Following a 106-105 overtime loss to the Memphis Grizzlies in Game 82 of the regular season, the Dallas Mavericks will square off against the NBA's top-seeded San Antonio Spurs beginning on Sunday, April 20.
Playing a first-round matchup against the in-state rival Spurs was something Dallas had hoped to avoid. San Antonio swept the 2013-14 season series against the Mavs, 4-0, and has won its past nine contests against Dirk Nowitzki and Co. overall.
Drawing the Oklahoma City Thunder would have been a much more favorable outcome for the Mavericks, as they posted a 2-1 record against head coach Scott Brooks' crew during the regular season. Instead, Dallas will have to face the only team in the Association that reached the 60-win plateau.
Mark Cuban's team still has a former MVP and proven champion in Nowitzki, but the Mavericks will certainly have their hands full with head coach Gregg Popovich, Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and the juggernaut Spurs—who are eying a return to the NBA Finals.
Seeds: Dallas Mavericks No. 8; San Antonio Spurs No. 1
Records: Dallas Mavericks 49-33; San Antonio Spurs 62-20
Season Series: San Antonio Spurs swept Dallas Mavericks 4-0
Schedule for Series: Game 1 Sunday, April 20, 1 p.m. ET (TNT); Game 2 Wednesday, April 23, 8 p.m. ET (NBA TV); Game 3 Saturday, April 26, 4:30 p.m. ET; Game 4 Monday, April 28, 9:30 p.m. ET; Game 5 Wednesday, April 30*; Game 6 Friday, May 2*; Game 7 Sunday, May 4*
* = if necessary, time TBD.
Key Storyline for Dallas Mavericks
Can the Dallas Mavericks pull off an astounding first-round upset?
That's truly what everything boils down to for the Mavs—who were considered a fringe-playoff team heading into 2013-14. Nowitzki is still a bona fide alpha dog and one of the best players in the game, but he'll need to play at an elite level to win a seven-game series against San Antonio.
Dallas is looking to accomplish a feat that rarely happens in the NBA—upsetting a No. 1 seed as a No. 8 seed.
Ironically, the Mavericks have been on the opposite end of this spectrum before. In 2006-07, Dallas finished with the league’s best overall record at 67-15 and faced off with the underdog Golden State Warriors in Round 1.
Golden State beat Dallas convincingly, 4-2, behind outstanding performances from Baron Davis, Stephen Jackson and Jason Richardson. The Warriors’ small-ball lineups and overall athleticism doomed the Mavericks to an early exit after a special regular-season showing.
So can the Mavericks flip the script they were once victimized by all those years ago?
Well, the matchup certainly doesn’t favor them. In fact, Matt Mosley of Fox Sports went so far as to write, "The Spurs have won nine consecutive games against the Mavs. Their ball movement and ability to rain 3-pointers from all over the court would make a sweep highly likely."
Nowitzki is no stranger to big performances during postseason play, though, and he pointed out that the Mavericks have nothing to lose as the underdog.
"We’ll just let it all hang out,” the All-Star said, per Eddie Sefko of The Dallas Morning News. “But they’re a great team. After the All-Star break, they’ve been rolling. They’re definitely the favorites in the series. That’s pretty obvious. But we’re going in there to compete and we’ll see what happens.”
Key Storyline for San Antonio Spurs
After winning 19 straight games from Feb. 26 through April 2 and locking up the league's best record, the Spurs are simply going to continue marching to the beat of their own drum.
The Spurs dominated the Mavericks by winning all four head-to-head meetings during the regular season. The Big Three of Duncan, Parker and Ginobili still receive the bulk of the credit for San Antonio's success. However, a big part of what makes the Spurs so dangerous is the fact that a variety of role players have the ability to step up and produce.
In the first game of the season against Dallas on Dec. 26, Danny Green drained all five of his three-point attempts off the bench en route to 22 points.
On Jan. 8, it was Marco Belinelli who did the damage—dropping 17 points as part of the second unit.
In the final meeting between these two squads on April 10, Patty Mills stepped in for the injured Parker and scored a game-high 26 points.
Simply put, the Spurs can beat teams in a variety of different ways through ball movement and unselfish play.
That doesn't mean San Antonio can get complacent by any stretch of the imagination, because Dallas is still a very talented team. Nevertheless, complacency is never a worry under Coach Pop, who always keeps his guys focused and prepared.
While big-name stars like Nowitzki, Duncan and Parker are expected to lead the way for their respective squads, X-factors in the supporting cast will help decide the outcome of this series.
For Dallas, the biggest X-factor is shooting guard Monta Ellis. He's head coach Rick Carlisle's main scoring threat not named Dirk, and he'll have to take pressure off his teammates by attacking the rim and scoring the rock.
At the very least, Ellis will head into the playoffs riding a bit of a hot streak. The 28-year-old struggled against Memphis on April 16—scoring 18 points on 8-of-21 shooting—but managed to win NBA Player of the Week honors for his stretch during three games prior.
Ellis was rewarded for his 37-point explosion in a win against the Phoenix Suns—which clinched Dallas a playoff berth. His scoring output will be paramount to the Mavericks' success in this series.
For the Spurs, the interior presence of Tiago Splitter is something to keep an eye on.
The 29-year-old Brazilian regressed in nearly every statistical category during 2013-14, but the big man has provided a good barometer to the Spurs' success.
During the 2013-14 campaign, Splitter averaged 9.2 points on 55.8 percent shooting in wins and 4.6 points on 38.6 percent shooting in losses, according to NBA.com.
If he's able to produce on offense and neutralize the contributions of DeJuan Blair and Samuel Dalembert on the glass, then San Antonio should have no trouble winning this series.
Key Matchup: Dirk Nowitzki vs. Tim Duncan
Even at 37 and 35 years old, respectively, Duncan and Nowitzki are still playing at an extremely high level.
The two were evenly matched from a scoring standpoint during their four regular-season meetings, but Duncan held a distinct advantage over his worthy opponent by hauling down boards.
Stats aside, Duncan's Spurs came away with four victories against Nowitzki's Mavs during the regular season—which is all that will matter in a playoff setting. If Nowitzki doesn't find a way to outplay Duncan in the first round, the Mavs' chances for an upset will dwindle.
Although TD doesn't step out and drain three-pointers like Dirk does, his well-rounded, fundamental game has given his team the edge this season. As a result, Nowitzki will have to hope he still has some MVP-caliber performances ready to go.
As Nowitzki said himself, the Spurs are "definitely the favorites in the series." You have to admire his honesty, but that doesn't sound as if he's confident Dallas will pull an upset.
Which team will win the series?
The Spurs have been clicking on all cylinders again this season after a stellar campaign and NBA Finals run in 2012-13. Their overall success is one thing, but a 4-0 regular-season record against the Mavs is pretty damning for the No. 8 seed's upset chances.
Ultimately, the Spurs' harmonious balance of offense and defense will be the difference. They ranked fifth in the NBA by scoring 108.3 points per 100 possessions and fourth with a defensive rating of 100, per ESPN.
Dallas, meanwhile, ranked third in offensive efficiency but 22nd in defensive efficiency, per ESPN.
San Antonio is simply too talented on both sides of the ball to lose this series. Nowitzki and Ellis may have something to say about getting swept, but winning four games out of seven? Color me skeptical.
Spurs win series 4-1