What should the Spurs hope it isn't?
A sign of things to come.
Not every game is going to be easy, especially in the Western Conference playoffs. Games are going to be close with the West being as deeply talented as it is.
But if the Spurs were looking to send a message, narrowly escaping defeat on their home floor might not have been the right one.
A Tale of Back and Forth
Both teams had convincing stretches throughout the game. Momentum shifted regularly from quarter to quarter, as each party desperately tried to create breathing room that never came.
Early on, it looked like Game 1 would feature a trademark Spurs playoff performance. Tony Parker slipped past Dallas' perimeter defenders with ease as the Spurs faced little resistance on either end.
Through that first quarter, the Mavs were particularly awful. They shot 5-of-20 from the floor while allowing Parker to tally nine early points.
Surprisingly, the Spurs weren't much better overall. They shot just 38.5 percent from the field, missing all three of their long-ball attempts.
Despite taking a 21-12 lead into the second quarter, you got the sense that any kind of offensive spurt from the Mavs would put the Spurs in jeopardy of imploding—which is just what happened.
Although the Spurs shot 50 percent in the second quarter, the Mavericks did what they do best: they went off. They converted a blistering 66.7 percent of their shot attempts in the second, during which they outscored the Spurs by 10 and secured a one-point edge leading into halftime. So not only were the Spurs unable to pull away, but they fell behind.
From that point on, it was a grind.
Coach Gregg Popovich's crew was unable to break away in the third quarter. Defense became more of a factor, with both teams shooting under 37 percent from the floor. The Spurs were also handed a scare when Tim Duncan banged knees with Monta Ellis. Though he didn't return in the third, he came back just in time for the fourth.
The Spurs don't win this game if Duncan doesn't return, plain and simple. He poured in nine fourth-quarter points as the Spurs gradually picked away at the Mavericks' lead.
Duncan, along with Parker, ultimately helped give the Spurs the lead for good. The Mavericks got cold at the wrong time, missing 12 of their final 13 shots, essentially bending to a more persistent Spurs team.
When the final buzzer sounded, though, the Spurs weren't left to bask in much of anything. They could have lost this game.
Too much of the offensive burden fell upon the Big Three. Duncan, Parker and Manu Ginobili combined for 65 of the team's 90 points, in what was a vintage Big Three performance, yet it was also cause for concern.
Kawhi Leonard was the only other player to eclipse the 10-point mark. Worse still, Ginobili was the only Spurs player to hit a three-point field goal. He drilled 3-of-6 from behind the rainbow. Everyone else combined to go 0-of-11.
Three-point shooting is an important element of the Spurs offense. Their 39.7 percent conversion rate from deep led the NBA during the regular season and opened lanes for Parker and post-up opportunities for Duncan. When outside shots aren't falling, it typically makes life on offense difficult, as it was on Sunday.
Truthfully, it's a small miracle that Duncan performed as well he did. The Spurs offense became unsettlingly predictable from the third quarter on. Had the Mavericks defended off screens a little bit better—and, you know, scored more than seven points in the final eight minutes—we could be discussing a loss.
Avoiding similar circumstances demands those not named Parker, Ginobili and Duncan come ready to play. A large part of what allowed the Spurs to drop only two games en route to the NBA Finals last year was their supporting cast.
On different nights, different players pitched in on offense. Danny Green, Boris Diaw and Kawhi Leonard were all deadly from beyond the arc. Not one of them hit less than 38.5 percent of their long balls.
If the Spurs are to come out of this series—against a Mavericks team that won't have Ellis and Dirk Nowitzki combining to go 8-of-28 from the field often—without facing too many scares, some version of that offensive-success-by-committee blueprint must return.
No Reason to Worry
Remember the most imperative of mottos: Never, ever doubt the Spurs.
Who are we to knock the Spurs? Especially now?
For most teams who pride themselves on extensive and efficient supporting casts, games like these—even victories—are a means to criticize and doubt. Not the Spurs.
In a way, this not-so-pretty game, as Pro Basketball Talk's Brett Pollakoff explains, was so Spurs:
The final tally on the run that the Spurs used to close the game was 19-4, and as usual, it was surgical in its precision. This was a game that was there for the Mavericks to take, but Dallas was doomed by its slow start and uncharacteristically dismal finish.
The Spurs, as they’ve been for the last 17 seasons, remained consistent throughout.
Winning says a whole lot more about these Spurs than anything else. Sure, they struggled to score efficiently in the first quarter, but they still built a nine-point lead. They couldn't stop the Mavericks from scoring in the second quarter, but they stayed within striking distance.
And when the Mavericks threatened to pull away in the fourth, Duncan went all Duncan, Parker went all Parker, the Spurs went all Spurs.
Whatever Leonard couldn't do on offense, he did on defense, serving as a general nuisance when the Spurs needed him most. Green's effort on defense was simply outstanding as well. Tiago Splitter came up huge on the glass (11 rebounds).
These Spurs can win like this. They can play imperfect, Big Three-reliant basketball and still contend. That's why Coach Pop rests Duncan, Ginobili and Parker throughout the season—so they can handle these situations, so the Spurs can win these games.
What's more, the Spurs have played better than they did against Dallas enough times for us to believe that a single game like this, however important, isn't so much a sign of weakness as it is a bump in a long road that inevitably evens out.
"We have home court. We did a good job," Parker said after practice Saturday, per ESPN Los Angeles' Dave McMenamin. "But we know it doesn't guarantee anything. We just have to stay focused and we know we have a long way to go."
A long, long, long way. But Sunday's performance, ugly and inexact, was a good start.
*Stats courtesy of NBA.com (subscription required) unless otherwise noted.