Befitting their pedigree, the San Antonio Spurs opted for no special defenses, no magic plays, for Game 4 on Monday night.
Instead, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich — wily, as ever —threw a blunt challenge into his team’s face.
“They’re playing hard,” Popovich said of the Dallas Mavericks. “They’re playing like it’s really important to them.
“I think we need a few more people doing that.”
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The Spurs got the message. They appeared to change nothing for Game 4.
Nothing except their attitude. And the ending.
Brandishing a Game 7-type urgency, San Antonio overcame the Mavericks’ second-half comeback Monday and held on for a 93-89 victory.
As both coaches had said since the stunning finish to Saturday’s Game 3, this was no time for trickery or even lineup changes.
The Mavericks and Spurs know each other too well for that.
“We just have to make sure our level of fight is equal to, if not greater than, theirs,” said Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle.
After the Spurs threatened to make it a runaway in the first half, Carlisle’s team almost pulled it off.
The Spurs led by as many as 20 at one point, riding the spark that Manu Ginobili, Patty Mills and Boris Diaw supplied while coming off the bench.
But midway in the third quarter, the Mavericks began to chip away at the lead, and the Spurs seemed to suffer a Game 3 relapse.
The lone Maverick off the bench who seemed to be responding to Carlisle’s call for intensity was DeJuan Blair. His 12 points and 11 rebounds in nearly 16 minutes were critical for the home team, though it was his burly, physical presence that was setting the tone for the attempted comeback.
But just as quickly as it seemed that the Mavericks had pulled it into a tie, Blair was gone, whistled for a “hostile act” foul while fighting for a loose ball with San Antonio’s Tiago Splitter.
Blair accepted his fate and jogged off the court to a thunderous standing ovation. The presence and momentum he had provided, however, were missed.
Unlike Saturday’s finish, there were no last-second heroics by Vince Carter this time. Unlike on Saturday, Monta Ellis, who missed the Mavericks’ final try this time, failed to carry the offensive load.
Ellis finished with 20 points but was six of 20 from the floor. Dirk Nowitzki had 19 points and was a chilly seven of 19.
The Mavericks won’t win this series if those two continue to contribute like that. It won’t be enough against a Spurs team that continues to get stellar play from Ginobili off the bench.
Whatever starry dreams that Mavericks fans might have had after Game 3 will have to wait. The series shifts back to San Antonio for Game 5, and for the Mavericks to survive, they’re going to have to beat the Spurs there again.
It won’t be easy. It will be hostile, you might say.