By Art Garcia, NBA.com
Posted Apr 14 2010 3:33PM
Old rivals open a new chapter as the Mavericks and Spurs lock horns in the playoffs for the second year in row and the fifth time in the Nowitzki-Duncan era. The four previous series mean little in 2010 and the four previous games this season might mean even less.
Dallas retooled at the All-Star break. San Antonio got going after it. The Southwest Division neighbors met for the first time Wednesday since the trade that added Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood to the Mavericks' stable. Naturally, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich sat Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili.
"They're one of eight that can go deep in the playoffs," Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said of San Antonio. "They've added pieces. They've added some youth. They've added athleticism. They've gotten healthier.
"We've added some things to our team. We've added toughness and strength and depth in some different areas. Their guys are far from being over the hill."
The Spurs finished the season strong, and the returns of guards Tony Parker and George Hill give Popovich a complete rotation again. The Dirk Nowitzki-led Mavericks surged to the second seed, recording their highest finish since being No. 1 in 2007.
"You can't deny the run they've been on and what they've done since the trade," Popovich said. "You've got to believe that it's worked for them."
1. Are the Spurs truly healthy? Parker looks spry, but Hill did tweak his ankle in the finale. Manu Ginobili is playing his best ball in years, while Duncan is showing his age.
2. Who guards who on the perimeter? Dallas stopper Shawn Marion can check Ginobili or Richardson Jefferson. Those Spurs will likely take turns on Caron Butler. It'll be an exercise in switching.
3. Did the Mavericks regain their focus? Looks that way after a 5-6 stretch had Dallas in danger of finishing out of the top four. The five-game winning streak to finish the regular season locked up the second seed.
4. Who has the better bench? The Spurs lead the league in average bench points, rebounds and assists. Dallas reserves check in fifth in scoring.
5. Bad blood or healthy respect? Most of the key players on both sides know each other well. Nowitzki and Duncan like each other. The rivalry hasn't been heated lately. That should change this weekend.
Jason Kidd is the quarterback, preferring to get the Mavs in transition and pushing the ball at every opportunity. In the halfcourt, the Kidd-Nowitzki pick-and-roll remains the bread-and-butter. Jason Terry spreads the floor, while Butler can generate his own offense off the dribble.
Duncan still mans the middle, forming the last line of defense against foes driving the paint. The Spurs rely on solid positioning and fundamentals. Nothing blows Pop's top more than a blown assignment. Keith Bogans is their most physical perimeter defender.
Ideally, the Spurs want to attack inside-out with Duncan scoring on the block and 3-point shooters positioned around the arc. Duncan isn't the dominant force he once was, but he remains effective and capable of scoring 25 on any given night. Parker, Ginobili and Hill can break defenses down with their ability to penetrate.
Marion is versatile enough to guard just about every one of the Spurs. Marion and Butler give the Mavs an attitude defensively they've lacked for years. Kidd is among the stronger and better rebounding guards in the league. Erick Dampier and Haywood, though vastly different athletically, are big bodies that clog the key.
The Mavericks are going to Dirk Nowitzki with the game on the line, likely working off a screen or pick-and-roll with Kidd. Nowitzki is among the league leaders in last-second shots over the last five years. If Dirk can't get one off, Terry's sweet stroke is the second option.
While it lacks for creativity, is there a better play than giving the ball to Ginobili and getting out of the way? Manu has the range to knock down a three and the craftiness to slither his way through the lane for one of those unstoppable lefty drives.
Carlisle has maneuvered through several minefields during two years in Dallas. With a locker room he can depend on and perhaps the deepest Dallas team ever, Carlisle has the Mavs poised to do something special. If they fall short, the offseason won't be kind.
Popovich wasn't sure what he had for most of the season, as injuries and new faces kept San Antonio from finding its groove until the very end. "We're playing better than we have all year long," he said. "Whether that's good enough in the playoffs, we'll see."
Spurs-Mavs always makes for good theater and this matchup promises to deliver the same. Expect nastiness, short tempers, elbows and Dallas in six.
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Anderson Varejao fights for the rebound and comes down awkwardly on his left leg and would sustain a leg injury.
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