By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com
DALLAS — One minute, 54 seconds into Game 3, Gregg Popovich had steam spewing out his ears and he gave Tony Parker an earful.
On consecutive possessions, the All-Star point guard provided no defensive resistance as Jose Calderon routinely dribbled the ball upcourt, lost Parker and lofted passes to Samuel Dalembert and then Shawn Marion for easy buckets at the rim. After Marion’s alley-oop, Popovich leaped from his chair, angrily signaled timeout and marched directly toward Parker and chewed him out.
It was the beginning of another strange night for Parker and the Spurs.
Parker responded by ramping up his effort and he had an excellent first quarter, and 17 points at the half. But he had to work his tail off to get it. And guess what? Dallas made him work at the other end, too. Calderon, who looked like a moped in a backcourt full of speed bikes in playing only 16 minutes in Game 1, continued to turn the tables as he did in Dallas’ Game 2 road win, and had 12 points on 5-for-6 shooting as surprising Dallas led by five at the half.
Calderon made plays with his dribble, made floaters and knocked down two of his three 3-point attempts. He finished with 16 points on 7-for-10 shooting and nine assists in 30 minutes. Parker, who Popovich had told earlier that if he had to shoot 25 times then do it, played only 13:24 in the second half, scored two points, missed four of five shots and finished with 19 points on 18 shots.
“I don’t know,” Parker said of how the Mavs made him a non-factor in the second half. “It just happened, flow of the game in the second half. I played less, you know, and I don’t know, they didn’t do anything special.”
Maybe so, but the unfolding and improbable story line of this first-round series that the eighth-seeded Mavs suddenly lead 2-1 over top-seeded San Antonio is the dominance of the Mavs’ backcourt. No one could have expected Calderon, Monta Ellis and Devin Harris to outshine Parker, who is carrying a burdensome load, and his underachieving pals who had been so good throughout a 62-win season.
And, actually, Dallas’ 109-108 victory Saturday evening was indeed special. With 1.7 seconds left after Manu Ginobili spun in an off-balance leaner for the potential game-winner, Vince Carter, his heels barely inside the sideline, swished a desperation, fall-away 3-pointer from the deep corner after pump-faking Ginobili in the air. The shot instantly rekindled memories of Ray Allen‘s backbreaking 3-pointer against the Spurs late in Game 6 of the NBA Finals.
San Antonio played Game 7 tough last June, but ultimately lost, leaving a feeling the Spurs allowed the title to slip through their fingers. Among some who watch the Spurs closely, there was some question after Saturday’s loss if they’re falling into a ditch they won’t escape.
“You always feel like it happens [last-second game-winners] more against you than in your favor, but it’s always tough,” said Ginobili, so far the Spurs’ only other reliable backcourt presence. “I’ve been doing this for 18 years and it’s happened multiple times and it hurts always, especially in the playoffs. We are not out. We lost a tough one, but we’ve got to come back on Monday and play even better so as to not to get in that position.”
The Spurs are getting no help from starting shooting guard and 3-point specialist Danny Green. Green, guarded by Calderon, whose lone defensive job is to stick to Green, hit his series average in Game 3 — three points. Popovich has taken to mainly benching him. Reserve Marco Belinelli doubled his series average coming in of 3.5 ppg. Patty Mills, who blitzed Dallas for 26 points and six 3-pointers late in the regular season, had five points Saturday.
In Games 1 and 2, Harris scored 19 and 18 points and shot 60 percent. In Game 3, Ellis tortured San Antonio for 29 points, 12 in the fourth quarter. Still, San Antonio led 100-95 with 2:11 to go but couldn’t close it out. Ellis, fending off the defense of Kawhi Leonard, scored seven points in the final 1:37 and tied it at 106-106 with 24.9 to go.
Calderon, Ellis and Harris have played so well they’re allowing Dallas to excel even with Dirk Nowitzki having entered Game 3 as the Mavs’ fourth-leading scorer, unheard of in his career. He had 18 points on a pedestrian 7-for-13 shooting on Saturday.
Parker has had to deal with the 6-7 Marion as Dallas continues to switch up its defensive coverages. Parker went 9-for-18 from the floor with six assists and four turnovers. He played 6:49 in the third quarter, started the fourth quarter, but came out three minutes into it. The Spurs found some success with a small unit that included Patty Mills and a rare appearance from Matt Bonner.
Popovich stuck with it and kept Parker on the bench until the 4:06 mark.
“Manu was rolling, he was playing great and he [Popovich] felt leaving me on the bench to have more energy for the last four minutes,” Parker said. “I trust Pop’s judgment. Me, personally, I feel fine. The team was playing well.”
Well enough until Carter’s heroics.
But the No. 1 seed shouldn’t be sweating like this, not against a team it had carved up over the past two seasons. If the Spurs’ backcourt doesn’t find Parker some help soon, it could be a very, very early summer.