By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com
SAN ANTONIO – A series that’s bolted off-script boils down to one simple reason as to why that is: The eighth-seeded Dallas Mavericks have more players playing harder than the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs.
And now Gregg Popovich, the Coach of the Year whom his astute counterpart Rick Carlisle called the Coach of the Century, must figure out why that is.
And it could be worse. The Spurs were seven-minutes, 45 seconds and a trademark Dallas meltdown from heading a few hours up north down 0-2. Carlisle was so protective of Wednesday night’s 20-point lead that after Popovich emptied his bench with six minutes to go, Carlisle kept Dirk Nowitzki, Shawn Marion and Monta Ellis out there for another three minutes.
“Having such a poor performance in the playoffs really bothers me,” said Spurs guard Manu Ginobili, whose sizzling shooting for a game-high 27 points was buried by a multitude of lazy, lackadaisical Spurs possessions and a season-worst 24 turnovers.
“We,” Ginobili continued, “are going to definitely have to play much, much better to have a chance in Dallas.”
To have a chance in Dallas? Where the Mavs’ 15 home losses, two to the Spurs, are the most of any West playoff team? That’s how strange this thing has become.
Here we are through two games and the sixth-most efficient offense in the league during the regular season is being choked at every turn by the eighth-least efficient defense. The Spurs’ offensive rating (98.6 points per 100 possessions) in the series is barely a tick better than the Charlotte Bobcats, who are matched up against the Heat. Their defensive rating (108.3 points per 100 possessions) would rank 28th in the regular season, just ahead of the Bucks and Jazz. That’s bad company.
And who would believe that the Mavs’ playoff defensive efficiency in these strange first two games would position them third in the regular season behind the Pacers and Bulls?
“We are mixing things up a lot and doing things we don’t really want to do, but we have to because they are such a potent team and they have such great players; they have the Coach of the Year,” Carlisle said. “It’s a monumental task, but we are in this thing to win.”
Dallas surprised San Antonio in Game 1 with a tweaked-up defense that switched on pick-and-rolls and was wholly focused on chasing the Spurs off the 3-point arc. It worked. The Spurs went 3-for-17 from deep and, again, were fortunate to pull it out late.
In Game 2, there were no surprises. San Antonio made 10 of its 20 3-point attempts, so that wasn’t the issue. Into the second quarter, the Spurs were shooting better than 70 percent, yet as their shooting percentage kept rising, so did their deficit. The culprit was nine turnovers in the first quarter and six more in the second. Then there were all those missed free throws: 18-for-29.
“It’s a bad combination to not play good defense at one end and give the ball up at the other end and not shoot free throws very well either,” Popovich said. “That’s a bad combination at both ends of the floor. That means you got your butt kicked and that’s what happened tonight.”
This cohesive, finely tuned engine is suddenly missing pistons. Topping the list is small forward Kawhi Leonard. Other than Ginobili, photos of San Antonio’s reserves should be plastered on milk cartons. Marco Belinelli, a key acquisition this summer who meshed so early and so well, has been nonexistent. Ditto for Patty Mills and Boris Diaw. Starting shooting guard Danny Green has six points in two games. Unlike Game 1, Parker and Tim Duncan didn’t find open real estate to the rim this time and combined for 23 points. Duncan had 27 and Parker scored 21 in Game 1.
For Dallas, which basically went 10-deep in Game 2, role players have provided such a boost that they’re in this position despite Nowitzki going 11-for-33 from the floor in the two games. Devin Harris has been sensational with 37 points on 15-for-25 shooting. Marion had 20 points, Ellis went for 21. Former Spur DeJuan Blair and the erratic Sam Dalembert provided real juice.
And point guard Jose Calderon, the tortoise trying to play against the hare, bounced back and scored all 12 of his points in the Mavs’ hugely important third quarter that they won 32-24.
See, just as Dallas built a 56-41 lead with a couple minutes left in the first half, San Antonio knocked it down to 56-51 at the half. It was their one and only spurt of the night.
“All season, sometimes we let up a bit and compete all the way until we get in trouble,” Nowitzki said. “I like our intensity right now. It is a little dangerous going home because we have been a decent road team all year. At home, we have not figured it out yet.”