We already spoke to Brian Cuban to get his opinions on the Spurs-Mavericks series, but to get a Mavs blogger's perspective, I talked to Rob Mahoney of the excellent Two Man Game Mavs blog. Make sure to also check out Rob's work on Hardwood Paroxysm and Pro Basketball Talk.
1. Mark Cuban recently said that the Spurs-Mavericks rivalry has been underappreciated and underhyped. I don't know how anything Mark is a part of can be underhyped, but do you share that sentiment with him?
Absolutely. The Spurs and Mavs have more mutual respect than some of the other contemporary rivalries (Celtics-anyone, for example), but the two teams have been so evenly matched for so long. In terms of producing consistently competitive games, I'm not sure there's a better match-up in the league. This is what NBA fans are getting in the first round of the playoffs, and to have this kind of competitive basketball this early is a gift. Seriously. Then once you factor in the intra-division competition, the geography (and the frequency with which fans of both teams interact as a result), and the playoff history between the two teams, I fail to see how this is anything less than one of the more compelling rivalries in the league.
2. Josh Howard was always a Spurs-killer, especially on the defensive end. Who does Dallas turn to for perimeter defense?
Shawn Marion. He's done a spectacular job of holding the league's elite wings below their scoring averages this season, and I'd expect him to be on Ginobili duty. A few morsels to consider:
Kevin Durant in the '09-'10 season: 30.1 PPG, 3.3 TOPG, .476 FG% Durant against the Mavs this season: 22.5 PPG, 4.5 TOPG, .317 FG%
Kobe Bryant in the '09-'10 season: 27.0 PPG, 3.2 TOPG, .456 FG% Bryant against the Mavs this season: 16.3 PPG, 2.3 TOPG, .400 FG%
LeBron James in the '09-'10 season: 29.7 PPG, 3.4 TOPG, .503 FG% James against the Mavs this season: 25.0 PPG, 1.5 TOPG, .442 FG%
Dwyane Wade in the '09-'10 season: 26.6 PPG, 3.3 TOPG, .476 FG% Wade against the Mavs this season: 28.0 PPG, 4.0 TOPG, .333 FG%
Most of that is due to Marion, but the Mavs are also significantly improved at scheming to stop highly productive wing players. Caron Butler is also a good on-ball defender, and he'll surely have his shot at Manu as well. DeShawn Stevenson and Jason Kidd are alternatives as well, should Carlisle look to mix up his coverages (count on it).
In terms of stopping point guards though...well, that's a different story. Kidd is too slow, Jason Terry is meh, J.J. Barea is too small, and Rodrigue Beaubois tries but isn't too strong in his defensive fundamentals just yet. Tony Parker could do some serious damage if he can figure out how to tap into last season's magic. George Hill too, to a lesser extent, but he's obviously not the threat that a rolling TP is.
3. Manu Ginobili has been pretty much unstoppable since the All-Star break. For the Mavs, is it wiser to just let him get his and try to limit everyone else or do you see a gameplan in place for trying to stop Manu?
I kind of touched on this already (and in my own series preview), but I'd expect the Mavs to try to stop Manu specifically. Carlisle seems to prefer keying on the guys who trigger the offense, and there's no doubt that Ginobili has played that role late in the season. Brendan Haywood and Erick Dampier are both solid post defenders, so the Mavs will let them try to hold down Tim Duncan. Meanwhile, Ginobili will face some tough man defense from Marion, Butler, and co., and surely a number of double teams and traps in various situations (particularly on pick-and-rolls).
I think that's the Mavs' best bet, as Dallas can significantly improve their chances by stopping Manu. He's just been too good lately, and removing that element from the series would give Dallas a big advantage. If the Mavs do try that strategy over the first game or so and it backfires, expect Carlisle to change things up. He's shown a willingness to adapt and modify his strategy throughout the course of the season or a playoff series (such as when he opted to start J.J. Barea in game three of last years' playoff series against San Antonio).
4. This series presents a lot of great matchups. Which one would you consider to be the key matchup of the series?
Manu v. Mavs is obviously a big one, but Dirk v. Spurs is just as crucial. I'm expecting Gregg Popovich to employ a similarly varied approach in covering Nowitzki: primary defense from everybody from Antonio McDyess to Matt Bonner to Richard Jefferson to George Hill, double teams galore, and anything and everything San Antonio can muster to get the ball out of Dirk's hands.
I think Nowitzki will still shine. McDyess had some success against Dirk in the regular season, but I don't see him as being a particularly effective long-term matchup. Dirk has become a solid passer out of double teams over the years, and that combined with his ability to shoot over his defenders should keep him very effective.
5. Do the Spurs have enough left in the tank to get past the Mavericks and possibly get Tim Duncan his fifth ring?
Yes and no. This series is pretty much a toss-up between two very competitive teams that know each other incredibly well. San Antonio definitely has what it takes to beat Dallas, they just have to execute a little bit better than Dallas and catch a few breaks. The same goes for Dallas, really; this one is going to be very, very close, with either team capable of taking it.
The ring though is a bit trickier. The Spurs match up well with the Suns, their probably second round opponent, and better than most against the Lakers. Winning a seven-game series against a struggling LA team is far from an impossibility, and if the Spurs can keep their regular season momentum going until the conference finals, they'd have a decent shot at the final boss. That's where the dream ends, though. The Spurs would likely have Cleveland or Orlando waiting on the other side, and those two teams aren't messing around. They're not struggling, they have legitimate superstars, play great defense, and boast incredible depth. Even if the Spurs had a great run all the way to the Finals, I'm afraid they'd probably be coming home without any hardware.