The San Antonio Spurs took a commanding 3-1 lead in their series against the Dallas Mavericks with a 92-89 victory in yet another face-smacking, neck-grabbing, bone-on-bone war of a ball game. The Spurs' win was accomplished despite sub-par performances from their top three point-makers.
San Antonio's top gun, Tim Duncan, was smothered by the ferocious defense of Erick Dampier and Brandon Haywood. TD never got a clean look at the basket and wound up shooting 1-for-9, with his only bucket coming on a tip-in at 4:11 of the fourth quarter. Duncan yanked down 11 rebounds, but he was never a factor on offense and only slightly more effective on defense. Still, Duncan did show his mettle by setting sturdy screens all game long. He also dove headlong to the floor to rescue a loose ball in the third quarter.
For most of the game, Manu Ginobili also had trouble finding the basket, shooting a mere 4-for-16. But Ginobili redeemed himself with a huge 3-pointer as the last seconds of the game ticked away. He also dished out seven dimes and came up with five steals. Even with his fractured nose barely protected by a small strip of hard plastic, Ginobili kept digging, driving and shooting until he came up with the biggest score of the game.
Tony Parker was able to get to the rim in the first half, but not thereafter. He knocked down a meaningful jumper when the game was on the line, but he also made several bad decisions with the ball -- 4-for-9 shooting, five assists, five turnovers, 10 points. For the most part, Parker was forceful when he should have been cautious, and vice versa.
With SA's version of the Big Three shooting a combined 9-for-32, it was absolutely necessary for the Spurs' second-line players to assert themselves -- and several did just that.
One such player was DeJuan Blair, who shed his previous cloak of invisibility to assault the glass -- five offensive and seven total rebounds -- and muscle his way to 7 unexpected points. Blair's explosive power in the paint also produced a steal, an assist and a block in his brief 11-minute stint. In fact, his at-large ferocity was instrumental in helping the Spurs to wipe out an early 15-point deficit and eventually take control of the game.
Another second-line contributor was Richard Jefferson, who scored on the run, on backdoor cuts and pull-up jumpers -- 6-for-9 for 15 points. He did all of this in addition to making exceptionally quick, accurate perimeter rotations on defense.
Antonio McDyess hit his usual share of mid-range jumpers, shooting 5-for-9 and playing ferocious chest-to-chest defense against Dirk Nowitzki.
Even Keith Bogans contributed two rebounds and an important steal in his five minutes of daylight.
Yet the surprise hero of the game was George Hill. When the Spurs couldn't buy a successful jumper, Hill suddenly became Mr. Sure Shot. Playing the game of his life -- 11-for-16, including 5-of-6 from the outlands, for 29 points -- Hill took full advantage of the uncontested shots that resulted when the Mavs double-teamed Duncan, Ginobili and Parker while ignoring him.
The game ball goes to Hill.
The Spurs also turned the tide in the second half when they ratcheted up their defense. After mostly disdaining to two-time Nowitzki during the first three games, coach Gregg Popovich changed his defensive strategy and doubled the Mavs' go-to scorer sometimes on the catch and sometimes on his first dribble, but always from the top. For this tactic to be successful, SA's defensive rotations had to be sure-footed and incredibly coordinated, which it was much more often than not.
Credit Nowitzki for not forcing shots over or through a crowd, choosing instead to make appropriate out-passes when his breathing room was filled with strangers. Even so, in limiting Nowitzki to ten shots and 17 points, the Spurs forced Dallas to look elsewhere for their points. It should also be noted that Nowitzki missed the only open jumpers he had in a clutch possession in the endgame.
Dallas chose Caron Butler as their offensive focus (7-for-18 shooting for 17 points) mainly because he was always guarded straight-up. But Butler can't come close to matching Nowitzki's creativity, consistency, and sheer talent. A yeoman's effort by Butler, but a dollar short and a day late.
Shawn Marion had a nice run in the first half, when he managed to scoot and shoot his way to 14 points on 7-of-13 field goal attempts. Although his number was called only two or three times, Marion managed to be the Mavs' man-on-the-spot on several possessions. Yet for some reason known only to Rick Carlisle, Marion did more sitting than playing after the mid-game intermission.
Jason Kidd continued his shooting woes, going 3-for-10 for 10 points. However, he did play a solid floor game, dishing out five assists, two steals, one block, and only two turnovers. J-Kidd also played upbeat defense, especially when he tied up Tony Parker and forced a jump ball in the last minute of play, but after he controlled the tip, Kidd air-balled a critical 3-point attempt.
Jason Terry showed some heart when he returned to action after turning an ankle, and then proceeded to bury a trio of treys in the clutch.
Heroics and non-heroics aside, these were the key aspects of the game:
- When the Spurs couldn't hit a jumper to save their lives during the first half, the Mavs were able to snatch the rebound and successfully launch their running game.
- When the Spurs (i.e. Hill) found the range in the second half, Dallas was forced to play half-court defense, a slow-down pace that hugely favored the home team.
- Since Nowitzki is the keystone of the Mavs' deliberative sets, their offense became a scramble when SA's double-teams took the ball out of his hands.
- How good was SA's ball-hawking, smoothly choreographed defense? Good enough to limit the Mavs' high-octane offense to 89 points and 41.6 percent shooting.
- Dallas gave a poor imitation of a rock 'em-sock 'em gang, but they fooled no one.
- Indeed, the Mavs faux belligerence was exposed when Eduardo Najera collared Ginobili in mid-drive and ruthlessly yanked him to the floor. Neither Ginobili nor the Spurs were intimidated by Najera's cheap -- and dangerous -- bullying.
This was a character win for the resourceful Spurs, as well as a characterless loss for the lightweight Mavs.