After a record-setting fifth Game 7, the opening round of the NBA playoffs is finally complete. Unfortunately, this final game wasn't as dramatic as those that came before it. Though the Maverick made the most of their No. 8 seed, their playoff journey ended on Sunday with a 119-96 loss to the Spurs.
• The most fascinating upset bid of the first round ended with a thud. This was a wonderful series while it lasted, but a Dallas team that worked its way to close competition in its first six playoff games finally ran out of steam in its seventh. It was not by coincidence that San Antonio sharpened its execution concurrently. The Spurs upped their defensive pressure and offensive precision to impeccability, a combination that obliterated the Mavs in the opening half. This was a playoff series that seemed to defy all regular-season precedent, so I suppose it's only fitting that Game 7 again bucked every recognizable trend from the series itself. Tony Parker (32 points on 11-of-19 shooting, four assists) was exacting of the Mavericks' defense in a way that had escaped him previously. No switch could give him pause and no help could stall him. Parker always seemed to be but a single move away from a clean layup, and on Sunday he attacked those openings relentlessly.
Dirk Nowitzki was finally able to shake loose in dropping 17 of his 22 points in the first half. For the first time all series, though, no other Maverick could offer the necessary support. Monta Ellis, Vince Carter and Jose Calderon shot a combined 4-for-13 in the opening half, a joint slump that helped put the Mavs at a 22-point deficit by intermission.
Those first two quarters were a decisive stroke in a series that, to this point, had lacked one. Dallas clawed its way through previous contests in part because it was allowed to; San Antonio committed enough turnovers, allowed enough clean shots and sputtered just enough in its natural rhythms to give the lesser team a legitimate chance. In Game 7, however, the Spurs left no room for ambiguity as to who would be the victor. A 68-point blitz (on, eerily enough, 68 percent shooting) in the first 24 minutes fell on the Mavs with the weight of a guillotine.
• Dallas ran with an unusually small lineup in a second-half gambit. Rick Carlisle has never been one to shy away from radical change, as his lineups and rotation are entirely situational. Given the circumstances of the first half, Carlisle veered into desperate territory. Rather than trot out the same players and hope for wildly different results, Carlisle started the second half with Nowitzki as the sole big man on the floor.
Dirk hasn't played center on any regular basis in a long while -- just three percent of Nowitzki's total minutes this season came without another conventional big man on the floor, and most of that tiny cut came in end-game and end-of-quarter scenarios when Dallas aimed to maximize its floor spacing. The idea here was similar, in that if the Mavs couldn't keep the Spurs from shooting such a damning percentage from the field with their usual lineups, perhaps they could better keep pace by maximizing their offense.
Nowitzki was given the support of three ball handlers (Ellis, Calderon and Devin Harris) and the versatile Vince Carter, and for a moment in the third quarter looked to be capable of closing the gap. A 7-0 run by Nowitzki, Harris and Carter trimmed San Antonio's lead to 14, but a Spurs timeout set in motion a return to the game's natural order. San Antonio outscored Dallas 19-7 through the remaining eight minutes of the third quarter, pushing the margin in their favor with lineups of corresponding speed or tactical size. With that, the Mavs' last card had been played and their series was essentially finished.
Still, a standing ovation is in order for the Mavs. Dallas has long since established itself as a talented team with a terrific coach, but Carlisle outdid himself over these past few weeks and his players followed suit. Matchups were juggled as to best control San Antonio's three principal scorers. Shifting offensive priorities kept the Mavs ahead of one of the best defenses in the league. Dallas even got by without Nowitzki overtly dominating his individual matchup, a shocking development given Dallas reliance on Dirk. This was a hell of a series pulled off against a terrific opponent, no matter how Game 7 transpired.
• Underestimate the Spurs going forward at your own peril. On face value, it might seem that a No. 1 seed stretched to seven games in its first-round series would be in some very real trouble. That's certainly the case with the Pacers, who were pushed to the limit by a Hawks team that exploited the most fundamental aspects of Indiana's strategic identity. San Antonio, though, is in a different place. This was hardly the best of Spurs basketball, but it took a unique combination of veteran stars, capable role players and expert coaching to test the defending Western Conference champions so thoroughly.
The Trail Blazers will be an entirely different challenge in the conference semifinals. Parallels can be drawn between the base offenses of the Mavs and Blazers, but the second round allows the Spurs to reset with all of the contextual experience of this first-round matchup. Besides, if an argument could be made that Portland might challenge San Antonio in the same way Dallas did, wouldn't Game 7 itself stand as an emphatic argument to the contrary? That's not to say that the Spurs will run the Blazers off the floor in the same fashion -- simply that these things are more complicated than basic similarities might suggest. San Antonio will need to play better to advance, but that seems very possible given the Portland matchup.
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