The playoffs began on Saturday, thankfully, which means it’s that lovely time of spring (and it is spring, right? It’s not going to snow again, is it?) when the minds behind Ball Don’t Lie offer you their thoughts on the upcoming pairings in the first round of the NBA’s postseason.
Kelly Dwyer’s Old Grey Whistle Test
Without the paper, this looks like yet another fantastic Western pairing. San Antonio and Dallas, those ancient combatants, teams that took on each other to great acclaim several postseason times over the course of the dueling Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki eras, in a first-round matchup that shouldn’t be predetermined by Dallas’ stinkful eighth seed and San Antonio’s well-worked top overall seed in the Western Conference.
In 2014, though, these records seem to hold out. Dallas is a respected 49-win team, one that had to navigate a terrific Western Conference and make sure that every game counted down the tough playoff-earning stretch. San Antonio is a league-best 62-win squad, the only such NBA club to top 60 wins in 82 tries, a beaming achievement considering they are the only club in NBA history to not boast a player working over 30 minutes a contest.
Considering the history, and the brilliance of Dirk Nowitzki and Mavs coach Rick Carlisle, and the fact that Dallas is just three years removed from a title in comparison to San Antonio’s seven, one would think that 13-win difference could be trimmed to near-nil. Though you should respect these Mavericks and expect that they’ll put up their typical fight, don’t bet on as much.
(Seriously, don’t wager.)
San Antonio had a regular season for the ages, and there’s no reason to think this wouldn’t carry over into the playoffs. It’s completely true depth and versatility are often outmoded once things turn into a best-of-seven routine, but these are the bloody Spurs we’re talking about. We’re talking about potentially handing seven games to San Antonio in a full two-week term, presuming San Antonio needs as long to dispatch the Mavericks.
Which they won’t. The Mavericks are to be respected, and everyone wishes that in a modern Adam Silver-led world they would be starting their postseason against the Portland Trail Blazers (which would be the case if the NBA shifted to a 1-through-16 seeded format for the playoffs), but the Spurs just seem to have Dallas’ number.
This isn’t a case of respecting the seeds above all. The typical No. 1-versus-8 matchup, at least prior to the Western Conference’s recent regular season dominance of NBA basketball, pitted a .500 team against a club that had topped 60-some wins, and these Mavericks were on pace for those 49 wins for just about all of 2013-14. It’s true they are the worst defensive team in the playoffs by a sound margin, but the Nowitzki and Monta Ellis-led club is a fantastic offensive team, one that rarely turns the ball over, one shoots exceedingly well in all areas – top six from any stripe or paint you can think of during the regular season.
Somehow, San Antonio still has this team licked, despite playing someone like Duncan nearly a thousand minutes less than Monta Ellis played during the regular season, and despite Manu Ginobili seeing half as much court time as Mr. Ellis in Monta’s first season in Dallas.
Injuries and rest played a part, but by and large this was San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich’s intention. Those who are just tuning into the NBA in mid-April might give such fawning a big “ho-hum” to San Antonio’s West-beating routine, but Popovich masterfully worked with his enviable core and full rotation, in a legendary mixture of coaching and commitment from the players in the wake of a 2012-13 season that lasted 103 games plus a month-long “preseason.”
That century-long turn didn’t even result in a title win, which could have been a killer to most, and coupled with the onset of age and perhaps the most fearsome of conferences we’ve seen in NBA lore, it would have been understandable for the Spurs to roll over. The return of Russell Westbrook and rise of Kevin Durant could have sent the Spurs into a tizzy, as could the pairing of Dwight Howard with James Harden or the move to let Doc Rivers run the Los Angeles Clippers like adults.
Instead, the Spurs kept on. As did the Mavericks, to the best of their abilities. In spite of the relative growth of Ellis and sound work of Jose Calderon, plus the continued solid play of Shawn Marion and Vince Carter, or the pocket-filling add-ons from Brandan Wright and the returning Devin Harris, it was somehow “only” worth 49 wins. Even with Nowitzki around. With no flies on him.
The reward is a chance to match up and match wits with San Antonio. And though in most cases you’d expect a lengthy battle pitched irrespective of seeding, San Antonio is still a full Tim Duncan arm’s length removed from Dallas.
Prediction: San Antonio in 5.
Dan Devine's One Big Question
Every postseason matchup has its own unique set of variables for each team, and prognosticator, to attempt to solve. Here's one that BDL's Dan Devine has been mulling over.
Can Dallas even make this interesting?
There is, I'll grant, a fundamental hole in the question -- Rick Carlisle's flowing, whirring offense is always worth watching, Dirk Nowitzki In The Playoffs will be must-see TV until he heads back to Wurzburg for good, and there always exists the possibility that Monta Ellis will go nuclear. But there's also a reason I'm asking.
The Spurs have bounced back from Games 6 and 7 with great vengeance and furious anger, storming to the NBA's best record, ripping off a franchise-record 19-game winning streak and outscoring their opposition by just under 10 points per 100 possessions (tops in the league) since the All-Star break. They have done so while ensuring that all of their players average less than 30 minutes per game for the season. They've developed depth and rotational versatility along the way, giving Gregg Popovich multiple options to deploy whether the run of play dictates going big or small, allowing him to run out potent offensive lineups that won't give up the store or stout defensive units that won't stagnate. They're the favorites to return to the NBA finals, and while dangerous matchups lurk -- namely, in Houston and Oklahoma City -- the Mavericks aren't one of them.
This intra-Texas rivalry was once the stuff of legend, but at this stage in the two teams' life cycles, the state of affairs is simple: San Antonio beats the hell out of Dallas, because that's just what they do. The Spurs are 13-3 against the Mavericks over the past four years, including 4-0 sweeps in each of the past two seasons, and the 1 vs. 8 seeding disparity is borne out when you look at how this year's series played out. Only one of the four meetings (a 112-90 early January beating) was a blowout, but the Spurs essentially smothered the Mavericks everywhere.
Against the league at large, the Dallas offense was a vicious machine on par with the Miami Heat (109 points per 100 possessions, tied for No. 2 in the league). Against the Spurs, the Mavericks were basically the Atlanta Hawks (103.5 points-per-100, smack dab in the middle of the NBA pack).
Against everybody else, Dallas' high-powered attack fired 22.9 3-point tries per game (12th-most in the NBA) and made 38.4 percent of them (second-best, behind only San Antonio). Against a Spurs team dedicated to shutting off opponents at the arc, the Mavs managed only 16.5 long attempts per game, which would've ranked between the everything-on-the-interior Chicago Bulls and without-injured-Ryan-Anderson New Orleans Pelicans for the third-lowest per-game mark over the course of the full season, and connected on a comparatively pedestrian 36.4 percent.
San Antonio's sound positional defense kept Dallas off the foul line (only 18.5 free-throw attempts per game, which is about 2 1/2 fewer than their season average and would've been dead last in the league). Their commitment to finishing defensive possessions also kept Dallas from making hay on the offensive glass -- a Mavericks team that snagged nearly a quarter of available offensive rebounds on the season collected only 15.4 percent against the Spurs, limiting opportunities to catch the defense off-guard with tap-backs or kickouts that lead to side-to-side ball swings for quick dribble drives or open 3-point looks.
On the other end of the floor, Dallas' season-long defensive problems -- an inability to corral dribble penetration on the perimeter and a lack of reliable rim protection (allowing the NBA's third-highest opponent field goal percentage in the restricted area, and the fifth-highest on other shots in the paint) -- cropped up in very ugly ways against the Spurs. San Antonio torched the Mavs to the tune of 115.2 points per 100 possessions, leaps and bounds better than the Los Angeles Clippers' No. 1-ranked offense, thanks to a blistering 43.3 percent mark on more than 24 3-point attempts per game.
Tony Parker had a field day during his three appearances against Dallas, averaging 23.3 points in while shooting 54.2 percent from the floor and dropping just under six dimes in 31.3 minutes per game while guarded primarily by Jose Calderon, Wayne Ellington and Shawn Marion. And when Parker sat out the teams' last meeting of the season to rest his ailing back, the Spurs worked through Tim Duncan (20 points and 15 boards in 39 minutes) while Kawhi Leonard did a lot of everything (16 points, 16 rebounds, five assists, two steals) and backup point man Patty Mills confidently lit Dallas up (26 points and six assists without a turnover). Even without their engine, the Spurs' offense could comfortably cruise against Dallas' not-exactly-big D.
Heavy minutes for Marion and substantial reserve guard Devin Harris could help shore up the leaky perimeter D, but so much of the Mavericks' identity relies on the floor-tilting looks their offense can generate by teaming Calderon and Ellis with Nowitzki in lineups that essentially bet their firepower can overwhelm you faster and more completely than yours can overwhelm them. It's not a bad gamble most nights, against most teams. But the Spurs will call, every time, and before very long you'll find yourself wondering how Pop managed to get 11 cards in his hand, and how all of them can be wild.
I hold out hope for one more baffling and ridiculous Dirk performance in the early spring sun, but I expect Dallas' defense to fold sooner rather than later.
Prediction: Spurs in 5.
Eric Freeman’s Guide to Playoff Watchability
Over the next two months, basketball fans will hear all manner of insights into key matchups, x-factors, and other series-deciding phenomena. For most people, though, watching so much basketball is a luxury or bizarre form of punishment, not a fact of life. These brave souls must know one thing: is this game between 10 men in pajamas worth the time? Eric Freeman’s Guide to Playoff Watchability attempts to answer this difficult question.
The NBA postseason is often a time to discover new things about players and teams, but it often ends up reaffirming things we already know. The San Antonio Spurs, for instance, have proven that they can reinvent themselves, but they’re perhaps most likable for the fact that they don’t seem to allow circumstances or typical aging processes to deter them from their goals. There is comfort in knowing that they will approach every series as a puzzle to be solved — that Gregg Popovich, Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and the cast of characters surrounding them will comport themselves in a manner to which we’ve become accustomed.
The Mavericks are not the same team that won the NBA title in 2011, but their general character remains the same. Dirk Nowitzki is an offensive marvel and remains one of the most compulsively watchable talents in the NBA, and his veteran cohort of teammates has been in the league long enough to provide few surprises. Perhaps we will learn if Monta Ellis has matured enough control some of his worst shot-taking impulses in big moments, but the Mavs are generally a known quantity. They will succeed with efficient shooting, creative offense, and just enough of a defensive effort to contain the opposition.
It’s unlikely that the Mavericks can make that happen — regular season results are not always predictive of playoff results, but the Spurs appear to have their number. It might be best to think of this series not as a rip-roaring thrill ride, but a chance to witness some superior craft. It’s a well-made genre story, not an epic. Yet that can be pretty darn enjoyable.
Rating: 7 out of 10 Glasses of Milk
Prediction: Spurs in 5.