The Dallas Mavericks had the big fish baited, gaffed and ready to be fried Saturday afternoon.
But the San Antonio Spurs, the Mavericks’ eternal white whale, dodged the hook and survived the upset in Game 1 of their first-round NBA series.
Like the proverbial fish story, you should have seen it. No, really. With 7:45 to play, the decidedly underdog Mavericks had the four-time NBA champions down by 10 points.
But less than three minutes later, San Antonio had tied the game. The only basket that the Mavericks scored after that was Devin Harris’ layup at the final buzzer.
Afterward, there was Mavs coach Rick Carlisle, telling a now-familiar tale.
“Look,” he said. “I love the way we played until that point.”
Yet, it was the same old ending. Man overboard. Coach Gregg Popovich’s Spurs have beaten the Mavericks 10 times in a row.
As NBA history suggests, if a playoff underdog is to have a chance, its best opportunity to steal a victory is Game 1. Heavy favorites, the thinking goes, tend to strut into a postseason series with either bloated confidence or knee-buckling caution.
Heavily unfavored teams, on the other hand, often begin the series playing with blind abandon. Which is exactly what the Mavericks did Sunday for a large chunk of the second half.
Carlisle’s team came back from an early 12-point deficit and seized a one-point lead at the halftime intermission. The third quarter was back and forth and ended in a 65-all knot.
But just when we thought we knew what was coming, the Mavericks might have played their best four minutes of the season. A turnaround jumper by Dirk Nowitzki gave them the lead at 69-67, and a drive by Brandan Wright soon pushed the visitors’ advantage to 10.
True, the Spurs’ Tim Duncan had limped to the sideline and missed the most pivotal share of the Mavericks’ sudden run. But six minutes later, a recovered Duncan was back in the game, doing Tim Duncan things, sinking mystically guided hook shots and putting the Mavericks back in their places.
“There were some uncharacteristic misses,” Carlisle said.
“We had some good looks that didn’t go down. They got the momentum back, and at that point you’ve got to get stops to stem the tide, and we weren’t able to do that.”
Carlisle talked about being unable to finish the job. The Spurs were hooked. Carlisle’s team just couldn’t get the big fish into the boat.
“We can’t just blame it all on the fact that Duncan came back into the game,” Carlisle said. “We’ve got to move the ball a little better. We’ve got to knock in those open shots. And if we miss them, we’ve got to make sure we get back and get stops.
“Closing games is more about getting stops than shot-making.”
But so go the Spurs. Stop them if you can — but who can, really?
Even after making an early defensive adjustment to seal off the lane to Tony Parker, the Mavericks had no answer down the stretch when San Antonio re-perked its ears and started dominating the boards and again getting to the basket.
“We couldn’t score,” said the Mavericks’ Shawn Marion. “They were probably more aggressive, and it caused us to take contested jump shots and we shot a couple of air balls.
“That tells you how much they stepped it up and put pressure on us.”
Carlisle, as he often does, took pains to blame the fourth-quarter collapse on himself.
“I’ve got to help our guys finish better,” he said.
Maybe. But Carlisle already was spinning a lot of plates just to get the Mavericks within eight minutes of the upset. He wasn’t the one shooting the air balls. Desperate for offense, he elected to go with Vince Carter and Wright for a combined 56 minutes, rather than defenders Marion and Sam Dalembert.
But everything about the Mavericks turned chilly in the game’s final seven-plus minutes.
“I love a lot of things about the way we played today,” Carlisle said. “But it’s a 48-minute game, and the last seven we’ve got to finish better.”
He sounded like a guy who’d just seen a big fish get away.
No, really. Honest. They were eight minutes from maybe making this a very interesting series.
Instead, Mavs overboard — again. They aren’t likely to get a better chance.