Monday April 19th, 2010

The Spurs-Mavericks series was expected to be one of the most hotly contested first-round matchups; and on Sunday, it didn't disappoint. Paced by a Herculean effort from Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas took Game 1, 100-94.

Nowitzki's success against the Spurs continues. Nowitzki averaged 28.8 points against San Antonio during the regular season and followed it up with 36 points in Game 1 (on 12-of-14 shooting and 12-of-12 from the free-throw line). If Dirk were a quarterback, he would have had a perfect rating. The Spurs defense on Nowitzki wasn't bad -- "He made some shots that were almost impossible to guard," said Manu Ginobili -- but they didn't send double teams off the catch and allowed Antonio McDyess, Matt Bonner and even Keith Bogans to fan at unguardable jump shots. Tim Duncan may have to serve more early duty on Nowitzki in Game 2, or San Antonio will at least have to send more early double teams -- a defensive strategy they have employed in the past -- to take the ball out of his hands.

Dallas's big trade paid dividends. Caron Butler (22 points) was the Mavs' second-leading scorer and finished Game 1 a team-high plus-10. He did an effective job filling in as Dallas's go-to guy when Nowitzki took a seat on the bench, showing range (a three early in the fourth quarter pushed Dallas's lead to 12) and strength around the rim (5-for-6 from the line).

"Caron made a run all of his own there for three or four minutes," said Duncan.

Meanwhile, Brendan Haywood teamed with Erick Dampier to give Dallas 15 points (on 50 percent shooting), 18 rebounds and two steals in 48 minutes. That's some quality play from the center position.

San Antonio's big trade did not. Gregg Popovich said his team had a lot of guys who "played like dogs," and you have to believe the primary target of his frustration was Richard Jefferson, who had four points in 32 minutes and finished minus-8 for the game -- not the kind of production the Spurs were hoping for when they acquired him in the offseason.

Point guard play is going to be key. Popovich likes an offensive spark on his bench, which is why with Ginobili in the starting lineup, Pop kept Tony Parker with the second unit. The problem was that starter George Hill -- perhaps encumbered by a lingering ankle injury, perhaps uncomfortable under postseason pressure -- served up zero points and zero assists in 17 minutes. Parker, who played 34 minutes, said he doesn't anticipate the Spurs making any lineup changes; but if Hill struggles in Game 2, they may have to.

On the other side, the inimitable Jason Kidd ("a focused, driven individual," said Popovich) turned back the clock again, finishing with 13 points, 11 assists and eight rebounds. Kidd, as he has done all season, knocked down big shots (3-of-6 from beyond the arc) and made even bigger plays. Kidd, 37, passed up an open three with two minutes to go in the fourth quarter, instead whipping the ball to a struggling Jason Terry, who knocked down a back breaking 22-footer that gave Dallas an insurmountable 12-point lead.

As well as the Mavs played and as poorly as the Spurs performed ... the game was close. Seventeen turnovers after averaging 13.6 in the regular season. Thirteen offensive rebounds surrendered after they gave up only 9.9 during the season. The Spurs lost the rebounding battle 45-37 and attempted 11 fewer free throws (14) than Dallas made (25). As disappointed as they were to lose, the Spurs know Duncan is unlikely to commit six turnovers and they still believe Jefferson -- who has 79 playoff games and two NBA Finals appearances on his résumé -- will make an impact. More good news for San Antonio: Duncan (40 minutes) and Ginobili (40) each played more than eight minutes above their season averages and looked strong at the end of the game.

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