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Always-steady San Antonio welcomes Dallas back to playoffs


POSTED: Apr 17, 2014 8:52 AM ET

By Fran Blinebury

BY Fran Blinebury

NBA.com

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Tim Duncan (shooting) and Dirk Nowitzki (boxing out at left) lead their Texas teams into the playoffs again.

The sun rises, the tide comes in, gravity works and the Spurs come into the playoffs as the No. 1 seed in the West and, in fact, with the best overall record in the NBA.

Playoffs: Western Conference Preview

Some things don't change, even when you think they should.

This was the season when the Spurs had to drag the ghost of their collapse in The Finals last June behind them from the opening day of training camp.

This was a season when point guard Tony Parker should have simply worn out from overuse, having gone the distance in the playoffs and then most of the summer with the French national team in winning the EuroBasket championship.

This was a season when Kawhi Leonard missed a month with a broken hand, Danny Green sat out several weeks with a broken finger, Manu Ginobili was sidelined by a nagging hamstring and Parker was put on the shelf for nearly three weeks just to give him a chance to rest.

Yet the Spurs nailed down the top spot in a bruising Western Conference race because, well, they're the Spurs. Players such as Marco Belinelli and Patty Mills stepped in and didn't miss a beat.

"I think our bench was great this year. Overall when guys were out everybody stepped up this year. If you want to go far in the playoffs, it's important that your bench plays well. So that's a good sign for us," Parker said.

"I feel the same as last year. I like our chances every year. That's all you can ask. To be in the top four or five teams, it means you have a legitimate chance to win a championship. I think we're in a great position. Everybody is pretty healthy and that's the goal for us every year, to try to go through the regular season and be healthy."

After having their string of playoff appearances snapped last season, the Mavericks bounced back on the strength of a healthy and rejuvenated Dirk Nowitzki and because guard Monta Ellis toned down his wild streak and, along with Jose Calderon, became perhaps the two best under-the-radar free-agent signings of last summer.

Though the defensive bite is again lacking in Dallas, the Mavs had the third-best offensive rating in the league, based on points per 100 possessions (111.2).

The Spurs swept the season series 4-0, but any time the in-state division rivals bang heads in the playoffs things have the potential to get interesting.

Five quick questions (and answers)

1. Which old dog can be up to his old tricks? Count on 37-year-old Tim Duncan and 35-year-old Dirk Nowitzki to deliver a pair of classic performances that have marked their careers. Both are healthy and hungry and capable of turning back the clock.

2. Who lights the fuse? The Spurs and Mavericks are the best 3-point shooting teams in the NBA, but San Antonio's unmatched ball movement and unselfishness produces more open wide open looks.

3. What's in reserve? The key to the success of the Spurs' run to the best record in the league has been the play of a deep bench that includes Marco Belinelli, Patty Mills, Boris Diaw and Cory Joseph.

4. Can Manu be Manu? Entering the playoffs a year ago, Manu Ginobili was ailing and questioning how much longer he could continue his career. But with the exception of one hamstring injury, he's been healthy and up to all of his old wild, reckless tricks at both ends of the court.

5. Who'll stop the rain? Tim Duncan has been a force of nature for 17 seasons. The burden to slow him down will be on the tag team of Samuel Dalembert and Brandan Wright if the Mavs are to have a chance at the upset.

When the Spurs have the ball ...

Tony Parker will try to push the ball up the floor in transition and go all the way to the hoop or hit one of his spot-up teammates for a 3-pointer out on the wing. When the Spurs can't run their way to a score early in the clock, they move the ball unselfishly and with precision until they find the gap in the defense for an open shot. They don't take many shots with a hand in their faces and that's why they're so effective.

The Mavs have to cut off Parker's early penetration and guard the 3-point line diligently in order to avoid being sliced up.

When the Mavericks have the ball ...

They're not the race-down-the-floor Mavs of the old days. Dallas ranks right in the middle of the league for pace of play. But with guards Monta Ellis and Jose Calderon playing under control, running the offense — as the Mavs have for ages — through Dirk Nowitzki, the Mavs will keep the ball moving and usually get off a high percentage shot. Dirk and Ellis can run a mean pick and roll. They have to, because the Mavs are a weak rebounding bunch that doesn't get many second shots.

The Spurs will need Parker to do a solid job staying in front of Ellis, not allowing him to get into the kind of rhythm that produces big games. They can handle numbers from Nowitzki as long as he doesn't get big help.

In the clutch

The Spurs have had all the same big weapons for more than a decade. Any one of the Big Three can pull the trigger. But when the clocks ticks down and they need a bucket, the ball is in Manu Ginobili's hands to make a play.

When you've become a perennial All-Star, MVP of The Finals, already reserved your place in the Hall of Fame and your name is Dirk Nowitzki, you get to take the shot from anyplace on the floor. But Ellis is a good option to have.

Wild cards

Marco Belinelli can come off the Spurs' bench at any time and fire in a handful of 3-pointers almost before he takes off his warmups. It's why he's a Sixth Man of the Year candidate.

Even at 37, Vince Carter can still slash to the basket or and fill up the hoop when he gets on a roll to spark the Mavs.

Prediction

The Spurs are healthy and deep and committed to making one more run at The Finals. No danger of a slip-up here. Spurs in 5.

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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