Posted Nov 20 2009 1:08PM
One team is winning ugly. The other simply isn't winning. Neither is at full strength, but that's about the only similarity between the Mavericks and Spurs right now.
The two dominant Southwest Division programs of this decade have split two games this season, each winning on its home floor. You'd expect clashes like Wednesday's in Dallas that spilled into overtime. Former MVPs Dirk Nowitzki and Tim Duncan traded punches before No. 41 iced it with 41 points for the Mavs.
There's no shame for San Antonio in dropping that game, especially with Tony Parker out and Manu Ginobili hobbling off the hardwood in the first quarter and out of the arena afterward. Dallas, though, had three starters of its own -- Josh Howard, Shawn Marion and Erick Dampier -- in street clothes.
"We're winning. That's about the only thing," Nowitzki mused. "We're playing some defense. Our defense has actually been really solid. On offense we're shooting in the low 40s, high 30s and that's suspect. We've got to get better."
While the Mavericks (9-3) keep figuring out how to get it done, the Spurs just want to find some traction. Dallas views its loss in San Antonio last week as one that got away. For the Spurs, it may be their signature win in a season that's lost the momentum of a resounding opening-night rout of New Orleans.
The full range of San Antonio's new-found depth, explosiveness and athleticism was on display that night, signaling what many believed: a return to dominance. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich even unveiled a new late-afternoon practice schedule aimed at getting his vets more sleep.
But someone keeps hitting snooze. The Spurs slumped to 4-6 with Thursday night's loss, ending a 10-year and 20-game home winning streak against Utah. Yes, Popovich prefers to start slowly by design, building cohesiveness and piling up wins as the playoffs approach.
Forget the design. This stumble from the gate is reality.
"We have no choice," said Popovich, whose team has lost three in a row. "Usually I try to force that and I don't even have to try this year. It's going to happen to be at a slower pace with the new guys not knowing what we're doing. That's really the difference."
San Antonio turned over more than half the roster, which had to be done. And, as Popovich pointed out, 60 percent of the starting lineup is new -- 80 percent with Parker out. But the Spurs knew they had to make those changes to compete.
Popovich has weathered change and inconsistency before. Back before the rings, the Spurs opened Duncan's second year at 6-8 and San Antonio grew restless, wondering if Popovich was the right guy.
The Spurs went 31-5 the rest of the lockout season and breezed through the playoffs to title No. 1. Popovich became the right guy. Now no one seriously questions how the Spurs run their operation.
Each year Popovich and his staff go on a retreat before the start of camp to assess why they do what they do. "We second guess everything," he said. One tweak for this season: those 4 p.m. practices.
"It takes getting used to," said Richard Jefferson, also in his first season in San Antonio. "I typically would like to come in at night and shoot after a morning practice. That kind of gets taken away, but I respect and understand what he's doing.
"This is a team and organization that wants to deal with injuries. They understand it's about the long haul. The extra rest over the course of the season, they believe will help you in the end. It's hard to argue with that."
About 275 miles north, the Mavericks stack up victories that only a purist could love, leading the league with three wins when shooting 40 percent or worse. Commitment to D, once all the rage under coach Avery Johnson, has returned to Big D.
"Last year coming into camp, after Avery, we focused so much on offense, opening up the offense, let [Jason] Kidd run a lot of stuff," Nowitzki said. "This year we said screw that. We're going to do all defense. We worked a lot of defense and it's really paid off early, but now the offense is slacking a little bit."
It's not all bad when the Mavericks have the ball. Spurs castoff Drew Gooden has hit the scene with three straight double-doubles in place of Dampier. High-flying rookie Rodrigue Beaubois, already a cult sensation in Dallas, is quickly becoming more than just the second-best French guard in the state.
Gooden, Beaubois and reserves J.J. Barea and Kris Humphries have helped pick up the slack for their injured teammates. But as Nowitzki, coach Rick Carlisle and others have noted, they're getting after it without the ball. The Mavericks are in the top 10 in several key defensive categories including points allowed, opponent's field-goal percentage and rebounding differential.
"This way at least we're winning ballgames," Nowitzki continued. "Last year we started 2-7."
Dallas played catch-up the rest of last season but still managed 50 wins and a trip to the West semifinals. The Spurs, winless on the road, are in that boat now. Before facing the Mavericks this week, San Antonio had played only eight games, easily the fewest in the West. That didn't help.
"What this team needs is games and playing together," Jefferson said. "Those are the things we're going to need to get everybody on the same page."
Back in San Antonio, the Spurs remain a work in progress, too. But their blueprint hasn't wavered.
"What we have to do to be a good team hasn't changed," Popovich said. "We've got to end up being a very good defensive club."
In the end, both the Mavs and the struggling Spurs probably will figure it out. History somehow has a way of repeating itself.
"They'll be all right. I never worry about the Spurs," Nowitzki said. "By the time the playoffs start, they'll be ready. All this right now doesn't matter. They'll be right there."
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