Back in 2012, Monta Ellis suggested that the only difference between him and Dwyane Wade was "more wins and two championship rings," per Yahoo Sports' Kelly Dwyer. If Ellis keeps playing like he did in Game 6 against the San Antonio Spurs, he just might narrow the gap.
The Dallas Mavericks prevailed, 113-111, on Friday night, tying their first-round series at three games apiece.
Ellis' contributions were essential to the effort. He scored 29 points and took over in a decisive fourth quarter. Dallas started the game firing on all cylinders, as well.
That was until the 37-point fourth quarter.
Though Ellis led the way, he got plenty of help. Dirk Nowitzki scored an efficient 22 points on 11-of-20 shooting. The bench chipped in another 37 points, outscoring San Antonio's, which had just 25 for the game.
This was the Mavericks at their best. They moved the ball, attacked the paint and made plenty of hustle plays, racking up 13 offensive rebounds before all was said and done.
But the Spurs hung in there, taking a five-point lead into the fourth quarter and narrowing a seemingly insurmountable gap with two late three-pointers. No one is counting the Spurs out of this series, not with the opportunity to take the series at home on Sunday.
All the same, this wasn't supposed to be so hard for San Antonio. Even if most of us underestimated the Mavericks, the Spurs will shoulder plenty of the blame for this series going to a seventh game. San Antonio has had its chances. Two of its losses were incredibly close games, leaving us wondering what happened to a team known for its execution and airtight system.
That raises some serious question marks. Yes, the Spurs ostensibly have the edge in Game 7. By now, however, we'd be ill-advised to count Dallas out. The Mavericks have proved to be anything but afraid of these Spurs and have all the tools they need to pull an epic upset.
Tony Parker's Burden
Tony Parker scored a flurry of points in the fourth quarter, almost running away with Game 6 single-handedly. For the game he had 22 points and six assists, looking every bit the consistent All-Star he's become for the Spurs. The 31-year-old also showed he can still get to the rim, making three key layups in the game's waning minutes.
Going forward the big question is whether Parker will get enough help. He's done his job in this series, averaging 17.8 points and shooting 45 percent from the field.
Up until tonight, he'd gotten plenty of help from Manu Ginobili. San Antonio's typically reliable sixth man was off on Friday, though, scoring just six points and making just one of eight field-goal attempts (missing all five from three-point range).
The optimist sees it as a rare misstep in what's otherwise been a brilliant postseason for the Argentinian. The rest of us will wonder whether his luck has run out at the worst possible time. The 36-year-old will need to rediscover his groove in Game 7, or the Spurs are toast.
Tim Duncan has been steady as can be, but he probably won't take Game 7 over. The Spurs can expect to get 15 or 16 points from him, but probably not much more than that.
So who comes to Parker's aid? Can Kawhi Leonard have a breakout game after stringing together several solid performances? Will Tiago Splitter put together another impressive double-double? Will there be another Boris Diaw sighting, perhaps an explosive game from Danny Green (who scored his series-high 17 points on Friday)?
The Spurs have had guys step up all series long, and they'll need the help one more time in order to make it to the conference semifinals. It could certainly happen, but this is where San Antonio's margin for error becomes dangerously thin. There's no one-two punch, no heroes to play hero ball, no Big Three in its prime.
There's just a very good system that usually runs pretty smoothly.
The Missing Link
And that system certainly ran more smoothly than San Antonio's defense on Friday night.
To be fair, there's not much you can do to stop Nowitzki. He made shots from everywhere and made most of them with a hand in his face. Nothing new there. The Spurs have been somewhat successful in slowing the big man down for most of the series, but it was only a matter of time before he warmed up.
The bigger problems were the ones San Antonio could actually control. Dallas got to the paint virtually whenever it wanted. Ellis' penetration was damning throughout the game. Even Jose Calderon was making layups in the first quarter.
San Antonio just didn't collapse in the paint nearly enough, allowing slashers to make their way to the rim and, more often than not, either finish or get fouled. That has a lot to do with Duncan picking up his fourth personal foul with over four minutes remaining in the third quarter.
Dallas scored a combined 71 points in the first and fourth quarters alone. That put far too much pressure on San Antonio's offense to run flawlessly—and it almost did.
Head coach Gregg Popovich understands as well as anyone that defense wins games. He wasn't pleased with his team's early effort, saying in his postgame comments seen above that, "In the first quarter we basically spotted them. Our team defense, individual defense, aggressive was really poor for the first 12 minutes."
And it didn't seem much better during the final 12 minutes.
This is one of those things that goes beyond X's and O's. How San Antonio responds on the defensive end on Sunday will depend principally on effort. Rotations have to be quicker. Help defenders will have to be more ready to close off the lane.
The Spurs will have to try harder.
The Little Things
DeJuan Blair had five offensive rebounds in Game 6, 14 overall. Samuel Dalembert had another four offensive rebounds. The second-chance opportunities rendered San Antonio's superior shooting meaningless.
That can't happen again if the Spurs want to take Game 7. They'll need to rebound as a team, taking some pressure off Duncan and Splitter to do all the dirty work under the basket. And for their parts, Duncan and Splitter will have to do better. While they combined for 17 rebounds Friday night, they clearly weren't doing quite enough on the defensive glass.
The Spurs also racked up 14 turnovers and 26 personal fouls. They simply weren't playing as smart as they usually do. After the game, Popovich attributed the fourth-quarter collapse to decision-making: "We turned it over, I thought we bailed them out with some poor shots. ... They capitalized on it."
It's hard to see San Antonio making those same mistakes at home in a decisive Game 7, but then again, it's a little hard to believe this series has come to a Game 7 in the first place. If Pop's club has allowed things to come this far, it seems like anything is possible on Sunday.
The Spurs let a golden opportunity slip through their hands in Game 6, a familiar feeling for anyone who remembers last season's NBA Finals.
At some point you have to wonder if there's a little something awry with the Spurs' heads at this point. This is a team known for its execution, known for veterans doing veteran things. The lapses of judgement speak to something more psychological than tangible.
Still, Spurs fans shouldn't be too distraught. Their team knows how to handle the pressure of a Game 7. It's been through a few battles. It's proved itself capable of mastering the big and little things alike.
It just hasn't been as convincing as usual against these Dallas Mavericks.