Coming from that side of the NBA tracks where the lowest-seeded playoff team won 49 games, the San Antonio Spurs may well have seen this coming.There’s blood in the water in the Western Conference playoffs. High-seeded blood. The Dallas Mavericks can strike a blow for the feisty underdogs Monday night by beating the Spurs in Game 4. It’s a tall task, despite the civic celebration that erupted Saturday when Vince Carter’s corner buzzer-beater ripped through the net. “We can’t have any kind of letdown or hangover because we hit a big shot and got a big win,” Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said Sunday.“So that’s our focus. We’ve got things we’ve got to clear up. We’ve got areas we’ve got to get better in.”He was talking about the Mavericks’ defense. While his owner and most of the 20,636 in attendance were dancing Saturday afternoon after Carter’s final three points, Carlisle was fretting about the 108 that San Antonio scored. Scored too easily for his tastes.“Look, we made some plays offensively,” Carlisle said, “but defensively we had our worst game.”Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, meanwhile, was echoing the same concerns.“We scored 108 points and shot over 50 percent again, and we lost,” Popovich said. “It’s about defense, not offense.”The Spurs have been focusing their defensive efforts on stopping the Mavericks’ Dirk Nowitzki, and it has worked — sort of. Nowitzki took only 13 shots Saturday and finished with 18 points. But the Mavs’ Monta Ellis rose to the moment and led a second-half surge, finishing with 29 points. The relatively-neglected Jose Calderon and Samuel Dalembert added a combined 29.“You can’t stop everything,” Popovich mused. “You’ve just got to stop it more than the other team does.”And there’s the problem, Pop said. One more stop, 1.7 more seconds of defense, and the series advantage would be back in the Spurs’ favor, not the upstart Mavericks’.Maybe we should have seen this coming. None of the best-of-seven opening round series in the Western Conference have gone according to plan. “It’s not that we needed OKC to be 2-2 in their series to think that,” the Spurs’ Manu Ginobili said. “We knew all the way that it was going to be tough. It’s never easy. The playoffs are the playoffs.“Whoever makes it in the west, it means that they are good and talented. Teams that haven’t done that well in the 82-game season, maybe for a seven-game matchup they do better. That’s what happens.”As Buck Harvey of the San Antonio Express-News pointed out after Game 3, the Spurs in their illustrious playoff history have been tied 1-1 and played the next game on the road 18 times. When they have won a Game 3 on the road, they are 8-0. When they’ve lost, the Spurs are 0-10.“Yeah, they’re playing really well,” Popovich said of the Mavericks. “They have a lot of guys playing well, and they’re playing hard. They’re playing like it’s really important to them. I think we need a few more people doing that.”Message delivered, as Pop will do via the media from time to time. But as he knows, a veteran-laden team — a roster with multiple championships and NBA Finals in its past — realizes what a long grind the playoffs can be. The early rounds sometimes are viewed as distractions, rather than challenges.“I don’t think the guys are disrespecting Dallas because we beat them in the season four times,” Popovich said. “They know it’s the playoffs.“But at the same time, I’d like to see a little bit more nastiness, a bit more physicality, a little bit more fire from some people.“Our bench has to give us something. I don’t count Manu — he’s sort of a ‘fake bench’ guy — but three or four other guys, they need to show up.”No. 1 seed, No. 8 seed. They mean nothing at this crossroads in the first round. The Mavericks seem to be smelling the blood.
Gil LeBreton, 817-390-7697 Twitter: @gilebreton