No one outside of that locker room—maybe even some of the people inside it—could have seen this coming.
The Dallas defense, 22nd in efficiency during the regular season, has found its form against the league's sixth-most efficient offense. The Mavs offense has hummed, fifth in efficiency in the playoffs, despite mediocre (or worse) returns from Dirk Nowitzki (13.5 points on 33.3 percent shooting) and Monta Ellis (16.0 on 35.3).
"A series that's bolted off-script boils down to one simple reason as to why that is: The eighth-seeded Dallas Mavericks have more players playing harder than the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs," NBA.com's Jeff Caplan wrote.
If not for a crushing collapse in the series opener (the Mavs had a 10-point lead with 7:45 remaining), Dallas would be headed home with a commanding 2-0 edge. Rick Carlisle's team is hitting on all cylinders, to the point that some are wondering aloud if it has found the formula to toppling the remarkably consistent Spurs.
The Mavericks are flapping the unflappable. San Antonio, as disciplined a fish as you’ll find in NBA waters, owns the postseason’s third-worst turnover rate (18.4 per 100 possessions).
Gregg Popovich’s team hits the hardwood with a militaristic focus befitting of a group led by a United States Air Force Academy graduate. The one-game-at-a-time approach is a way of life for the franchise—this is not a case of a basketball juggernaut overlooking the competition.
If the Mavs aren't beneficiaries of a precariously forward-thinking top seed, then what are they exactly? Better than advertised, for sure. But just how much better might they be?
Maybe the familiar faces are to blame, but it's hard to watch this team and not reminisce about the 2011 championship squad. That club ripped off 57 wins during the regular season (eight more than the current outfit) and entered the dance as a No. 3 seed instead of the eighth slot.
The talent is a bit downgraded now, but the roles are remarkably similar. Nowitzki's still the game-changer (team-high 21.7 points per game). Shawn Marion's still the do-it-all glue guy. And the help hasn't changed much other than the names on the jerseys.
Monta Ellis is filling the secondary-scorer, part-time-distributor role Jason Terry played then. Jose Calderon is a steady, shot-making point guard cut from Jason Kidd's cloth. Devin Harris now mans J.J. Barea's old change-of-pace, spark plug post. Samuel Dalembert and Brandan Wright are not Tyson Chandler, but they're big bodies who stay active in rebounding and rim protecting. Jae Crowder provides some DeShawn Stevenson-esque tenacity, while Vince Carter brings Peja Stojakovic-type floor spacing.
It was Nowitzki's team then, and it's his team now. But the future Hall of Famer has always needed help, and that demand has only grown with time.
"We have a deep roster, and we need every single guy on the roster," Carlisle said, via Eddie Sefko of The Dallas Morning News.
As was the case three years ago, the Mavericks don't need anyone more than they need a dialed-in Diggler.
Despite what his 11-of-33 shooting performance suggests, the 35-year-old remains unfettered by the grip of Father Time. Armed with a scientifically hard to stop fadeaway jumper, he finished the 2013-14 campaign tied for 12th in the league with 21.7 points a night.
"Even in his advanced age, he’s as good as he’s ever been," USA Today's Sean Highkin wrote.
With his combination of size, savvy and perimeter proficiency, he's capable of turning a series on his shoulders alone. He'll need to be that kind of special for Dallas to advance, not just in the opening round, but through each subsequent series this team could encounter.
He's not the only one under the gun, though.
Ellis needs to rediscover the efficiency that powered him to his best shooting campaign in three seasons (45.1 field-goal percentage). Calderon and Carter have to convert the open looks they're sure to get alongside two explosive scorers. Hustle plays are a must, both for Marion and Crowder in the open floor and the bigs patrolling the paint.
Dallas needs to put up points in bunches (far more than the 99 it has averaged in the first two games), because its defense could be in for a deep regression.
The Mavs had the worst efficiency at that end of all playoff teams during the regular season, which could be a death sentence in the high-powered Western Conference. Assuming all other higher seeds advance, the team's road to the NBA Finals would include stops against the sixth-, second- and fifth-highest scoring teams in the league respectively in San Antonio, Houston and Oklahoma City.
Of course, we can't let the cart get too far off in front of the horse. Dallas first needs to take care of business in this now best-of-five series with San Antonio.
The Mavs swiped home-court advantage from the Spurs, but they'll have a hard time keeping it over the next two games at American Airlines Center.
"The Spurs lost three in a row only once during the regular season," Jon Machota of The Dallas Morning News noted. "San Antonio also lost two consecutive to start the season. That’s it. It’s tough to beat this veteran bunch two times in a row."
Nowitzki will need to be brilliant, and his teammates must be something close to that.
"We have to play, from top to bottom, like it's our last game," Carter said, per ESPN Dallas' Bryan Gutierrez. "The tough thing about it is that we have to do it again, again and again for us to come out victorious in this series."
Playoff basketball isn't easy, particularly for a team with some inherent flaws.
Undersized sieves Ellis and Calderon will give back some, or all, of what they get. Marion and Calderon are wild cards, mixing in moments of brilliance with disappearing acts. Dalembert and Wright are, well, Dalembert and Wright—you hope for the best, prepare for the worst and realize that sustainability will likely never show up in the skills section on either's resume.
Defense can (and probably will) derail Dallas' playoff ride at some point. For all the offensive firepower the 2011 title team had, it also boasted championship-caliber balance (eighth in both offensive and defensive efficiency, via Basketball-Reference). That balance simply doesn't exist with this group.
The writing on the wall says to enjoy this ride while it lasts, because eventually it will come to an end. Just don't expect the Mavs to willingly accept that fate.
"It's a monumental task, but we're in this thing to win," Carlisle said, via Jean-Jacques Taylor of ESPN Dallas. "We're not just in it to get a split and feel happy. We can't let up."
Maybe the Mavs do in fact have some more tricks up their sleeves. Perhaps there is still a best-case scenario in play where they're parading down the streets of Dallas and Nowitzki's serenading his fans once again.
If the Germanator is at his best and his teammates aren't too far behind, the Mavs just might find a way to surprise us all—or keep surprising us, rather.
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