The top-seeded San Antonio Spurs swept the regular-season series against the eighth-seeded Dallas Mavericks 4-0. That was the regular season. In the NBA, it’s all about the second season also known as the playoffs. The Spurs are favored to win the series against the Mavericks and the NBA title, but stranger things have happened in the playoffs. Even stranger things can happen in a rivalry game. The best-of-seven first-round series begins Sunday in San Antonio. Here’s a look at how the teams compare:
Forwards: With each now 35, Dirk Nowitzki and Shawn Marion have combined to become the oldest starting forwards in the NBA this season. But despite their age, Nowitzki and Marion have been so resourceful this season that the Mavericks would not be preparing for the playoffs without them. Nowitzki is the No. 10 all-time leading scorer in NBA history and can still take over a game at a moment’s notice. Marion has always be adroit at guarding speedy guards and/or burly forwards. Vince Carter, 37, led all NBA reserves in 3-point field goals with 146 and is also cheating Father Time. In addition, in his second season, Jae Crowder has improved his defense and his 3-point shooting.
Centers: The Mavericks have often said they’re going to go as far as Samuel Dalembert takes them. When Dalembert is effective and has his mind in the game, this is a vastly different team. But when his mind wanders, and when he starts getting those ticky-tack fouls that keep him chained to the bench, the Mavericks struggle to win games. Brandan Wright supplies activity above the rim, DeJuan Blair gives the Mavericks girth and physical play, and Bernard James is an angular, second-year player waiting for an opportunity. Edge: Mavericks
Guards: Monta Ellis joined the Mavericks via free agency last summer with a lot of baggage. Ellis admits he had a bad attitude and had to make a change, leaving Milwauke despite a better offer there to re-sign. The results: Ellis has been much better than advertised. The way he attacks the basket opens up other avenues for his teammates. Point guard Jose Calderon provides the steady hand in the backcourt. Calderon made a career-high 191 3-pointers this season and converted at least four 3-pointers in 15 games this year. Devin Harris is a solid veteran who has an uncanny ability for drawing charging fouls. When he’s played significant minutes, Wayne Ellington has been effective, as has rookie Shane Larkin.
Coaching: Rick Carlisle is a successful tactician who coached the Mavericks to their lone NBA title in 2011. Carlisle is 288-188 in his six seasons with the Mavericks, including a 23-18 record in the playoffs. This is his fifth playoff appearance in his six seasons with the Mavericks. He is considered great at teaching and at making in-game adjustments.
Intangibles: Starting with the 2000-01 season, the Mavericks have established themselves as a franchise that’s all about winning. During the past 14 seasons, the Mavs have qualified for the playoffs every year except last season, when they were 41-41. The only team with more playoff appearances during that span are the Spurs with 14. The Mavericks are 0-9 against San Antonio over the past two-plus seasons. They hope the law of averages is on their side.
Forwards: Age apparently hasn’t affected Tim Duncan. The 37-year old veteran averaged 15.1 points and 9.7 rebounds while playing just 29.2 minutes per game this season. While showing no signs of slowing down, Duncan has led the Spurs to 50-win seasons 16 times in his 17-year career. That’s more 50-win seasons than every franchise except the Boston Celtics, Los Angeles Lakers, Phoenix Suns and Spurs. Kawhi Leonard is a star in the making. A quiet player, Leonard averaged 12.8 points, 6.2 rebounds and 1.53 steals this season. He is a solid defender who is also only 22 years old. Boris Diaw is a solid contributor who plays well around the basket and is an underrated defender.
Centers: Tiago Splitter had his moments — good and bad — during last year’s NBA Finals. But the Spurs saw enough in his progress that they awarded him a four-year, $36 million contract. Splitter responded with 8.2 points and 6.2 rebounds in 21.5 minutes per game. He also shot 52.3 percent from the field. At 6-foot-11, the Brazilian has worked in unison on the Spurs’ front line with Tim Duncan. Backup center Jeff Ayres averaged only 3.3 points and 3.5 rebounds in 13 minutes. But he played more games this season (73) than Tony Parker (68).
Guards: There aren’t many players in the NBA faster than Tony Parker, who engineers the Spurs’ free-flowing offense. Working through a variety of injuries, Parker led the Spurs in scoring (16.7 points) and assists (5.7) this season. Danny Green can just flat-out shoot the basketball, especially from 3-point range. A season after setting an NBA Finals’ record for 3-pointers made last year, Green made four or more 3-pointers in 13 games this season. Manu Ginobili (12.3 points), Marco Belinelli (11.4 points), Patty Mills (10.2 points) and Cory Joseph ( 5.0 points) form arguably the best collection of reserve guards in the NBA.
Coaching: Gregg Popovich has four NBA titles and narrowly missed out on another one last season. Popovich gets extra points because he’s the only coach who can chew out his superstars — Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili — in front of the whole world and not have those stars quit on him. Popovich’s in-game adjustments are legendary. So, too, is his scowl.
Intangibles: Every team has a system. But the Spurs seem to mix and match and plug anyone into their system with ease. The Spurs can take a guy off the streets and he’ll quickly fit into their system. It speaks volumes about their organization. Since 1999, the Los Angeles Lakers, with five NBA titles, are the only franchise to win more titles than the four the Spurs have won during that span. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is 12-3 in first-round series.
Who has The Edge?