Well, this wasn't how it was supposed to go down.
Entering the postseason, the San Antonio Spurs were rolling. As the league's top team—having easily finished with the best record—the Western Conference powerhouse was expected to contend for the franchise's fifth title.
Regardless of how many people truly believed that they would achieve such a feat, few could have seen this coming.
Three games into a first-round series, San Antonio is down to its cross-town rival, the Dallas Mavericks—a team that they had cleanly disposed of in every regular season matchup over the past two seasons.
With Dallas maintaining home-court advantage during the fourth contest, San Antonio's title hopes are looking foggy. Having been outplayed thus far, rapid changes must be on their way in order to ensure that the defending champions of the West avoid an early exit.
Dallas has never been lauded as a defensive juggernaut. Rather, it's offense that has been the subject of much praise, especially during the postseason's opening round.
With Dirk Nowitzki and Monta Ellis, the team has found its star power to propel a high-powered scoring attack that has kept San Antonio on the defensive throughout the series.
Nowitzki is virtually unguardable; his patented fade has ensured that only a poor shooting day can keep him in check.
That said, his performance in Game 1 was uncharacteristic, and while that very well have simply been the product of an off-game, Tiago Splitter—one of the team's defensive linchpins—deserves another shot to control the leading big man.
Tim Duncan often found himself covering his fated rival in the next two games, and while Nowitzki's success following his opening-game dry spell may have simply been him snapping out of a minor slump, a switch back to Splitter as Nowitzki's primary stopper should be on Coach Gregg Popovich's radar, even if the math doesn't add up.
As for the more obvious changed, Dallas has implemented an offensive scheme that revolves around high screens, and while that isn't necessarily an offensive breakthrough, it has been remarkably effective.
A lot of this success, though, stems from the way in which the Spurs have elected to defend these picks.
Even with Kawhi Leonard—the team's top perimeter defender—guarding him, Ellis has excelled from mid-range, using the open room created once Leonard goes under the screen to knock down an easy two points.
Ellis isn't alone, though. Other Mavericks, such as Devin Harris in the opening game or Jose Calderon and Shawn Marion during select moments, have thrown up the occasional open dagger to help build offensive momentum.
In order to hamper the Mavs' perimeter onslaught, San Antonio needs to reconsider its defensive decisions to counter these high screens. Leonard, Danny Green and Co. have been going under the picks as a means of refinding their respective opponent. However, as witnessed, this creates the necessary room for Dallas to sink an open shot.
Going forward, unless the Spurs can fight over the picks, they need to switch more often. Even if it's just for a moment, such switches can be monumental in preventing Dallas from finding the necessary space that it needs to score.
Similarly, when defending in transition, the Spurs need to make sure that they are not picking up their opponents too far below the arc. Often, Dallas—when on the fast break—has camped behind the three-point line while defenders wait below the bucket.
Though these changes may be minor, their effects could be drastic. Dallas has attempted more shots from mid-range and deep that they have from inside, and in order to effectively restrain the Mavericks' shooting success, San Antonio simply needs to enact a series of reforms that limit the amount of room available to Dallas' top shooters.
For a smart team, San Antonio has a tendency to beat itself on occasion. Even when they are shooting at a high rate, the Spurs can find themselves down big whenever the turnover bug bites.
Game 2 showcased the team's biggest struggle on that end, though the subsequent contest was certainly frustrating to watch.
Many of the team's turnovers are the result of off-ball fouls, tricky passes and general boneheaded mistakes that should hardly be occurring.
The ill-advised passes, especially, need to come to an end, and while the Spurs' ball movement is one of their characteristic hallmarks, it cannot be overdone.
Pop may correct these as he sees fit, but as a whole, the Spurs' high turnover rate—in tandem with their poor free-throw shooting that was on display primarily in the second contest—has been a product of San Antonio's own play that may lead to its downfall.
Another glaring issue is the gradual disappearance of Tony Parker. In the odd games, Parker has been on fire in the first half, only to slowly fade by the game's end.
As Mike Monroe of the San Antonio Express News noted, "Though [Parker] has scored 52 points in the series, an average of 17.3 points per game, he has only 10 in second halves."
As the team's star, he needs to take control. Especially when the bench players are failing to make an impact—an issue that can't really be corrected by any adjustment—Parker needs to set the tone on offense throughout the game's entirety.
Dallas used Marion to counter Parker in the latter two games, and his length has disrupted the Spurs' ace. Additionally, the Mavericks' conservative defense has challenged Parker to make his jump shot, and it has taken away a large portion of his inside game.
Though he shot the ball well in the first half of the first game, he needs to retain the confidence and keep shooting going forward.
Last year, the Spurs rode their star to the Finals. If they intend to escape this mess and make a return, they'll need to do so again.
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