By Rob Mahoney
April 20, 2014

Dallas dabbled in all sorts of defensive coverages but couldn't quite stop Tim Duncan. (D. Clarke Evans/NBAE via Getty Images) Dallas dabbled in all sorts of defensive coverages but couldn't quite stop Tim Duncan. (D. Clarke Evans/NBAE/Getty Images)

Up is down, black is white and the Mavericks nearly won a game with defense. Game 1 of this Western Conference series hardly went by the book, as two of the best offensive teams in basketball traded stops en route to a 90-85 Spurs win.  

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Dallas let a great opportunity slip away. Mavs coach Rick Carlisle was not about to let his team walk into this series without defensive recourse. He cross-matched. He planned for switches in pick-and-rolls involving Tony Parker. He alternated into a different pick-and-roll coverage for Devin Harris (19 points on 16 shots, five assists) and later dabbled in the very occasional zone. He did everything he could to muddle the workings of one of the sharpest offensive teams in the league and, even without all that many skilled defenders at his disposal, succeeded. San Antonio scored at a rate 11 points worse per 100 possessions than it did in the regular season, all without Dallas having any clear and direct defensive answers.

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That was enough to earn the Mavs an 81-71 advantage with 7:45 to play, but only that. Shortly after, the Spurs broke even with a 10-0 run and outscored the Mavs 9-4 the rest of the way. The regular-season precedent broke back when it mattered most; no matter how clever Carlisle's designs or impressive the Mavs' efforts, his team's inability to seal games in the fourth quarter again became their undoing. The Spurs' season-long success in the clutch, by contrast, stabilized their efforts to get stops and scores as needed. It took the better part of 40 minutes for the weirdness of this game to settle, though normalcy took root just in time for San Antonio to execute it's way to a Game 1 victory.

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This has to be a deflating loss for Dallas, which managed one of its most impressive defensive performances of the season against an unmistakably elite opponent. By no means was their viability a function of Carlisle's defensive devices alone; players from Shawn Marion to Monta Ellis were fully dedicated and focused in their defensive responsibilities, a commitment that showed in every stop. All of the Mavs' perimeter defenders did an incredible job in recovering out to open shooters. The bigs did the best they could in handling difficult mismatches and Tim Duncan's post work. To be this sharp defensively while bouncing between a few different designs is awfully impressive, particularly for a Mavs team that so regularly gave up ground on that end of the floor during the regular season.

The battle between Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki was shockingly one-sided. One of the main draws of this series was an opportunity to see these two living legends again engaged in open combat. Duncan and Nowitzki don't spend all that much time defending one another anymore, but their dueling influence continues to provide the backbone for this particular matchup.

Nowitzki, in one of the stranger postseason performances of his career, didn't quite live up to his end of that billing. With his lowest playoff scoring total since 2007, Dirk ended the day with just 11 points on 4-of-14 shooting from the field. He came up long on his face-up jumpers from the post. His spot-up looks caught more rim than usual. Even a wide-open, late-game bunny wouldn't go down for Dirk -- one final, taunting miss to cap off a trying afternoon. Tiago Splitter and others deserve credit for playing into Nowitzki as much as possible, though ultimately this was a case of one of the best offensive players in basketball missing shots he typically makes. That Dirk struggled in such a close loss with his teammates playing so well only make the Mavs' collapse that much more brutal.

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Duncan (27 points, seven rebounds), on the other hand, powered through the elements and shook off a scary knee-to-knee collision with Monta Ellis early in the game to put together a monster performance while his running mates struggled. For much of this game Duncan's post work was the best thing the Spurs had going; their rhythm was broken and balance tipped, but at the very least they could enter to Duncan against Samuel Dalembert, Brandan Wright, or an even smaller Mav for a good interior look. As a result he attempted 20 shots for the game -- a mark he hit only four times in the regular season. He was responsible for many of San Antonio's momentum-breaking buckets, essential scores when the Spurs' offense appeared to be at its most fragile.

San Antonio's supporting cast was oddly silent. Duncan was great, Parker (21 points on 16 shots, six assists) took advantage of mismatches without forcing matters, Manu Ginobili (17 points on 10 shots, six rebounds, three assists) had a nice day and Kawhi Leonard (10 points, 11 rebounds) -- as is his custom -- contributed quietly. Beyond those four, though, the Spurs drew just 14 points on 4-of-24 shooting from the rest of their roster with nary a three-pointer made. Much of that is a credit to just how broadly effective the Mavericks' defense turned out to be, though it takes unique circumstances to leave both Danny Green and Marco Belinelli -- who tend to offset one another on the occasion of a bad game -- scoreless.

Rest assured that there will be tweaks aplenty in terms of how San Antonio approaches Dallas' gamut of defensive coverages in Game 2, perhaps chief among them a shift to free up open looks for the supporting Spurs.

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