The San Antonio Spurs have a reputation for ease under pressure. As one of the most seasoned teams in the NBA, there is virtually no late-game situation the Spurs haven't seen. They're a team that understands the game plan, understands that certain in-game situations needn't derail it, and handles their business.
However, in Friday night's Game 6 of their first-round series against the Dallas Mavericks, the Spurs were outplayed at their own game. Down 87-82 with 9:15 left in regulation and facing the end of their season, the Mavericks finished the game by playing some of the best offensive basketball of this postseason so far. After cutting that lead to a single possession within a matter of minutes, Dallas took the lead on a Monta Ellis 3-pointer that made it 94-92 with 4:56 left in regulation. They didn't give it up again, coming away with a 113-111 win that forces the fifth Game 7 of the playoffs' first round for this Sunday in San Antonio.
Aside from a bizarre failure to count on the part of the referees on the game's penultimate play, this was one of most watchable finishes of the postseason. The Mavs, in particular, gave lots of reason to cheer. Boasting one of the best offenses in the NBA this season, Dallas nevertheless looked overmatched heading into this series due specifically to San Antonio's nine-game winning streak over the team and more generally to a longstanding ability to take away one or two of a team's top options and force uncomfortable shots and sets. While not without difficulties at times, the Mavs have proven themselves to be incredibly well-spaced and very intelligent in how they create shots. Whatever advantage the Spurs seemed to have has been irrelevant, in part because the Mavericks make the most of every offensive option they have. When they began their comeback in the fourth quarter, they depended on many players, including Dirk Nowitzki, Vince Carter, Devin Harris and DeJuan Blair.
Ellis served as their closer, putting forth a game-ending run that should serve to boost his reputation around the league after several years in the analytical doghouse. After coming into the game at the 6:28 mark, Ellis scored 12 of his game-high 29 points while doing most of the ballhandling in crunch time. As they did all season, Ellis proved particularly effective in pick-and-roll situations with Nowitzki, although he also scored five points during a 64-second stretch with Dirk on the bench for defensive reasons.
When he signed with the Mavericks this offseason, Ellis' name had become synonymous with the sort of high-volume scoring derided by the efficiency-minded advanced stats movement. Playing with superior teammates in an offense that doesn't rely on his shot creation to function, Ellis has become a popular and widely respected player once again. At the same time, he appears to be much the same player as always, suggesting the change has come due to how he's used rather than any major change in his style.
Apart from a few mini-runs that ultimately won the game for the Mavericks, the Spurs kept pace with their opponents for most of the fourth quarter. They did it primarily through the brilliance of Tony Parker, who finally made his presence known in the fourth quarter of this series after serving as more of a bystander in previous games. Parker was not perfect — he had a pass stonewalled and stolen by Blair down three points with 29 seconds left — but he had 13 of his team-high 22 points in the quarter and looked like the player many expected to see against the Mavericks' less-than-amazing perimeter defenders.
Sunday's Game 7 figures to be another entertaining contest. The competitiveness of this series has been founded on mutual respect rather than rancor, but that's made it no less fun or watchable. It's a basketball lover's dream, a case of two seasoned squads executing their game plans. It would still be a major upset to see the Spurs — the NBA's best team of the regular season — lose in the first round, and they remain favorites. Nevertheless, they are not facing elimination because of any embarrassing collapse. Dallas, despite their seeding, has just been that good.
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