San Antonio Spurs and Dallas Mavericks Will Decide Rivalry Edge in Playoffs

Robert KleemanSenior Analyst IJanuary 1, 2011

SAN ANTONIO - APRIL 29:  Manu Ginobili #20 of the San Antonio Spurs in Game Six of the Western Conference Quarterfinals during the 2010 NBA Playoffs at AT&T Center on April 29, 2010 in San Antonio, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Charles Barkley seemed to amuse himself as much as he did TNT viewers Thursday night.

He followed up another endorsement of the Dallas Mavericks as the best team in Texas by attempting to commend a prominent coach whose name he could not remember.

"What's the name of the Rockets coach?" he asked fellow studio analysts Kenny Smith and Chris Webber.

"Rick Adelman," Smith and host Ernie Johnson said in unison, each with a chuckle.

The gaffe prompted Barkley's colleagues to cackle, and it ranks as the chief reason to take his declaration of Dallas' superiority with a grain of salt. There are plenty of others.

In 2007, when he barked that the Mavs' big men needed to punish the Golden State Warriors "midgets," how did that work out for the Chuckster, or the reigning conference champs? Weeks later, even after the Spurs took a 3-1 lead on the Jazz in the Western Conference Finals, he proclaimed Utah would "still win the series."

Lesson No. 1 about the Spurs-Mavericks rivalry: nothing gets decided in December. If Barkley's premature statement should be ignored, so too should the result of Thursday's match between the two Western Conference powers.

San Antonio won 99-93 in a taking-care-of-business fashion, but the triumph was marked with a seven-foot asterisk long before tip-off. Should-be MVP frontrunner Dirk Nowitzki missed his second straight contest with a sore right knee. The Mavericks tend to stink when their all-time leading scorer becomes a spectator. They did for most of Thursday night, floundering in the 70s until a few desperate, meaningless three-point heaves began to fall.

Did someone unleash a parade of skunks in the American Airlines Center, or was that just the Dallas offense? Forgive Rick Carlisle and the addled fans if the sight of the Mavs' sans Nowitzki gives them the dry heaves. Brian Cardinal started opposite Duncan in a laughable mismatch.

Thanks, Steve Novak, for the long-distance buzzer beater no one will remember in two days.

No one who knows this Lone Star State clash would dare call Nowitzki's recent misfortune the first painful set back in the series. The German forward poured in 38 points in the 2003 Western Conference Finals opener but suffered an injury in Game Three and did not play again in the series.

Tim Duncan posted dominant numbers in the 2006, seven-game classic, but he grappled with a severe case of plantar fasciitis. The league suspended Jason Terry for Game Six after he punched Michael Finley in the groin near the conclusion of Game Five.

Manu Ginobili watched all of the 2009 first-round tussle in street clothes. His absence made a small difference, just like Michael Jackson's "Thriller" sold a few copies.

In December 2007, the Spurs beat the Mavericks 97-95 without Duncan. In spring 2009, Parker carried the Spurs to a blowout victory with Duncan and Ginobili sidelined. All of the Mavs' regulars suited up and had chances to contribute in that contest.

San Antonio's full compliment played in just one of the four regular season matchups in the 2009-2010 campaign. The Spurs' lone victory, a gutsy 92-83 effort, came with Parker and Duncan reduced to cheerleading roles. Parker was unavailable--and Ginobili tweaked his groin soon after tip-off--when the Spurs dropped a double-overtime thriller weeks later.

Star players out of commission when the Spurs and Mavericks battle? It's happened before.

Is there an acceptable, objective way to separate what both teams have accomplished since opening week?

The Mavericks have toppled every division leader except the L.A. Lakers and Chicago Bulls. Dallas ended San Antonio's 12-game win streak in a sloppy affair at the AT&T Center and returned home the next night to drub Miami, so much so that Heat veterans called an emergency, players-only meeting. The Mavs swept a Miami-Orlando road back-to-back last week.

Carlisle's squad's resume also includes road triumphs at Utah and Oklahoma City and a home win against Boston. Tyson Chandler's intimidating, physical presence has allowed the Mavericks to do it all with stifling defense. Deshawn Stevenson has emerged from his Washington doghouse to provide ferocious one-on-one coverage and dead-eye perimeter shooting.

Jason Kidd's three-point accuracy has dropped along with his physical abilities, but his wisdom as a crafty floor general remains strong. Derek Fisher and other experienced wise men have shown that old and smart can beat young and athletic in the playoffs.

Butler, a candidate to sieze a full-time role as Nowitzki's long-awaited star sidekick, scored 30 points Thursday night. Prized sophomore speedster Rodrigue Beaubois remains sidelined while he recuperates from surgery after a left foot fracture.

The impact of Chandler, and in stretches, Stevenson, on a once porous defense cannot be overstated. Shawn Marion and Butler help the cause, but what about Jason Terry? Who knew that a team with the one-way, anti-stopper could boast a top five defense to pair with its top five offense? An elite defensive presence can elevate what otherwise non-descript or abominable players do on that end.

The Mavericks did lose to the woeful 11-21 Toronto Raptors earlier this week, but playing on the second night of a back-to-back without Nowitzki spelled doom from the start. The Spurs matched that blemish in losing to the L.A. Clippers 90-85 in early December.

Title contenders tend to lose focus, or not bring any at all, to at least a few dates with cellar-dwelling foes. Those sorry efforts become dud losses. The Clippers and Raptors, in the Spurs and Mavs' defense, are loaded with athletic lottery picks.

The Spurs have roared to the best start in franchise history, 28-4, thanks to a new-found emphasis on transition buckets and spreading the wealth in a motion offense. Gregg Popovich has always demanded ball movement but previous schemes centered on Duncan as the focal point. Now, the team relies more on Parker's penetration and Ginobili's wizardry.

Duncan, though, can still manufacture points as a dominant pivot man when the Spurs call his number. He posted up Chandler three consecutive times in a crucial third quarter run Thursday night and tallied six of his 17 points in those confrontations.

Season averages suggest the Spurs are more of an offensive juggernaut than a defensive one, yet Tuesday's dismantling of the defending champion Lakers showed what is possible when San Antonio defenders swarm and execute proper rotations. L.A. shot a season-low 35 percent and scored just 82 points. Kobe Bryant finished 8-of-27 from the field.

Some other laudable Spur victories: at Oklahoma City, at Utah, vs. Chicago, vs. Orlando, at Denver, at New Orleans, vs. New Orleans, vs. Atlanta, vs. Portland, and at Phoenix.

The Spurs face the Thunder tonight. The Mavericks play the Bucks in Milwaukee. Dallas figures to struggle in the point-socring department until Nowitzki returns.

Even if he did, and the Spurs and Mavericks wrestled tomorrow night, the game would decide nothing. Thursday's final result was far from a final judgment. History makes it so.

The Spurs lost two series, in 2006 and 2009, despite boasting home-court advantage. The Mavericks lost this spring despite home-court advantage.

Barkley should hold off on the silly declaration his colleagues pushed him to make. The best team in Texas will emerge in April or May, not now. If the Spurs and Mavericks can avoid injuries during the stretch run, Barkley, and the rest of the pro hoops watching public, might even see one of them in June.