A span of 274 miles have never meant so much in sports.
For two teams that are seemingly so different, both find themselves in virtually the same position. All the while, a decade-long rivalry is sure to be renewed, if it hasn’t been already.
The Spurs own four championship rings, the Mavericks have none. Whereas Dallas is a big market team, San Antonio is more limited financially and relies on front office savvy to remain competitive; of course it never hurts to have Tim Duncan or Dirk Nowitzki as the face of your franchise.
The San Antonio Spurs, with their “boring” style of basketball, have been able to grind out championship runs during Tim Duncan’s tenure. Never flashy but always consistent, the Spurs have showed signs of rust over the last few seasons.
After their last championship in 2007, the Spurs have gone into the playoffs the past two seasons hobbling. In 2008, Manu Ginobili was battling ankle problems, leaving an already offensively challenged team to force their way into the Western Conference Finals, where they were promptly dethroned by the Lakers.
In 2009, the Spurs pushed for the division title on the final day of the regular season, forcing the Mavericks to play on the road. With Ginobili out with yet more ankle issues, Tim Duncan hobbling on aching knees, and no one to run the court with the Mavericks, the Spurs were ousted in the first round of the postseason.
The Mavericks’ only taste of success came in reaching the NBA Finals in 2006. The road went through San Antonio in the Western Conference Semifinals in a series for the ages.
While the Spurs had Game Seven all but wrapped up, Manu Ginobili, after nailing a seemingly game clinching three-pointer with 32 seconds to play, made the egregious error of fouling Nowtizki as he drove to the rim, allowing him to tie the game with a free throw and send the game to overtime. The Mavericks went on to win the game.
The series was not devoid of drama in the least. Mavericks owner Marc Cuban provided fuel to the fire by saying the River Walk in San Antonio was an “ugly-ass, muddy-watered thing.” The comment prompted Gregg Popovich to claim Cuban needed to show a little maturity and even Mavericks coach Avery Johnson said he respectfully disagreed with his employer.
Possibly the most controversial drama was Jason Terry’s punch to Michael Finley’s (his former teammate) groin while scrambling for a loose ball. Mavs supporters still claim no harm was intended, but I get the feeling Finley, no longer with the Spurs, would beg to differ.
After a sizzinling 67-win regular season in 2007, the Mavericks were defeated at the hands of former coach Don Nelson’s Golden State Warriors in the first round of the playoffs. The Mavericks were forced to watch in agony as the Spurs powered their way to yet another title.
With all these things in common, both teams come into their 2010 first-round matchup in very similar positions: both are watching their title windows close in front of their eyes.
After being dominated in the first round of the 2009 playoffs, Gregg Popovich and R.C. Buford knew the Spurs needed to get younger and more athletic, and waiting until 2010 for prized free agents might prove to be too late. Given this, the Spurs made a trade to acquire Richard Jefferson and were able to sign veteran Antonio McDyess.
Although the acquisitions haven’t been glorious to this point, they have paved the way for a young man who was already on the roster in 2009. George Hill, then a rookie out of IUPUI, was told by Popovich that there was no spot for him in the playoff rotation. Hill took the criticism personally. He worked harder on improving his shot and his defense, leading Popovich to claim Hill was his “favorite player” and the “most improved in the NBA.”
Hill, battling ankle problems, will be integral to the success of the Spurs. Not only can he score and manage the game, he is undoubtedly the best defender on the team.
Although the Mavericks signed Shawn Marion in the offseason, the move wasn’t seen as one that would put them over the top. Cuban was able to pull off a trade at the deadline, sending Josh Howard and a few role players to Washington for Caron Butler, Brendan Haywood, and DeShawn Stevenson.
On paper, the Mavs looked brutal, and their ensuing 13-game winning streak showed as much. Yet, they still have shown an inability to close out games decisively in the fourth quarter.
Dallas will need to rely on their big men, shot selection, and key defensive stops to hold off a San Antonio team that has played their best basketball of the season recently, all without Tony Parker.
The Spurs will hope for Parker to be their wild card; they would like to continue playing as they have been and will hope that Parker can regain his pre-injury form, something that would be seen as a bonus by the team and Gregg Popovich.
As for a series prediction? I won’t be baited into that trap, but I can say this series has the potential to be one for the ages. Not only are both teams seemingly primed for a deep playoff run, but an old rivalry will be renewed. Given that both are watching their figurative championship windows closing, it could be the final time we see this rivalry in its current form with these core players and so much on the line.
It’s also why 274 miles have never meant so much.
Brandon Land is the founder and sole writer for View from the Bench Sports, found at www.viewfromthebench.com