too: When Popovich barks, Hill looks his coach in the eyes and listens. From players to coaches to management, the opinion is unanimous: We trust this kid.
A year ago, that wasn't yet the case. On the eve of the postseason, Popovich declared, "These playoffs aren't for George." As it turned out, they weren't really for Roger Mason(notes). Popovich eventually realized his mistake, and Hill contributed in the final couple games of the Spurs' first-round loss to Dallas.
This season's playoffs didn't start much better. Hill sprained his right ankle the first week of April, then tweaked it by stepping on a photographer in the team's regular-season finale against the Mavericks. He started the playoffs, but was soon given a seat on the bench early in the second half of Game 1 after failing to secure a routine inbounds pass.
Hill's ankle still troubled him a little, but that wasn't the true problem. "He just wasn't ready mentally," one team official said. "The playoffs are different."
Hill responded with seven points the following game and 17 in Game 3. On Sunday, he courageously led the Spurs out of their hole. San Antonio has now won three straight games in the series and needs just one more victory to advance to the second round. Suddenly, the West has never looked more open. This also goes back to something Mavericks owner Mark Cuban told a Dallas radio station about the state of the Western Conference field shortly before the postseason began.
"You look down the list," Cuban said, "and nobody's afraid of anybody."
The seventh-seeded Spurs and fifth-seeded Utah Jazz hold 3-1 leads in their series. The sixth-seeded Portland Trail Blazers, like the Jazz, had seen their roster splintered by injuries, yet they just evened their series against the Phoenix Suns. The eighth-seeded Oklahoma City Thunder were supposedly too young, too inexperienced to handle the champion Los Angeles Lakers and they're headed to L.A. with the series split after four games.
The Mavericks never figured they'd be within a game of elimination this early in the playoffs. They were supposed to be deeper and tougher than previous seasons, a legit title contender, and yet even they had to admit the obvious about Sunday's letdown.
Neither team expects the physicality to let up in Game 5. There will be more elbows, more bruises, more hard fouls.
The Mavericks also reminded themselves of a few other things. They've got Game 5 at home and, if they can get to it, Game 7. If they can contain Duncan, Ginobili and Parker as well as they did in Game 4, they'll take their chances. They've also lost the series' past two games by a combined seven points, so they can't be that far off. Anything to help them believe.
The problem? The Spurs already do.
- The Mavericks
- Gregg Popovich