Veteran Spurs Use Old Tricks to Take Back Series Advantage from Mavericks

Stephen BabbFeatured ColumnistApril 30, 2014

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It wasn't long ago that the Dallas Mavericks looked to be on the brink of a stunning upset. Vince Carter's game-winning three-pointer in a tightly contested Game 3 seemed to give the Dallas Mavericks all the hope they needed.

Things have changed.

Gregg Popovich's veteran San Antonio Spurs took a 3-2 series lead on Wednesday night, winning 109-103, leading us to believe that San Antonio has officially gotten its groove back. There won't be a sweep, and there's no denying that the Mavs have been outstanding in this series. But the Spurs appear to have flipped a switch, returning to the tried-and-true tactics that got them this far.

You don't go 62-20 by accident.

Nor have the Spurs done it by resorting to the things most great teams do. There's no hero-ball—and really—no heroes. There isn't exactly a Big Three, either, at least not by today's superstar standards.

No, these Spurs have instead relied on a relentlessly balanced attack all season long. They've relied on a system that emphasizes ball and player movement, a philosophy that it doesn't matter who scores. It's the execution that matters. 

This is what the franchise has become. It's no longer Tim Duncan's team, not on the offensive end anyway. You'd be hard-pressed to call it Tony Parker's team, especially in a season where his numbers took a step back and backup point guard Patty Mills took on an increased share of the minutes. 

It's no one's team. And thus, it's a team in the truest sense of the word. 


Bigs Coming Up Big

Boris Diaw's go-ahead three-pointer in the final minute of Game 4 was as important as any shot the Spurs have hit in this series. His 17 points in that game were a reminder that the Spurs get their offense in a lot of different ways when things are going right.

Fast-forward to Game 5, and the story remains much the same. This time, it was Tiago Splitter putting up 17 points. He had nine of them in the fourth quarter. For the game, Splitter added 12 rebounds—six on the offensive end. 

He was also one of four Spurs with at least five assists, three of them coming at critical junctures in the fourth. Diaw chipped in another six dimes.

Steady as Duncan has been throughout the series, it's been Splitter and Diaw who've often made the difference, however quietly. They've made timely contributions and demonstrated surprising versatility. If you don't follow the team closely, you might have been lulled into thinking San Antonio's interior rotation was a weakness.

That hasn't been the case in this first round.

Splitter's offensive contributions in Game 5 will garner some attention, but his defense on Dirk Nowitzki throughout the series may prove to be most pivotal when all is said and done. Though Nowitzki went off for 26 points in Game 5, it was the first time all series he scored at least 20.

Meanwhile, Duncan has looked like anything but a 38-year-old. 

He's averaged 18.5 points, 7.5 rebounds and 1.5 blocks in the first round. Most impressively, he's played 35.5 minutes per game, including 38 in Game 5. As has always been the case, the things he does outside of the box score are every bit as important as those stats. He keeps the ball moving and protects the rim with the best of big men. He remains this team's most valuable player in spite of his reduced production.

The story of San Antonio's bigs shouldn't be underestimated. It's allowed the Spurs to run their offense inside-out at a time when the threes aren't falling at an especially impressive rate. It's given the team a consistent pick-and-roll threat, especially in the waning minutes of Game 5 when both Duncan and Splitter cashed in on key layups.

This is a sign of a team that's not forcing anything. The Spurs are taking what the Mavericks give them.

And the Mavericks know it.

Vince Carter acknowledged San Antonio's tendency to make the right play after the game, per the Associated Press (via "I think they moved the ball well and, of course, they got a lot of layups, so that's most of it. They did a great job of just moving the ball and making the right decisions, keeping us on our heels."

None of this should be a surprise coming from an offense that's predicated on decision-making and reacting to the defense.


The Bench Is Alive

The emergence of Popovich's second unit shouldn't be a surprise either.

San Antonio's bench led the NBA in scoring and assists during the regular season. In Game 1, that same bench was outscored 46-23. The script hasn't exactly been flipped, but things have certainly evened out as the Spurs gain control of the series.

Dallas' bench is still playing exceptionally. It scored 30 points in Game 4 and another 40 in Game 5 thanks primarily to Vince Carter's 28. The difference has been that San Antonio's has also risen to the occasion, posting 50 points in Game 4 and 32 in Game 5. 

The Spurs' depth has become one of their calling cards this season, and it will remain crucial even as the postseason rotation is shortened. San Antonio still relies on its second unit to push the tempo and knock down three-pointers.

Though there always seems to be a different contributor stepping up, Manu Ginobili has turned back the clock. The 36-year-old is leading the Spurs in the first round with 19.8 points per game, making 47 percent of his field-goal attempts in the process.

Most importantly, he isn't forcing anything.

Though Ginobili is still willing to take the open three-pointer, he's also penetrating more often than he did a season ago. He looks spry and comfortable finishing around the basket again. These are important signs for the Spurs and very bad ones for the Mavs.

Ginobili's offense is especially vital because it opens up his game as a passer. He's averaging 4.3 assists per game in these playoffs and executing the pick-and-roll to perfection. On a team that often seems lacking in the excitement department, Ginobili supplies no shortage.

More than any other single Spur, he's carried the team in this series. And he's done it from the bench.


A Heaping Dose of Boring

The Spurs have boring patented, much to the dismay of the average fan.

It's as much a part of their identity as Duncan, Parker or Ginobili. It's at one and the same time both pejorative and complimentary. But "boring" is really just another way of saying this team is extremely even-keeled.

The Spurs never get too high, and they never get too low. That may make for less excitement on the floor, but it's been essential to the franchise's winning formula under Popovich.

When the Spurs went down 2-1 in the series, they didn't panic. When the Mavericks came back from a 20-point deficit in Game 4, the Spurs didn't panic. And when Nowitzki went off in the fourth quarter of Game 5, well, you can guess how the Spurs reacted.

Panic isn't in this team's psyche.

After a monumental collapse a season ago in the NBA Finals, you'd expect anxiety to be built into these Spurs like muscle-memory. But they're unflappable, prepared for every scenario like they've been there before. And in many instances, they have.

Even San Antonio's younger contributors can rely on last season's march for much-needed experience.

There's no better example than Kawhi Leonard. The 22-year-old struggled mightily as the Spurs were blown out in Game 2, making just one of five shots and scoring six points. 

Though the Spurs lost Game 3 by the narrowest of margins, Leonard bounced back admirably, scoring 17 points on 7-of-8 shooting. He had another big game Wednesday night, scoring 15 points and grabbing eight rebounds.

Much like his elders, Leonard has fortitude. He's not easily excited, nor is he easily discouraged.

It's the Spurs' humdrum attitude that ensures they won't grow overly confident after taking two in a row against the Mavericks. This is who they are and why they've been so successful. It's a culture that starts with Popovich, one of the principal reasons he was this season's Coach of the Year.

Call it boring. Just don't doubt its potential to win another title.