Steve Aschburner
Friday April 17th, 2009

OVERVIEW: Neither team is what it was three years ago, when the Spurs and Mavs squared off in a conference semifinal series that went to seven games, plus five extra minutes, before visiting Dallas eliminated the defending champions en route to its own Finals trip. Manu Ginobili won't be around this time, Dallas swapped out Devin Harris for Jason Kidd and a lot of the principals are three years older. But the history and the passions run hot.

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THREE THINGS TO WATCH

1. Howard's production. Dallas' Josh Howard has talked about how he "gets it'' now, meaning that he accepts his responsibility for the team's successes or failures based on how he plays. He is a much-needed third scoring option (behind Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry) for the Mavs, as much for how (slashing, opportunistic baskets) as for how much. But he still can be maddeningly inconsistent. After three straight postseasons in which he boosted his scoring from its regular-season rate, Howard went backward last spring, dropping from 19.9 points to 12.6 in the first-round exit against New Orleans.

2. San Antonio's support system. Tim Duncan is as inevitable as death and taxes, Tony Parker gets neglected too often in the debate about best point guards, and the Spurs' record does drop off considerably when Ginobili's not around. But no San Antonio team accomplishes anything without key bench players stepping up in the postseason to help the stars. The Robert Horry-Brent Barry-Malik Rose roles likely will get filled in one way or another this spring by Roger Mason, Matt Bonner and Drew Gooden. Does "Big Shot Rog" have a ring to it?

3. Dirk in rhythm. Dirk Nowitzki's name won't be included on many MVP ballots this year -- they only have space for five nominees -- but it's hard to imagine Dallas without the 7-foot sharpshooter. He has averaged 30.3 points in April, and his season-ending streak of 25 games with at least 20 points is the NBA's longest of 2008-09. He'll want to come up big in this series, at least, because the Mavs around him could look entirely different if they make another premature playoff exit.

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UNDER THE RADAR: Michael Finley actually had a few people feeling sorry for him in 2006 when he switched teams via the amnesty clause that Dallas owner Mark Cuban invoked and wound up leaving the Mavs just as they were taking San Antonio's regular place in the Finals. But a year after Dallas collapsed against Miami in the championship round, Finley won a title with San Antonio. And here we are now, Finley's 36 and he's coming off another solid year, hitting two huge shots in the final week (one to beat Sacramento, one to force overtime in Wednesday's victory against New Orleans). He's not the player he was in his prime in Dallas, but San Antonio's system doesn't require that.

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PREDICTION: Spurs in 7. The Mavs weren't thrilled to win 50 games and still not have home-court advantage in the first round. Then again, they had been so spooked by the prospect of facing the Lakers this weekend that getting San Antonio -- normally quite a booby prize -- seems like a lucky break. That said, the Spurs are riding even higher, with their victory in game No. 82 nailing down the division title and a possible four games in San Antonio versus Dallas. That edge, stubborn Spurs pride and the Mavs' maddening inconsistency should swing it.

MORE SERIES BREAKDOWNS

Cavaliers vs. Pistons Hawks vs. Heat Magic vs. 76ers Celtics vs. Bulls Lakers vs. Jazz Nuggets vs. Hornets Blazers vs. Rockets

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