DALLAS -- When Vince Carter's turnaround, buzzer-beating three-pointer splashed through a backlit net on Saturday to earn Dallas a 109-108 win, it carried with it a full frame of context. It was a moment that could not be set apart from the 144 minutes of playoff basketball that came before, every one of them saturated with improbability. Just a week ago these Mavericks seemed destined, under the weight of empirical evidence, to play the victims in a short series dominated by the Spurs. Instead they've challenged the West's top-seeded team through three games in ways that once seemed impossible.
We're well past the point of attributing Dallas' push to strategic surprise or underdog pluck. With Carter's game-winning shot and every moment of electric basketball that preceded it, the Mavs claimed a 2-1 series lead and the triumph of genuine competition. We have, against long odds, a hell of a series -- much of it still left to play.
That much was evident in the words of every Maverick following their Game 3 victory. Just minutes removed from the euphoric mobbing that follows a game-winner of this magnitude, the glow of Carter's shot hadn't yet faded. But the Mavs -- who barely clinched the No. 8 seed, seemed not long for these playoffs upon matching up with the Spurs and nearly lost a second winnable game in this series -- were already starting to turn their attention forward. This was a big win secured at the last possible moment. It also wasn't an end in itself for a Dallas team that has given itself legitimate reason to expect more.
"We can exhale briefly today," Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said. "By midnight tonight we have to turn our attention to Game 4 and the things we have to do better. They're going to keep adjusting things, too, and we've gotta be up to it."
There are playoff participants for whom keeping competitive is a victory. The Mavs are not among them; no matter how surprising their play in this series might be to those of us on the outside, every closely contested game seems to drive Dallas further from satisfaction. As early as Game 1 this team seemed convinced of its own credibility, empowered by a few defensive tweaks and the knowledge that -- despite building a double-digit lead on the Spurs in that opening contest -- they had played far from their best game.
Somehow, two wins later, that's still the case. The natural inclination in any upset bid of this magnitude is to focus on all that the favorite has done wrong, but as a result little attention has been paid to the fact that one of the best offenses in basketball had struggled to make shots through the first two games of this series. Open jumpers fell flat. Dirk Nowitzki botched layups. There were errors that went well beyond the plausible influence of the Spurs, curious for a team that won 49 games this season on the stability of its offense.
Game 3 marked a reversal of that trend, as the Mavs shot 51 percent from the floor and 39 percent from beyond the arc in a game that felt characteristic of a Maverick win. A part in that: The feisty defense that had defined Dallas' performance in the first two games of this series gave way, allowing the Spurs 54 percent shooting overall.
What saved the Mavs -- as has so often been the case this season -- was a capacity to create efficient offense. Monta Ellis fought through a mid-game slump to put up 29 points on 22 shots. Nowitzki shot better than 50 percent from the field for the first time all series, chipping in 18 of his own in a performance more representative of the Dirk oeuvre. The pass-first Jose Calderon again played against type by hunting jumpers, an approach that netted him 16 points on 7-of-10 shooting. The ball moved, the shots fell, and Dallas -- for better or worse -- played like Dallas again.
Somehow it was enough.
"(Allowing) 108 is probably a losing number on most nights in the playoffs," Carlisle said. That it wasn't on this night was a credit to the play Carlisle drew up (one with the option of setting up Carter for that game-winning corner shot, if not the priority) and the offense he cultivated throughout the year.
The tactics of basketball are, fundamentally, an arrangement of resources. Carlisle is better in that facet of the game than almost any other in his profession, and in this series has managed to get the better of Gregg Popovich -- winner of the 2014 Coach of the Year award and anointed by Carlisle as the "Coach of the Century" -- in precisely that regard. Carlisle's team has played off of Nowitzki (and the threat his shooting poses) beautifully, no matter if Dirk's shot was actually falling. He positions Calderon to be the steady hand the team needs and Ellis his downhill-driving complement, often as components of the same set. Without fail the Maverick role players understand exactly where to be and why, a sense of place and purpose that allows for their scoring efficiency. On Saturday those factors manifested in the same way they have all season and for the first time all series.
It was a break away from two games of defensive solvency and a different kind of win because of it. The switching on Tony Parker continued, though it didn't keep the Spurs' standout point guard from notching 19 points and six assists while hitting half of his shots. Samuel Dalembert did an admirable job on Tim Duncan, though he and Dallas' other interior defenders still surrendered 22 points to Duncan on post-ups and the like. San Antonio's greater offense clicked back into gear while curtailing its turnover problem, succeeding to the point that this game should have been theirs.
It very much seemed to be when Manu Ginobili's corkscrew layup gave San Antonio a 108-106 lead with just over a a second remaining. Carter's shot changed that in the most dramatic fashion. Of the fine line between winning and losing in this series, Duncan said flatly "It's about 1.7," -- the time on the clock before that final possession ever transpired, when the Spurs last looked to be the night's victors. Really, though, the line extends to every one of those 144 minutes that came before, through which the Mavericks found the means to contend with the West's finest.
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