By Art Garcia, NBA.com
Posted Apr 19 2009 12:55AM
SAN ANTONIO -- The evening began with Matt Bonner six inches from his chest. Kurt Thomas tagged in after a few minutes before super-pest Bruce Bowen took his turn against the former MVP.
Dirk Nowitzki saw three different looks, not much room and plenty of aggravation in just 10 minutes Saturday night. The Spurs were determined to turn the tables on the supposed identities of these two bitter rivals, reducing the Mavericks into the one-dimensional bunch.
The strategy appeared sound ... for a while. But as the Mavericks morphed into the team they've been for the last three weeks, the different layers began to peel off. Dallas is the deeper squad, with more moving parts. Emphasis on moving.
Once the Mavericks found their stride, they sprinted back to a 105-97 victory over the Spurs in the opener of the best-of-seven first-round series. Nowitzki eventually got going, but unlike his high-profile San Antonio counterparts, he received plenty of help.
"We knew we had to step up," said J.J Barea, the Mavs' scene-stealing reserve combo guard.
The Spurs' determination to squeeze Nowitzki and Jason Terry led to leaks in their vaunted defense. Josh Howard took advantage of the extra room to roam, as did Barea and Nowitzki's burley backup Brandon Bass. Even Dallas' offensively challenged center Erick Dampier found himself open time and time again for easy put backs at the rim.
But it was Barea's defense that set the tone, especially in the second half. Matched up against Tony Parker to start the third period, the former undrafted free agent hounded the Spurs speedster the way San Antonio wanted to harass Nowitzki.
"I just tried my hardest to bother him and stay in front of [Parker]," Barea said after scoring 13 in 26 minutes.
Parker accused Barea of flopping, a sure sign of aggravation. The Mavericks knew what to expect from a San Antonio attack that's become increasingly predictable. And the focus, surprisingly, isn't on shutting down Parker or Tim Duncan. Dallas knows exactly what to expect out of the two healthy members of San Antonio's triumvirate.
Parker and Duncan are going to produce. The trick is clamping down on as many of the other pieces -- Michael Finley, Bonner, Roger Mason Jr. and Drew Gooden -- as possible.
That wasn't the case early on.
A quick 11-point lead in the first quarter remained in double digits deep into the second. Nowitzki was out of sync and the Spurs were getting contributions from across the board.
But as the game aged, so did the Spurs. Stiffness set in, and the cast behind Parker and Duncan wasn't quite as supporting with Manu Ginobili sitting behind the bench in a blazer. Only three Spurs not born in France or the Virgin Islands scored after halftime.
The unsung Dallas cast didn't hit the same roadblocks. Unlike the spot-up specialists wearing Silver & Black, the Mavs' bench hit from all angles. Barea jitter-bugged his way to the basket. Bass (14 points) attacked the soft underbelly of the Spurs' defense -- David Robinson where have you gone? -- with two-handed ferocity.
"We just stayed aggressive," said Howard, the Mavericks' leading scorer with 25.
Dallas reserves combined for 39 points, with Terry shipping in a hardly noticed dozen points. San Antonio's bench managed just one point in the second half and 14 total. The difference in production could be attributed to a fundamental difference in the makeup of these familiar Playoff foes.
The Mavericks can out-athlete San Antonio.
"No doubt," Barea said, "especially when Josh is playing like that. Fin and Mason and Bruce look for 3s. The only athletic, fast guy they got is Tony."
Parker finished with 24 points, a number the Mavs would gladly continue to take considering he averaged 31.3 against them in the regular season. Duncan had to work for his 27 points, getting knocked to the floor a couple of times by Dampier and Co. in 37 physically demanding minutes.
The Spurs now need to get up or run the risk of falling into a 2-0 ditch Monday night back at the AT&T Center. The Mavs not only wrestled away the homecourt edge, but they also snapped a nine-game road losing streak in the Playoffs dating back to the 2006 Western Conference finals.
Dallas also knocked San Antonio out in the semifinals that year.
"It's going to be a big one now," Parker said of Game 2. "It's going to be a big game and knowing the character of this team, we'll come back strong."
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