Matchup: No. 1 San Antonio Spurs (62-20) vs. No. 8 Dallas Mavericks (49-33)
Season Series: Spurs won 4-0
Efficiency Rankings: San Antonio (6th offense, 4th defense), Dallas (3rd offense, 22nd defense)
These teams were rivals once. They built a shared history through years of reliance on the same superstars and consistent methods -- Tim Duncan's Spurs on one side, Dirk Nowitzki's Mavericks on the other. Their meetings over the years were heated, though largely without venom. If given the chance to settle, familiarity ultimately tends to breed some measure of respect. One can see that very link in the way that Duncan and Nowitzki find an in-game moment to share a quiet laugh, and as those two men go so, too, do their teams.
True to that form, the Spurs and Mavs both exude an air of capability. These are veteran teams, after all, built to capitalize on the small, consequential moments of hurried execution that inevitably come in the postseason. But any rivalry they once had is gone -- withered not just with time but with unmistakable change. Nine of the 15 players on the Mavs' roster were elsewhere last season. Only four Spurs (Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Matt Bonner) remain from the last time these teams met in the playoffs. Any connection between these two franchises has been flipped several times over, between Dallas' multiple reboots and San Antonio's gradual evolution. This series is something new entirely, which is a pleasure all its own.
The Case For The Spurs
Although these two teams still tend to play beautiful, entertaining basketball, whatever balance their matchup had is now gone. The Mavericks are dramatic underdogs for good reason. Not only are they the eighth seed matched up with the best in the West, but they also lost all four regular-season meetings. No team built a more lopsided efficiency differential against Dallas than San Antonio, and none can so thoroughly exploit the Mavs' defensive lapses like the Spurs. This was not the matchup Nowitzki and his teammates wanted -- witness their efforts to avoid the Spurs by winning the final game of their regular season, against Memphis. That effort came up short, leaving Dallas to grapple against a terrific opponent with decided advantage.
The case for the Spurs should be self-evident. Gregg Popovich has kept everything in balance this season by controlling the minutes of his best players as he experimented with lineups of all kinds. That combination leaves San Antonio both absurdly flexible and in a position to capitalize on bigger minutes from its star contributors. After all, the Spurs wrecked the league with Parker, Duncan, Ginobili and Kawhi Leonard all logging fewer than 30 minutes a game. How good might this team be when those same stars are logging upwards of 36 minutes?
Dallas will be first in line to find out, with many of the series' matchups breaking in San Antonio's favor. The prospect of controlling Parker is troublesome. Monta Ellis and Jose Calderon are both quite valuable to the Mavs' offense but uniquely incapable of competing with Parker as defenders. That can be situationally addressed by a cross-match from Shawn Marion or the substitution of Devin Harris, though both maneuvers would come at a cost. In the case of the former, a player like Leonard or Ginobili could be marked to take advantage of Dallas' weak perimeter defense. With the latter, the Mavs would lose some of their essential ability to trade baskets with a high-powered Spurs offense.
Moreover, San Antonio has generally been able to get exactly the shots it wants against a Dallas defense that scrambles itself into knots trying to account for all threats. That trend should continue as Popovich relies even more on Parker and Ginobili, either of whom can break down the Mavs' first line of defense with ease and force compromises that lead to open shots. Games could get out of hand if Dallas' defense can't rally into unexpectedly reliable form.
The Case For The Mavericks
Any such case begins with Nowitzki, who, even at this stage in his career, is one of the most unguardable players in the league. The Spurs make Dirk work harder than most opponents, though, and will have options in matching up with Leonard, Boris Diaw or Tiago Splitter, all able to provide quality defense in different flavors. To win this series Nowitzki will need to be in fully dominant form -- not only to maximize his own scoring output but also to force the kind of concessions that will open up lanes for Ellis, Marion and Brandan Wright to squeeze in opportunistic scores.
With that kind of benefit, a hot-shooting Dallas offense could quickly trend toward overwhelming. Coach Rick Carlisle runs a splendid offense loaded with counters and misdirection. Much of that has already been scouted, though there's only so much the Spurs can do to override the instinctive alarms that come in, say, seeing Nowitzki temporarily open on a pick-and-roll. Those slight hesitations can be exploited by a few quick passes and an open shot, much of which comes as second nature to the Mavs at this point.
Simply being crisp on offense won't be enough, though -- not against a Spurs team that also ranks as one of the best defensive units. The Mavs will have to ramp up their own defense in kind, particularly at the three-point line. San Antonio hit 43.3 percent from distance in the regular season against a Dallas defense that failed to scurry out to the perimeter in time. The Mavs are the anti-Thunder in that sense; there just isn't enough collective athleticism to run the Spurs' shooters off the line, which on balance creates big problems. If Dallas were to somehow improve that aspect of its defense without cratering elsewhere, it could keep things competitive to the point that its offense could turn the tide.
Shawn Marion. Dallas' defense against the Spurs imploded whenever Marion subbed out of the game this season. Such is the unfortunate side effect in operating with a roster lacking in plus defenders. Marion is the one Maverick capable of making a positive and far-reaching defensive impact whenever he's on the floor, whether by bothering Parker, neutralizing Leonard or baiting Ginobili. If he can set the tone in those matchups, some of the Mavs' other defensive shortcomings might be more forgivable. It's a long shot, to be sure, but any hope of stable defensive improvement on Dallas' part starts with Marion's work on the ball.
Spurs in five. There's just not much margin for upset when a one-sided team lines up to face one so commanding on both ends of the floor. This should be a fun series all the same, just not one that the Mavs should be expected to win.