By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com
DALLAS — The Mavericks have pushed the reigning West champion and top-seeded Spurs to a decisive Game 7 because they’re working their game plan to near-perfection. Dallas is improbably winning the 3-point battle, getting widespread contribution, nearly matching San Antonio’s defensive efficiency and Monta Ellis has become a very big deal.
“It’s called speed,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said, asked why Ellis is so effective attacking the rim.
Only San Antonio point guard Tony Parker has more drives to the basket in the playoffs than Ellis, according to the SportVU tracking system, and Dallas’ defensive scheme is practically begging him to do so as the Mavs concentrate on choking off the 3-point arc.
The Spurs’ Achilles heel is locking down athletic squads such as Oklahoma City and Houston. San Antonio didn’t beat either one in eight regular-season games. Dallas won’t typically fall into the “athletic” category with Dirk Nowitzki, 35, Shawn Marion, 35 and Vince Carter, 37, so relied upon, but Ellis, 28, is penetrating with attitude and altering that dynamic.
He’s making life miserable for 36-year-old Manu Ginobili and anybody else trying to stay in front him. Ellis pumped the Spurs for 29 points — 22 in an electrifying second half — during Dallas’ stay-alive Game 6 win Friday night, his second game with 29 in the series.
“When he scores like that, he is to tough to stop,” Parker said. “We are going to have to control him.”
Ellis is Dallas’ leading scorer at 21.8 ppg. Only one other time in 12 previous playoff appearances has Nowitzki not led the team in scoring. That was a disaster, a 2007 first-round ousting as the No. 1 seed by Golden State, exactly what Dallas is attempting to do to San Antonio. Ellis played with decisive force in recent fourth quarters, and has helped to crumble a typically unbreakable end-of-game Spurs defense.
The Mavs’ success extends throughout the lineup. From Carter to Devin Harris to DeJuan Blair‘s inspired, revenge-minded hustle, Dallas’ depth has grabbed a much larger role in this series than a bench that was so important to San Antonio all season long.
Ginobili had his first poor game of the series in Game 6, having averaged 19 points in the first five games as San Antonio’s best player. Starting shooting guard Danny Green finally shot it well in Game 6 with 19 points after averaging 3.4 through the first five games.
Boris Diaw has come on in recent games, but Marco Belinelli has been a virtual no-show, averaging less than one 3-point attempt a game. Patty Mills is shooting 23.5 percent from deep. He’s 4-for-17 in the series after dropping six 3s on Dallas in their final regular-season meeting in April.
“I don’t know, it just happens,” Ginobili said of the Spurs’ bench struggles. “Some matchups are good for some players and some matchups are good for others. We’re 3-3 with home court advantage. I don’t think we’re in an awful position. We’re not a team that needs the bench to score 45 points. We take what the opponents give us.”
Dallas is doing all it can not to give up the 3-pointer. The Spurs have devastated the Mavs with the 3-ball for two consecutive seasons, but so far in this series they are losing that key battle. Only once has San Antonio made more 3s, and that was an irrelevant 10-8 advantage in Game 2, which Dallas won in a blowout.
The Mavs’ defense, ranked in the bottom 10 in efficiency all season, has limited the Spurs to 17.3 attempts a game, fewer than any team in the playoffs other than Washington and Memphis. They’re averaging nearly two fewer 3-point baskets than Dallas, which is shooting the 3-ball at 37.9 percent, slightly higher than San Antonio’s 37.5 percent. The Spurs led the league in the regular season at 39.7 percent.
It’s no fluke that Dallas has its longtime nemesis on the ropes.
San Antonio will be favored to win Game 7 on their home floor, but several concerning patterns could make end this playoff run much sooner than anybody could have expected.