Well, we might as well start things by reminding everyone how the Spurs should be the team calling themselves the defending champions, except for the part where Gregg Popovich had his three best players on the bench at the end of Game 6 in Miami.
That’s when we stopped calling him “genius” and vowed to never do so again.
So this spring, we will laud Pop with congratulations for finishing with the league’s best record, for putting together a 19-game winning streak, for replacing a top reserve (Gary Neal) with an even better reserve (Marco Belinelli) and for having so much balance on his team that not one single player merited a mention on my postseason individual awards ballot.
But we will also remind everyone that the Spurs’ 19-game winning streak came to an end against the Oklahoma City Thunder, who went 4-0 against Pop’s team and could do the same in the playoffs if the teams met in the conference finals as they did two years ago. Back then, the Spurs had won 20 in a row before losing their next four.
We’ll also remind you that Popovich had his top three players on the bench at the end of Game 6 in the NBA Finals a year ago. (Wait, did we already mention that? Did we mention the part about “genius” being withheld from all Pop references for all of eternity? Oh, OK. Just wanted to make sure folks didn’t forget that episode of cranial flatulence.)
The point here is that nothing will absolve them of their meltdown last season with everything on the line, and the only thing that will mollify those misery memories is giving their fans something with which they can forget it. And that one thing would be a championship.
So no pressure, OK?
With that out of the way, here are the five key factors that will determine the outcome of this series:
1. Dallas can’t beat San Antonio. Period.
San Antonio went 4-0 against Dallas this season, winning by 9, 22, 6 and 9. And for good measure, San Antonio also swept the Mavericks 4-0 last season.
So there has been a lot that went on in the world since the last time the Mavericks defeated the Spurs, including San Antonio’s 4-game meltdown in the conference finals two years ago and their Game 6 brain fart last June when Pop had his three best players on the bench at the end of Game 6 (has that been mentioned yet?)
San Antonio finished the season as the NBA’s No. 1 3-point shooting team at .397, the sixth-highest scoring team at 105.4 points per game, and the league leaders in assists with 25.2 per game — a testament to their efficiency on offense, where the names on the jerseys really don’t matter all that much because the parts are interchangeable.
2. The ruthless efficiency factor.
As alluded to above, no team runs their offense with more precision than the Spurs, who always seem to peak at the end of the season — though not quite as strongly as they did this March and April. The 19-game winning streak was followed by a 3-3 finish in which meaningless games against the Wolves, Rockets and Lakers were sacrificed because the comfort zone in the league standings had already been established (though that loss to Houston made the Spurs 4-0 against Dwight Howard, James Harden and Co., which could be something for them to consider in the second round if the Rockets can defeat the Blazers).
So if you throw out San Antonio’s combined 0-8 record against the Thunder and Rockets, they look even more ruthlessly efficient with a record of 62-12.
They do not have a 20-point scorer, as Tony Parker led them with a 16.7 average. (Parker finished the season shooting .499. If he had made just one more of his 914 FG attempts, he would have been at 50 percent from the field for the third time in four seasons.). They do not have a double-digit rebounder, as Duncan led them with 9.7 per game.
What they do have is nine players averaging at least eight points, six of them scoring in double digits. So that means the Mavs never know exactly who is going to hurt them on any given night, only that there are many who are capable.
3. The Mark Cuban factor.
The NBA is deathly afraid of the Mavs owner because he will call out the league office on their mistakes, especially officiating mistakes, even if it results in a fine. We would imagine there is a Scott Foster photo on Cuban’s man cave dart board after the veteran referee blew an out of bounds call late in the fourth quarter of the Mavs’ season-ending loss to the Grizzlies in Memphis that relegated them to the No. 8 spot.
And Adam Silver is not the only one who is intimidated by the Mavs’ maverick. The referees themselves will be extra gun-shy in calling these games, which means we will set the over/under on video reviews at 22 1/2.
And after the over hits, we can all look forward to the NBA coming up with a new way to hasten the video review process, as it takes all of the low out of the game and prompts casual fans to pick up the remote and turn the channel, never to return.
4. The experience factor for Dallas.
Yes, the Mavs have been swept in consecutive seasons by the Spurs. But you think Monta Ellis cares about that? Or Samuel Dalembert? Or Jose Calderon?
They do not, because they were not a part of the Mavericks a year ago when the first sweep happened. Last year’s Mavs, lest you forget, included the likes of O.J. Mayo, Darren Collison, Chris Kaman, Elton Brand, Troy Murphy, Rodrigue Beaubois, Anthony Morrow and Mike James. Heck, even Eddy Curry played in two games for Dallas last season, when the Mavs had 23 players who saw time (where have you gone, Josh Akognon?).
This year’s Mavs are a more stable lot, and they are loaded with veterans who know that whatever happened in this regular season or last regular season has zero bearing on what happens after the ball goes up for the first time this weekend. The Mavs have six players in their 30s, along with the 28-year-old Ellis. And if there is one thing that veterans know how to do, it is putting one single loss in the rear-view mirror and looking forward.
5. The clutch shot factor.
OK, Ellis missed a buzzer-beater in the final regular season game at Memphis that would have allowed the Mavs to avoid this matchup. But there are an array of time-tested veterans on the Dallas roster who will not shy away from taking the final shot, including Dirk Nowitzki, Vince Carter, Jose Calderon and Shawn Marion. And if the Mavs need a 3, all of those players are capable of knocking one down. Calderon, by the way, finished 5th in the NBA in 3-point accuracy at .449 — a better clip than Belinelli’s .430 shooting percentage.
The Mavs won 11 games decided by three points or less, tied with Golden State for the most in the NBA.
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MIKE SCOTTO – SPURS in 4
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