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Dallas Mavericks: Breaking the curse

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The San Antonio Spurs made it ten in a row against the Dallas Mavericks with their first win in the best-of-seven first round playoff series that began Sunday and the Mavericks will try to even the series Wednesday night. After opening the game the way the Mavericks have in what seems like a pattern of late – getting clobbered from the get-go and trailing by as much as 12 points, the Mavs managed to take the lead before halftime and mount an impressive 10-point lead in the 4th quarter. Unfortunately, that lead was quickly eradicated and eventually the Spurs were victorious again. After a decade of a great rivalry and storied battles in the playoffs, the one-sidedness of the recent history is more than disappointing.

It’s not easy to put a finger on what sort of voodoo the Spurs have had over the Mavericks the last two years. Admittedly last year’s team, including a substantial portion of the season without Dirk, provided easy pickings for the eventual Western Conference Champs and by the same token, this year’s team had its share of issues early in the season and improved after the return of Devin Harris and Brandan Wright. Still, even though the Spurs have the best record in basketball and went to the Finals last year and had the best record in basketball this year, the Mavs were a solid team down the stretch last year and a viable playoff team in the ultracompetitive Western Conference this year, so the streak of 10 losses is somewhat unsettling. Considering the Mavericks did manage to defeat a number of other upper-echelon teams during the year as well, one tends to wonder why the Spurs have become so invincible when playing the Mavericks.

There is no question San Antonio has an outstanding organization that has stood the test of time. They have a knack for finding real difference makers from around the globe; they have a man many consider to be the NBA’s best coach and a group of elite players who have meshed well for years.

However, Rick Carlisle is also an elite NBA coach and the Mavericks as well, despite a couple of catastrophic bonehead mistakes over the years have also been one of the NBA’s most consistently solid teams. Heading into the playoffs as the #8 seed vs. the #1 Spurs, nary an analyst has given the Mavs a chance of winning more than a game in the best of seven series and by the looks of the first outing, the results aren’t likely to surprise anyone.

That being said, Carlisle is not known for being a big risk-taker and he was on point during a sideline interview with TNT during the broadcast of the first game, when he observed that while Tony Parker was having his way in the pain, at least they weren’t getting bombed from behind the arc, a fate that has become common in recent games. Often as well, the Spurs will find an unlikely hero such as Danny Green or Patty Mills who will have a career game against the Mavs.

The Mavericks were projected to be a poor defensive team before the 2013-2014 season started, due largely to the starting backcourt of Jose Calderon and Monta Ellis, whose offensive prowess is not matched on defense. Calderon spent much of the first game of the series on the bench as not only was he struggling with his shot but with Parker having his way inside, Devin Harris was called upon and was the single biggest reason the Mavericks played a competitive game.

That being said, Calderon and Ellis can play a role if Carlisle thinks out of the box. Dallas had its share of good defensive possessions during the game and had they shot the ball better and managed to be a little more disruptive, the outcome certainly could have been different.

The Spurs often run like a well-oiled machine but the Mavericks do have the ability to throw them off. It’s not news that defending Tony Parker is key. The best scenario might look something like this:

Early in the game (but not on the first possession) the Mavericks could employ a full-court press, Calderon and Ellis in particular both accumulate their share of steals and the guards could be rotated to keep them fresh. Shawn Marion has long been Dallas’ best defender but it’s hard to have him key on Parker when a switch would leave one of the guards with a mismatch trying to guard a Spurs 3 or 4. Rotating Devin Harris, Jae Crowder, Wayne Ellington and Vince Carter, however, all of whom are solid defenders, could be an effective weapon, particularly when size and strength can help defend Parker while still leaving adequate defense for when Parker passes the ball. They know they need to keep him out of the paint but that’s not all.

In addition, whomever he’s guarding should be running him ragged. Monta is speedy and has driven to the basket more than any guard in the NBA this year. He’ll need to get his game on and part of that can be at Parker’s expense. Calderon can turn on a dime and weave in and out without turning the ball over. If they can catch Parker on a switch with Shawn Marion, Vince Carter or anyone bigger than can go right at him or over him but regardless, make him work on both ends of the floor. He’s the engine and Patty Mills isn’t likely to have another game resembling the last regular season matchup.

Another idea that could also be an answer for other teams with a strong post presence is to let Dirk play the 5 and use what the team has in strong inside offense at the 4. Brandan Wright, Shawn Marion and DeJuan Blair do not have a problem scoring inside and for all of Dirk’s supposed defensive deficiencies, over the years he’s turned into an underrated defender. He’s smart and he’s got size and while no one is going to stop Tim Duncan from scoring, Dirk is as capable of anyone of at least making him work for it, at least when Samuel Dalembert isn't on the floor.

The Spurs have been successful because in addition to being a great offensive team, they also play great defense and even when they’re not doing anything special, the Mavericks don’t seem to shoot well against them. For the Mavericks to win, Dirk will likely have to be more dominant but also, it’s time for Carlisle to use weapons that he has at his disposal that are sometimes forgotten. Marion has settled into a role in Dallas as the primary defensive weapon and mainly a beneficiary of fortunate bounces and passes but he shows every now and then that he can still score the way he did during his heyday in Phoenix. Perhaps a few more plays could be run for him and others who are not expected to play a larger role.

The Spurs have many great players who consistently play well and can be counted on in big games: few players have the kind of experience and success of Tim Duncan along with Parker and Manu Ginóbili and they’ve been doing it together for a long time. Kawhi Leonard has been the kind of two-way menace that the Mavs can only hope Jae Crowder can become and as mentioned earlier, during any given game the Spurs can produce an unlikely hero.

But the Spurs are not magicians, nor are they invulnerable and they don’t employ any secret methods. They can be brought down even when they seem to be in control….take a look at last year’s NBA Finals.

For the Mavericks to topple the Spurs they need to try some unconventional things and mix it up so they are constantly guessing. If they play their cards right, they are as capable of pulling off an upset as the upstart Golden State Warriors who upended the top-seeded Mavericks in 2007.

Let’s hope, in the words of Nigel Tufnel, that the Spurs’ winning streak vs. the Mavs doesn’t go to eleven.

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