After putting a scare in the Spurs with their Game 1 defense, the Mavs ramped up their efforts on both ends Wednesday to rout the defending Western Conference champions 113-92 and even their series 1-1. The fourth-quarter letdown never came; Dallas hasn't had the best track record in terms of maintaining leads this season, but a surge in the opening minutes of the final quarter kept San Antonio on its heels and its stars on the bench for good. Monta Ellis led all Maverick scorers with 21 points, though his performance was only part of a well-balanced outing that saw four other teammates finish in double figures as well.
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• The best team in the Western Conference was upstaged completely. This was a thorough beatdown, executed by a No.8 seed with talent, guile and top-to-bottom intelligence. The improbability of the event seemed lost on the Mavericks, who maintained the same defensive game plan that nearly stole Game 1 and succeeded wildly for it. We expected Gregg Popovich to have his team better and more specifically prepared for Game 2, as is standard operating procedure with these Spurs. Instead San Antonio's players lost sight of any tactical adjustment and wandered blindly in a perfect haze of switches and hedges.
By no means was this a predictable turn; Dallas struggled to guard opponents all season long and San Antonio most of all (0-4 during the regular season). Containing Tony Parker once seemed an impossibility, yet the team that broke down with Parker's every drive in the regular season allowed him just six points after a hot-shooting first quarter on Wednesday. Tim Duncan, who finished Game 1 with 27 points on 20 shots, came up with a muted 11 on five. Nothing worked quite as it should, to the point that the Spurs -- for all their trademark poise and precision -- came up jumpy against a Maverick defense that refused to sit still.
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That the Spurs shot a clean 50 percent from both the field and the three-point line turned out to be a feat of amazingly little consequence given how few possessions followed through to an actual attempt. San Antonio committed 24 turnovers in all, some of their own doing and some of Dallas'. No matter the specific cause and no matter their shooting percentage, the Spurs won't likely survive throwing more than a quarter of their possessions into the wind.
• Dallas has fared amazingly well given the quiet contributions of Dirk Nowitzki. In wins and losses both, Nowitzki has established himself as a giant of the postseason. Only 15 players in league history have notched more playoff points over the course of their careers than Dirk, and by career playoff PER Nowitzki (24.5) ranks squarely in the top 10. His continued dominance in April and beyond has anchored Dallas for more than a decade, no matter the level of talent around him.
This makes it all the more curious that Nowitzki has underwhelmed so completely in the first two games of this series. He followed up his 11-point outing in Game 1 with only a marginally better 16 points in Game 2 -- neither performance even vaguely approximating Nowitzki's hyper-efficient standard. Tiago Splitter's long-armed defense -- never much of a problem in seasons past -- has become a bit of a nuisance, and for that he deserves credit. But this is something far weirder, as Nowitzki has blown even the wide-open jumpers that for him are as sure as sunrise. Perhaps there's a nagging injury in play or an unfortunately timed rut, though it would be interesting to see where this series might rest had Nowitzki more closely resembled his playoff self.
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Obviously Dallas has made do, primarily through a trio of guards (Monta Ellis, Jose Calderon and Devin Harris) who kept pressure on the Spurs' defense steady throughout these first two games. As a result we've seen the emergence of a truly bizarre trend: For what is probably the first time since Dirk's middle part days, Dallas is scoring more efficiently without him. There's nothing more to read into that beyond Nowitzki's unusual shooting struggles and a coincidence of forced turnovers (and subsequent scores) while he sat, though the fact that the Mavs evened the series with their best player struggling and/or sidelined does change the complexion of this matchup a bit.
• Devin Harris makes his case for value signing of the year. It seems worth noting on this auspicious occasion that Harris -- a reserve guard averaging 18.5 points and 5 assists in 28 minutes for Dallas this postseason -- was signed for the veteran's minimum. There were extenuating circumstances involving a toe injury, to be fair, that sidelined Harris until January and curbed his asking price. Those circumstances hardly matter now. What does matter is the way that the Mavs made the most of every bit of cap room they had and every exception possible to maximize their roster.
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Dallas made more overtly clever maneuvers (like the delayed signing of Brandan Wright to keep room clear for Samuel Dalembert) than the acquisition of Harris, though that particular addition has paid incredible dividends in the opening turn of this series. While Ellis and Calderon struggled from the field in Game 1, Harris turned in one of his most prolific shooting performances of the season. When Shawn Marion (20 points on 10 shots, five rebounds, three steals) has needed a breather from matching Tony Parker step for step, it's been Harris that switches over to handle the matchup. Then, when Harris' shooting threatened to regress to the mean in Game 2? He put his head down to score and dish from within San Antonio's defense.
The Mavs split the series through beautiful ball movement and defensive synergy across the rotation, though within that bigger picture sits an exceptionally brilliant performance from a guard playing for the smallest possible salary. Nabbing Harris at the minimum was already a steal of a signing in July. Now? It's that incredible bargain that has kept these Mavs playoff-competitive.
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