The Western Conference has featured plenty of entertaining series, but the Dallas Mavericks and San Antonio Spurs could be right up there next to the best of them (Houston-Portland) with a memorable Game 7.
We've already had a ridiculous buzzer-beater from Vince Carter and a frantic finish to Game 6 that featured plenty of clutch plays and a bone-headed turnover from Monta Ellis that gave San Antonio one last gasp.
Now it all comes down to one game. And for the No. 8 seed, it all comes down to the efforts of one player.
Everyone on the roster matters in this upset bid, but Ellis is the key to Dallas' chances of knocking off the Spurs and potentially ending an era. Without a vintage performance from the shooting guard, there's just not enough that Carter, Dirk Nowitzki and the rest of the Mavericks can do to ensure a historic ending to this first-round series.
No pressure, Monta. You've always wanted to have it all, and this is your chance.
What He's Done
Ellis has been one of the driving forces behind the potent Dallas offense, one that has scored 111.4 points per 100 possessions against the vaunted Spurs defense, according to Basketball-Reference.com. And I mean that both literally and figuratively, as much of Ellis' damage has come while driving into the paint.
Heading into Game 7, the Mississippi Bullet is averaging 21.8 points, 2.5 rebounds and 3.0 assists per game.
Additionally, he's turned the ball over just 2.2 times each contest, and his shooting percentages are at least respectable. Ellis has connected on only 42.2 percent of his shots from the field, but he's helped himself out by hitting three-pointers (35.7 percent) and free throws (85.2 percent).
Not too shabby.
But Ellis' impact has only grown throughout the first-round series, and he excelled down the stretch of a must-win Game 6.
The shooting guard finished that outing with 29 points, two rebounds and two assists, and while he took 22 shots to get those points, he was incredibly useful down the stretch. While the rest of the Mavs played more passively, Ellis wasn't afraid to attack the basket and finish the play, sometimes in acrobatic fashion.
Though he had a crucial turnover at the end of the game that gave the Spurs an opportunity for a desperation heave, Dallas was only ahead because he scored 12 points in the final period, highlighted by an and-1 finish against Manu Ginobili.
"My teammates told me to be aggressive throughout the game," Ellis said after the game, via ESPNDallas.com's Jean-Jacques Taylor. "They told me we were going to keep it close and the fourth quarter was mine. Mark Cuban told me the same thing. Coach (Rick) Carlisle and my team believed in me. All I had to do is respond."
He certainly responded, scoring at least 10 points in the fourth quarter for the third time in his last six games. By saving his energy and letting Dirk Nowitzki control the offense in the early goings, Ellis has been able to dominate those final periods by running one pick-and-roll after another.
As Jon Machota wrote for The Dallas Morning News in the aftermath of the Game 6 drama, Ellis is quite clearly the piston that makes Dallas go at this point:
The Mavs go as Monta goes. When he’s knocking down triples and having success at the rim, the Mavs are extremely difficult to defend.
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich was asked after the game: what makes Ellis so difficult on his drives? In typical Pop fashion, he followed with a short, one sentence answer: "It’s called speed."
Speaking of speed...
Tough Matchup for San Antonio
Who exactly is going to check Ellis?
Keep in mind that the guard we're talking about is one of the most explosive players in the game. He's incredibly speedy, and that helps him finish on drives with high frequency.
And according to NBA.com's SportVU data, he's doing a lot of damage on those drives even without performing up to his typical standards:
|FG% on Drives||Drives Per Game||PPG on Drives||Team PPG on Drives|
NBA.com's SportVU Data
One of the main reasons Ellis is so effective on these plays is that he's able to keep his head up and dish the ball out to his teammates. That's why the final column features numbers that are significantly higher than the ones in the penultimate column.
Jeff Teague, for example, has used 0.3 fewer drives per game during the postseason. While he's scoring more, he's generating 1.7 fewer points per game on drives for his team.
It's plays like this one that help make Ellis so special:
Just a second ago, the 2-guard was dashing down the lane and drawing plenty of defensive attention. What seemed like the entire San Antonio roster came crashing down around him, and Ellis still managed to find Jose Calderon spotting up on the left wing for an easy three-point attempt.
The Spurs don't bend on defense easily, so it's telling when four defenders end up reacting to the same drive. You know a player is dangerous when he's drawing attention from the bigs and forcing Tony Parker to leave his mark that wide open.
And Ellis does this consistently because he's a matchup nightmare for San Antonio, especially when he's able to effectively run pick-and-roll/pop sets with Nowitzki.
As ESPN Stats and Information explained after Game 6, there was a nice change for Dallas in the latest performance: "Monta Ellis scored 19 of his points as the pick-and-roll ball handler Friday, shooting 8-of-12 on such shots. Ellis had been struggling in the pick-and-roll, shooting just 30 percent through the team's first five games."
If Ellis can keep knocking down pull-up jumpers and finishing around the rim, he adds a whole new element to the Dallas offense, which is already potent enough. If he can't, it's not quite strong enough to get by the Spurs.
Is it any wonder that his scoring numbers tend to ebb and flow with the Mavericks' results?
ESPN Game Logs
When the 2-guard is scoring effectively, Dallas' offense is incredibly difficult to stop.
That's always been true, but it's exaggerated against a Spurs team that can't keep him out of the paint. Just think about the options they have when trying to check him.
San Antonio can use Danny Green, which forces him to play more minutes than Gregg Popovich would prefer. And quite frankly, Green isn't quick enough to keep up with Ellis at all times, as he's more of a physical defender than a speedy one. Kawhi Leonard is another option, but he's been unable to prevent Ellis from turning the corner as well.
And what happens when Ellis lines up at the 1? That's even more problematic.
Who wins Game 7?
Regardless, he's going to be a mismatch for the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference. But they shouldn't be ashamed of that, as Ellis has filled that role often throughout his redemption campaign with the Mavericks, one that has allowed him to distance himself from his past inefficiency and reputation for being overrated.
In terms of pure talent, San Antonio outpaces Dallas by a large margin.
But if Ellis forgets about that and plays like he did in the fourth quarter of Game 6, anything can happen in the series finale.