The upcoming playoff series between the San Antonio Spurs and the Dallas Mavericks will be their third in five years with the Mavericks winning the last two. Who can forget the classic Western Conference semi-finals in 2006 and Tony Parker's performance in the first round last year.
This season, the Mavericks continues to have the Spurs' numbers as they won the season series 3-1. But that's practically irrelevant because the first two meetings were back in November when the Spurs were still struggling bringing in their new comers to the system. The second meeting was in early January, before the Mavericks traded for Caron Butler, Brendan Haywood and DeShawn Stevenson with the Washington Wizards. If you look at the last game to close the 2009-2010 NBA regular-season, it was a game where Popovich gave Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan some rest. Basically, the Mavericks beat the Spurs' role-players.
One can say the Spurs and the Mavericks will enter this year's playoffs somewhat unfamiliar with each other. Though the odds are in the Mavs' favor, but the Spurs has proven time and again they are still one of the better teams in the NBA and their championship pedigree will play a big role as they will open the playoffs on the road for the first time during the Duncan era.
This playoff series will be a battle of adjustments and exploiting mismatches which means Mavericks' coach Rick Carlisle and Spurs' coach Popovich will have their works cut out for them. Obviously, this series will still be decided by the players' execution down the stretch and how will they respond to the playoff pressure but the chess match between Popovich and Carlisle should be an interesting side story.
On paper, the Mavericks and the Spurs are tough teams to beat. Both have solid starting fives and have a deep bench which will play a significant role in this playoff series. Expect both teams to impose their will on each other and to play at their strengths.
The Mavericks will not lack in offensive firepower. Dirk Nowitzki remains to be a matchup problem for the Spurs. Adding Butler to the mix along with Mavericks mainstays Jason Terry and Shawn Marion, all this provides a more potent offense for the Spurs to worry about.
Brendan Haywood and Erick Dampier will try to take advantage of their length and height against the Spurs' front-court. However, the Spurs still have Tim Duncan and rookie DeJuan Blair. Blair, if given significant minutes, could be this series' X-factor for the Spurs. You know he caught the Mavericks coaching staff's eye when he poured a 27 points and 23 rebounds on Dallas to close out the regular season.
On the other hand, the Spurs have enough offensive weapons of their own. Ginobili has played a lot like the Manu that helped the Spurs to win championships, Richard Jefferson has come a long, Parker is recovering nicely from a hand injury, George Hill has been solid (provided that he's healthy) and Duncan will get his usual share on offense.
They will probably create some mismatches on the back-court where they have a slight edge on the Mavericks. Yes, the Dallas Mavericks could boast a back-court that includes Jason Kidd, Marion, Terry and J.J. Barea but with the way the Spurs have played lately how can you argue against a Ginobili-Parker-Hill combo?
However, looming questions can be asked whether Parker is fully healed from his recent injury and is Hill healthy enough to play in the post season after tweaking his ankle in the Spurs' regular season finale?
Keys to the series
Ride Dirk on offense, offensive rebounding, inside scoring and improve overall field goal percentage. During the regular season, the Mavericks shot 41.6% from the field against the Spurs and held a 50-34 advantage on the offensive glass in four games. Nowitzki has averaged 28.8 points and 8.5 rebounds while shooting 40.4% from the field and an impressive 55.6% from behind the arc. Not good for Spurs fans to read.
Haywood and Dampier could impose their will on the inside against the Spurs smaller front-court.
Marion and Kidd have more playoff experience which should come in handy if they are matched up against Keith Bogans, Hill and Malik Hairston. Although Bogans is a seasoned veteran and Hill has shown his poise this season.
Barea and rookie Rodrigue Beaubois could help the Mavs' aging back-court to keep up with the Spurs.
San Antonio Spurs:
'D' on Dirk, protecting the paint, hit the outside shots and make free throws. In four regular season games, the Spurs shot a better field goal percentage at 44.6% against 41.6% by the Mavericks. Spurs were slightly better on three-point percentage 34.9% to 34.4% but the Spurs have attempted a lot more shots from the behind the arc; 86 to the Mavericks 61 three-point attempts. The Spurs have only converted 69% of their free throws compared to 78.1% by the Mavericks.
Coach Popovich might be hesitant to use his younger, inexperienced players such as Blair. But with the way Blair has played, especially against Dallas in the last meeting between the teams, he should be given significant minutes especially when Duncan is resting on the bench.
Ian Mahinmi, for all his faults, could be a viable option to defend Nowitzki on short stretches. He has the foot speed and athleticism to keep up with Dirk on defense. Plus it is six fouls to use on Nowitzki and Spurs fans know how Mahinmi loves to foul.
Bogans, Hill and Hairston could make life more harder for Butler and Marion on offense.
Matt Bonner and Roger Mason Jr. MUST hit their shots at a fairly decent rate to make the Spurs harder to defend. Both are coming off horrible playoff performances against the Mavericks in the 2009 NBA playoffs. They have something to prove and now it's their time to shine.
In last year's playoffs against Dallas, the Spurs practically relied on one player -- Parker. This year, they have enough firepower to counter the Mavericks. The Spurs will be seeking redemption and it should be a great playoff series between the two teams.
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