DALLAS -- Slowly but surely the Spurs -- reigning Western Conference champions and winners of 62 regular-season games -- are waking up.
For the first two games of this first-round series against Dallas, San Antonio's level of execution could best be described as groggy. There were good ideas spoiled by step-slow decisions. The Spurs' shooters, who combined to lead the NBA in three-point percentage, were so well covered that they snoozed in the corners. The NBA's most flexible offense missed easy shots and committed turnovers in bunches, as if even the Spurs' most basic motor functions had failed them.
In the two games since, though, San Antonio has started to regain its balance. Whatever progress was made in Game 3 was upended by an efficient Mavericks offense and Vince Carter's game-winning buzzer-beater, but the Spurs' best two-way effort of the series resulted in a 93-89 victory in Game 4 on Monday. Such a tight margin (after blowing a 20-point third-quarter lead, no less) might not satisfy a San Antonio team that routinely ran opponents off the floor in the regular season, but there's something to be said for the relief of winning and the productive traction of a series-tying victory.
The latter came mostly in the pick-and-roll, a tool that every team uses over and over again. Few, though, manipulate defenses within it quite like San Antonio does. Its combination of shooters, versatile big men and unpredictable ball handlers open up a wealth of options, all of which proved to be too much for Dallas to handle consistently in Game 4. Fittingly, one of those pick-and-rolls led to the biggest shot of the night.
With the game tied at 87-87, San Antonio point guard Tony Parker moved into a pick-and-roll with Devin Harris shadowing him. Through much of this series the Mavericks have switched Parker's pick-and-rolls but not so with Harris, who is trusted to maneuver around a ball screen in time to relieve the help defender. In this case, however, that defensive exchange with Dirk Nowitzki came a touch too late, and Spurs forward Boris Diaw got open at the top of the key for a go-ahead three-pointer with 32 seconds left.
"It was just a regular pick-and-roll," Diaw said. "We try to put Dirk Nowitzki in pick-and-roll because it's harder for him than for [Samuel] Dalembert, for example, to switch on Tony. It's harder for Dirk to be able to help and come back to the player that set the screen. That's why I was the one on the pick-and-roll. That's exactly what happened. He helped on Tony and he was a little late and I was wide open for the three."
Manu Ginobili did most of the Spurs' damage in the pick-and-roll on Monday, finishing with 23 points on 7-of-14 shooting and five assists. Keeping in front of the 36-year-old guard was especially troublesome for Dallas in the first half, as has been the case many times for these Mavericks and so many others.
"That's what Manu's done for his entire time in the NBA," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said, in reference to Ginobili's pick-and-roll excellence. "He's good at that, just like Dirk is good at things, or this player or that player. It's what Manu does."
By doing what he does, Ginobili helped return the Spurs to what they do as well. After much delay San Antonio's offense broke into familiar rhythms in a 32-point second quarter, using Ginobili's squirming drives as a conduit. He compromised the defense in a way that Parker (who scored 10 points and committed four turnovers while battling through an ankle injury) wasn't able, pulling and twisting the Mavericks in the process. Dallas responded by attaching Shawn Marion to Ginobili's left side in the second half, though by then the Spurs had already made their swing.
That in itself is a departure from the early trends of this series. Through the first two games the Mavericks scrapped and switched their way to defensive disruption. They upheld that playoff standard for stretches in Game 4, and through those stretches the Mavericks kept competitive a game that once verged on a blowout. Dallas deserves credit for that, as runs were made at the right times, including a 14-5 push that gave it an 81-80 lead with 4:50 remaining. All the same, those lapses in that second quarter were very real, very damaging and conducive to offensive flow in a way that San Antonio desperately needed.
"[The Spurs] looked like they were doing whatever they wanted to do," Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said. "You just can't do business that way this time of year. We've done a few good things in this series -- we've done a lot of good things. But defensively the last two games we've been poor. Even though the number of points is relatively low in this game, our first-half performance from a competitive standpoint was just not up to snuff."
This is what Carlisle held above all else in defeat. His team's 38.1 percent shooting and Nowitzki's 7-of-19, 19-point effort (his thirds shaky performance in four games thanks to the defense of Tiago Splitter) were factors, but they were secondary to the open looks the Mavs surrendered when outscored 32-13 in the second quarter. Throughout the series Dallas has scored best when working off stops, and in Carlisle's estimation it was the lack thereof that made all the difference. Worse yet: Even in a near-win, those breakdowns loom over the series as a whole. San Antonio hasn't played well overall but nevertheless has the potential to explode into regular-season form at virtually any time. In that, Carlisle's diagnosis was more than the run-of-the-mill perfectionism shilled by coaches during the playoffs. It was the honest truth for a Dallas team that, despite its 2-1 advantage leading into Game 4, has to own its underdog standing in order to survive. In macro, the Mavs battled admirably. They controlled Parker, held Tim Duncan and Kawhi Leonard to a combined 21 points on 24 shots and pulled a four-point loss from a potential bloodbath. But they aren't going to push past the Spurs without dominating the micro -- be it their focus in every stretch of every quarter or their every rotation in every pick-and-roll. This is the burden of being the lesser team, where even marginal errors could bring about Dallas' undoing.