That hunger, perhaps more than anything, might explain why the Mavs have looked like the hungrier, better prepared and more talented team throughout most of their first-round series with the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs.
The series is officially knotted at one game apiece. If not for a frustrating collapse in Game 1 (Dallas blew a 10-point lead with 7:45 remaining), the Mavericks could easily be headed home with a 2-0 lead.
It's hard to imagine they're too upset with a split, though.
Most pundits didn't even give them a puncher's chance. Not only did the Spurs enter the series with eight straight victories over their in-state rivals, but San Antonio's offense (sixth-most efficient in the regular season) sat primed to shred Dallas' porous defense (ninth-least efficient). Anyone giving Dallas a sliver of hope pinned that optimism to the shoulders of 12-time All-Star Dirk Nowitzki.
Well, the former MVP is shooting 11-of-33 for the series. He's fourth on the team in scoring (13.5) with a single made three on his stat sheet.
He needed 19 shots to tally 16 points Wednesday night—and the Mavs managed to comfortably cruise to a 113-92 win.
"They beat us in every aspect of the game," Spurs guard Manu Ginobili said, via Raul Dominguez of the Associated Press. "They played harder. Our defense was soft (and) not as aggressive as theirs."
Dallas showed the heart—and skill—of a champion. Rick Carlisle's team dictated tempo, flashed a wildly effective defensive tenacity and sold out for loose balls and extra possessions.
The Mavs seemed like they understood the real season had started, in a certain Spursian fashion.
A power-in-numbers approach has kept the Mavs afloat during Nowitzki's shooting woes, as six different players have put up at least nine points a night (the Spurs have three). Everyone has bought into their role, whether it's Samuel Dalembert as a glass-eater (7.5 rebounds in 17.0 minutes), Monta Ellis as a defensive pest (2.5 steals) or Devin Harris as a primary scorer for the second team (18.5 points on .600/.500/1.000 shooting).
Dallas hasn't pulled any tricks out of Carlisle's hat. The Mavs have held court with what the stat sheet says is the best team in basketball thanks to a lethal combination of skill, hard work and accountability.
This might not be Dallas' key to unlock a widely assumed nonexistent path to the second round, but it's certainly a sign this team will fight with everything it has for its playoff lives.
"I think we laid groundwork on how we have to play if we want to win," Vince Carter said, via Bryan Gutierrez of ESPN Dallas. "If we don't play that way, if not better, we don't have a chance to win."
The Mavericks are beating the Spurs at their own games.
Dallas has valued each possession (8.8 turnovers per 100 possessions, second fewest); San Antonio has been uncharacteristically reckless (18.4 turnover rate, fourth highest). The Mavericks have made the hustle plays; the Spurs have cut corners:
General consensus from Pop this morning re Game 2: Mavs were more physical, more intense, created a crowd Spurs too eager to play in.— Jeff McDonald (@JMcDonald_SAEN) April 24, 2014
Carlisle's group has produced up and down the roster. Pop's team looks awfully top heavy.
Ginobili, Tony Parker and Tim Duncan have scored 115 of San Antonio's 182 points in the series (63.2 percent). Dallas' top three scorers from the regular season (Nowitzki, Monta Ellis and Vince Carter) have 77 of the team's 198 points (38.9 percent).
"We have a deep roster, and we need every single guy on the roster," Carlisle said, via Eddie Sefko of The Dallas Morning News.
Popovich would take that kind of help—if he could get it.
"This cohesive, finely tuned engine is suddenly missing pistons," NBA.com's Jeff Caplan wrote of the Spurs. "Topping the list is small forward Kawhi Leonard. Other than Ginobili, photos of San Antonio’s reserves should be plastered on milk cartons."
Spurs not named Parker, Duncan or Ginobili are shooting 33.3 percent for the series. Kawhi Leonard has 17 points on 16 shots. Patrick Mills has misfired on all but one of his seven three-point attempts. Boris Diaw has two rebounds and two assists in 40 minutes of work.
San Antonio has the highest scoring bench in the business (44.9 points a night), via TeamRankings.com. Leonard shot 52.2 percent from the field this season. Mills has been a 40.6 percent sniper for his career. Diaw was good for 5.9 boards and 4.0 assists per 36 minutes in the regular season.
Playing the percentages says San Antonio's roster is flooded with breakout candidates. Judging by the eye test, though, at least a portion of these offensive struggles should be credited to Dallas' defense:
Let's also not forget the room the Mavericks have for offensive improvement.
Nowitzki's lowest career playoff scoring average is 19.7 (2006-07). To climb one rung you have to jump to 23.4 points (2000-01). In other words, don't look for his current marks (13.5 points, 33.3 percent shooting) to hold.
Monta Ellis' scoring is down three points from his season average (16.0 from 19.0). His 35.3 field-goal percentage is almost 10 points below his regular-season number (45.1).
If Ellis and Nowitzki keep launching 33.5 shots a night, expect them to yield more than 29.5 points for them.
Now, will they see enough scoring to pull off an upset?
I wouldn't go that far. The Spurs faced this same scenario in the conference semis against the Golden State Warriors last season: tied 1-1, one furious comeback away from being down 2-0. San Antonio won eight of its next nine games, punching an NBA Finals ticket along the way.
The Mavs certainly aren't guaranteed a similar fate as the Dubs met, but let's not dismiss the massive advantage the Spurs carried into this series based off a couple games:
These are the same teams and same matchups the Spurs blew out of the water in the regular season. Can't make the Mavs the favorites yet.— Jeff McDonald (@JMcDonald_SAEN) April 24, 2014
The Mavericks are already closer to a series win than many thought they could be, but perception can't change the reality: This is now a five-game series with an empty slate for both sides. Dallas might be surprisingly competitive to outsiders, but this team is doing what it expects.
What's your prediction for this series?
"It’s a monumental task but we’re in this thing to win,” Carlisle said, via Earl K. Sneed of Mavs.com. “You know, we’re not in it just to get a split and feel happy. We can’t do that. I mean, we cannot let up."
For some bottom-of-the-bracket teams, scoring a single win might serve as a defining moment for the franchise.
The Mavs don't think that way. Owner Mark Cuban isn't handing out participation medals.
Dallas is plotting a mental path to the podium, and that journey happens to run through San Antonio. The Spurs are world-beaters to us, but they're roadblocks to Carlisle and Co.
The Mavs are a little short in the talent department and a little loose on the defensive end. But they're hungry, they play with a lot of heart and they expect to advance.
If the Spurs can't match that combination of intensity and execution, they'll be headed home far earlier than anyone could have imagined.