Death. Taxes. Mavs-Spurs.
These are the givens in life, and if you happen to have any passing interest in basketball, only two of the above leave you short of breath. On the night of Tim Duncan’s 34th birthday – 48 minutes in which the all-time forward was reduced to nothing more than a Hall of Fame cheerleader – the team that many had anointed sexy preseason sleeper and summarily discarded a month later climbed right back to where it belongs come late April.
Pops and Timmy have a 3-1 lead on one of the best teams in the league. What else is new?
If you weren’t watching Sunday night, you missed more than a basketball game. You missed a heavyweight fight. A battle of wills. You missed, as Dirk Nowitzki called it afterward, a “street brawl.” The box score says 92-89, combined 43% shooting, 26 turnovers, 42 fouls, etcetera, etcetera. But one look at Manu Ginobili and his fifth limb of a broken nose swelling like a balloon animal from a spasm of bloodied bandages tells you all you need to know about this game and about this decade-long rivalry.
It hurts like hell.
At one point in the fourth, TNT’s Kevin Harlan let loose a climactic howl after George Hill’s fifth corner three touched nothing but string to put his team up eight with eight to go. “He has been an ASSASSIN tonight for the San Antonio Spurs!” Harlan roared. And because of the three hard flagrants that preceded it, because Hill had just notched his ice-cold 27th point, because of Rick Carlisle’s look of resigned dejection on the Mavs bench, Harlan’s language and delivery was not wholly inappropriate. George Hill was killing the Dallas Mavericks because guys like Jason Kidd live for this kind of stuff.
Four quarters pitted against a group of all-stars and future Hall of Famers can tell you a lot about a team, especially when this team’s best player goes 1 of 9 from the field, spends 25 straight minutes of real time on the bench in the second half, and doesn’t hit his first bucket until a key tap-in with four minutes left. And that Tim Duncan wasn’t the best player on the floor after three straight 25-plus point performances gives you the all-too-familiar irking that Gregg Popovich, per usual, was right: seeding is for suckers, peaking at the right time is what counts.
The Spurs squeaked out Sunday’s victory with crackdown defense and a kamikaze resolution on 50-50 balls. Twenty-year-old rookie DeJuan Blair – all 6-feet-6-inches, no ACLs of him – out-hustled and out-banged a cavalcade of 7-footers down low. He owned the offensive glass, scored on key put-backs, and knocked around the likes of Brendan Haywood and Erick Dampier in scrambles for loose balls. It was Blair, not vets Duncan or Antonio McDyess, who put Jason Kidd on his back after Eduardo Najera’s vicious retaliatory clothesline on Manu Ginobili minutes before.
When Dallas held San Antonio’s Big Three to 31 points total on 9 of 34 from the field, Popovich banked on a quartet of mercenaries and playoff neophytes looking to cement their reputations as guys to want in the crunch-time foxhole. The ageless McDyess hit a slew of crucial 17 footers in the third quarter with the Spurs’ lead vacillating between 13 and 4. More impressive was his throttling D on Nowitzki, who didn’t take his sixth shot until 10 minutes left. Blair, for his part, bounced back from a forgettable game three in which he logged only 4 minutes. The much-maligned Richard Jefferson seemingly awakened from a season-long coma to pour in 15 big points on 6 of 9 shooting.
All of which brings us to George Hill, the second-year kid out of IUPUI who more than made a name for himself in game four and left TNT’s Doug Collins speechless in the process. “Wow. I don’t even know what to say,” Collins managed after Hill buried a jumper from the free-throw line to put the Spurs up 81-71 with 6:40 left in the fourth.
Hill outplayed every Maverick on the floor in the third quarter. With Duncan resting, he matched Dallas’ entire offensive output with 11 huge points to transform a deficit of 14 into a lead of 7. From his five cold-blooded threes from all corners, you couldn’t tell that this was a guy who couldn’t throw it in the ocean during Rookie Summer League. Apparently forcing oneself to make 8,000 24-footers in the offseason pays dividends in the long run.
Would you expect anything less from a Spur?
Hill was a fiend on defense as well, matching daggers on one end with equally exceptional perimeter stands on the other. He made Kidd look old. And face-to-face with a guy 14 years his junior, the point guard of his generation couldn’t penetrate to the top of the key – let alone the hoop – with any semblance of effectiveness. The Mavericks offense went to hell during a stretch in which the team starved for over 7 minutes without a field goal.
Fifteen-0 run. Building rocked. Tide turned.
We’ve seen this kind of effort from Popovich’s Spurs on several occasions past, each of them culminating in Tim Duncan’s embrace of Larry O’Brien. This time is different. Or maybe it’s not different at all.
They have flaws. No doubt about it. They’re terribly undersized in the post after Duncan and McDyess. They’re prone to old age and dead legs. They’ll end up giving Pops an ulcer with their free-throw shooting. Matt Bonner is part of an eight-man rotation and Richard Jefferson is still a corpse of the player they thought they’d signed. Guys like Roger Mason might as well dress in street clothes.
They’re a seventh seed and this series is far from over.
And yet, when Ginobili countered Jason Terry’s fourth quarter scoring barrage with an improbable fall-away three with 1:45 left, the resulting fist pumps, the glint in Duncan’s eye and that devilish smirk on Tony Parker’s mug suggested to all watching that this city known for last stands has a team good for one more run.