Gil LeBreton

May 3, 2014

Checkmate looms in Mavs-Spurs series

Coaching duel has been an intriguing footnote.

Relegated to the footnotes of what has turned into a classic first-round playoff series, lost amidst the Tony Parker drives and the Dirk fall-aways, you’ll probably find the answer to Sunday’s Game 7 finale.

The series may likely be decided on a jump shot. But one final chess move by either Rick Carlisle or Gregg Popovich probably will precede it.

It’s been that kind of series, this unexpected deadlock between the Dallas Mavericks and mighty San Antonio Spurs.

It’s been a series of streaks and spurts, and of dazzling shots followed by defensive gaffes, enough to where both coaches have been pleading with their sides to guard someone, anyone.

Even Saturday, when Popovich was asked to comment about the fourth quarter run his Spurs made to close a deficit in Game 6, he spat back, “All that stuff is pie in the sky. The deal is, you play D or you lose.

“And our defense was awful.”

Popovich, in other words, wants his team to get the message. When provoked throughout the series, Carlisle has done the same.

The first six games have been a chess match of adjustments — the Mavericks extending their defense to the 3-point arc, the Spurs picking and rolling through the paint, etc., etc.

The Spurs think that the Mavericks have applied a tunnel-vision focus on guarding Parker, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili. The Mavericks think the Spurs have centered everything around stopping Dirk Nowitzki and letting the Monta Ellis jumpers fall where they may.

They’re both right. And the chess match concludes Sunday.

“If we’re going to win this series, we need to play defense,” Spurs point guard Parker said after the Mavericks’ 113-111 victory Friday night.

Nobody in the Spurs’ locker room was dwelling on the fact that Parker hit only 4 of 14 shots through the first three quarters, or that Ginobili was a non-factor, shooting 1 of 8.

The focus, instead, was on the 34- and 37-point quarters that San Antonio allowed, spurts infused at various times by the Mavs’ Nowitzki, Ellis and Jose Calderon.

But give Carlisle credit for that. He recognized what a factor Calderon was early — on both ends of the floor — and gave him extended minutes until Jose broke his nose in a third-quarter collision with Parker’s head.

Calderon returned to play later, but he wasn’t as effective. So Carlisle studied the chess board and went with Devin Harris at point guard the rest of the way. He gave the Mavericks just enough quickness, just enough defense to escape.

To win, Harris is going to have to be successful at penetrating the Spurs’ defense, not trying to jump-shoot over it. That is Calderon’s job.

Carlisle, likewise, has had a good feel in this series for alternating his big men — mostly DeJuan Blair and Samuel Dalembert.

It’s a given that nobody can match Duncan, whose footwork and touch around the basket may be the NBA’s best ever. But Blair can be much more physical than Duncan or any of the other Spurs. His 14 rebounds Friday were telling, as was his energy at both ends.

When Blair plays the way he did Friday, the Mavericks are capable of winning the battle of benches. Amidst all the star power in the two teams’ starting lineups, the benches have helped to decide things each game.

No one should dare argue against Popovich’s Hall of Fame coaching credentials. But in Carlisle this series, Pop has met a formidable match.

One more game. One more chess match.

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