and Monta Ellis
helped keep Dallas' playoff run alive. (Ron Jenkins/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT via Getty Images)
DALLAS -- Throughout their improbable, unshakeable upset bid over the top-seeded Spurs, the Mavericks have established themselves as a team without formula. They've made runs based on the sheer gravity of Dirk Nowitzki, gotten stops by reducing San Antonio's elaborate offense to a two-man affair, won games by tethering their fate to the decision making of Monta Ellis and subsisted through a delicate balance of improbable variables. There is no underlying secret to Dallas' success here, for no two of the Mavs' remarkably competitive performances in this series share the same fundamental character.
This is a team that has done a bit of everything in no particular order. There's power in that elasticity -- enough for the Mavericks to mount a challenge beyond even the most optimistic projections and enough to keep them alive with a 113-111 victory over the Spurs in Game 6.
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Doing so required an extraordinary combination of factors. Beyond the typically steady scoring of Nowitzki (22 points on 20 shots, five rebounds, three assists) and Ellis (29 points on 22 shots, two assists), Dallas needed Vince Carter to hit three of four shots while blanketed by the defense. It needed DeJuan Blair (10 points, 14 rebounds, four steals) to swell in the most important minutes of his season. Shawn Marion had to track down every live ball within five square miles of the American Airlines Center. Ellis and Jose Calderon (12 points, six assists) had to swoop in to grab 11 combined rebounds -- every one of them crucial.
"We've got a team of go-to guys," Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said. "That's the way I've been saying it for a long time this year. It's the way our roster was built. I expect these guys to all have a lot of confidence and they've all gotta be ready to step up and make big shots and big plays. They know that. These guys have been in these situations enough [that] they look forward to that moment -- where you get the opportunity to live up to it."
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No player took to the moment in Game 6 more than Blair, who following his Game 5 suspension for kicking Tiago Splitter in the head somehow gave the Mavericks just what they needed. Blair isn't always so handy. There are games in which his presence is more or less untenable, when his troubles in finishing over taller defenders and his issues in tracking full defensive possessions remove him from the playing rotation entirely. On Friday, Carlisle could hardly afford to take Blair off the floor. The pulsing energy in his performance became not just infectious, but essential.
"[Blair] was great tonight," Ellis said. "He came out tonight with a lot of energy, a lot of toughness on both ends of the floor. He had four steals. He scored for us when he needed to -- got some and-ones, knocked in some big free throws down the stretch. He played a wonderful game tonight, all-around. I think if he didn't play the way he played tonight we probably wouldn't be going to a Game 7."
The weight of that statement is striking. Dallas is alive with a chance to oust San Antonio on Sunday because of Blair, though the sentiment applies all the same to Carter, to Calderon, to Devin Harris. A season of Carlisle preaching for every single player on the roster to be ready has led to a series in which each one of those players matters -- if not in this particular elimination game then perhaps in the next.
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The Mavericks are precariously imperfect in that sense, though throughout this series they've managed, night by night, to find a way. It's the hustle, it's the shooting, it's all of the above and more, though Dallas' patchwork defense might be its most impressive offering. No one could reasonably claim that the Mavericks have stopped the Spurs in this series, if only because it honestly can't be done. Dallas can and has, however, pushed through the breakdowns to get every stop it can, futility be damned.
"[The Spurs are] so good offensively, they have so many weapons out there," Nowitzki said. "This stuff's not going to be perfect all the time. You're going to mess up coverages -- that's just gonna happen. But you've gotta play hard through it. You've gotta scramble for each other. You've gotta be smart out there. It's not going to be perfect all the time but we got the job done."
With that, Nowitzki framed this game and this series as aptly as anyone could. San Antonio sets a high standard in its execution on both ends of the floor and over the full run of this series has largely satisfied it. There have been ruts and there have been blunders, to be sure, but it's not as if the Spurs have played poorly. Yet they're at risk of elimination because these Mavericks, at every juncture, have been preposterously, defiantly game. Through every contested stage of this series it's been made clear that the Mavs don't need to stop the Spurs to advance. They just need to end them -- through whatever way possible and whatever means necessary.
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