Early in the third quarter of Game 4, the San Antonio Spurs pushed their lead over the Dallas Mavericks to 20 points. Behind strong play from Manu Ginobili and Kawhi Leonard, the Spurs outscored the Mavs 32-13 in the second quarter and then began the second half on an 8-2 run.
Dallas cut into that lead a bit over the next few minutes, and once Rick Carlisle brought DeJuan Blair off the bench, it took about 12 more minutes of game time for the Mavs to tie the score. A seesaw battle ensued, and with just under two minutes left in the game and the Spurs leading by one point, Gregg Popovich called for an old standby: the Tony Parker high screen and roll.
Throughout much of this series so far, Dallas has played Parker with Shawn Marion and freely switched pick-and-rolls when Parker comes around the screen. Late in Game 4, though, Devin Harris had the responsibility of checking Parker, and the Mavs changed up their coverage a bit.
In this screenshot, it looks like Marion (guarding Tiago Splitter, the screener) has picked up Parker on a switch, but you see in the video above that he actually scampers quickly back to Splitter just as Parker pulls up for that free-throw line jumper. That change in coverages cost the Mavs a bucket.
After Samuel Dalembert missed two free throws on the other end, the Spurs came down the floor and went right back to the Parker pick-and-roll. This time, they had Tim Duncan set the initial screen, and Dalembert defended it the same way as Marion.
In this shot, it again looks as though he's picked up Parker on a switch, but he jumps right back to Duncan as soon as Harris navigates his way around the screen.
Boris Diaw then comes out to set a pick on Harris, and Dirk Nowitzki responds by switching onto Parker himself with the shot clock winding down.
Dirk is able to pressure Parker into a miss, which sets up Dallas for an opportunity to tie the game on the other end.
This quick handoff play smartly leveraged the defense's expectation that Nowitzki would be the one to take the big shot late in the game against them, and it enabled Monta Ellis to get to the paint pretty much unencumbered before encountering Ginobili just a few feet outside the lane. Manu doesn't get there quite in time, and Ellis gets the basket and the foul.
Back on the other end of the floor, San Antonio went right back to the high screen for Parker. This time, he was able to make Dallas pay.
Nowitzki lingers slightly too long with Parker on the drive, leaving Boris Diaw wide open at the top of the key. Diaw is not an especially good three-point shooter, but he had all the time in the world to line this one up, and he knocked it down.
Nowitzki then converted a basket on an offensive rebound off a missed three by Ellis, and after Ginobili made only one of two free throws, the Mavericks once again had a chance to tie the game. Carlisle tapped Jose Calderon as the trigger man for the inbounds pass, with Nowitzki, Ellis, Dalembert and Vince Carter bunched up near the elbow on the right side of the floor to start the play.
As Ellis rubbed himself off a screen set by Carter, he flashed wide open for just a second. Had Calderon thrown the pass, he would have had the entire side of the floor to himself to attack Ginobili off the dribble.
Calderon held on to the ball, though, waiting for the rest of the play to develop. He inbounded the ball to Nowitzki, and Dallas once again used the defense's expectations against them as he executed another handoff with Ellis, this time moving left to right.
The gambit worked, as Nowitzki's handoff/screen combination drew Ellis to switch onto Boris Diaw, and Ellis was able to get all the way to the rim. He got a great look at the basket, and it almost went in. It just...wasn't to be.
Two Ginobili free throws later, the game was over. Dallas should be commended for storming all the way back, and the game might have ended differently had DeJuan Blair not been ejected for kicking Tiago Splitter in the head.
What you can't do is fault Dallas for its late-game play-calling or execution. The Mavericks got a good shot nearly every time down the floor down the stretch. The Spurs just happened to make one more play. In the playoffs, that's all it takes.