Western Conference Playoffs First Round - Game 3
(7) San Antonio 94, (2) Dallas 90 - Spurs lead series, 2-1
They're seeded seventh, but the San Antonio Spurs are the team that's acting like a No. 2 seed in this first-round playoff series. The three prime performers who have powered the Spurs to three world championships over the past seven years are beginning to act as though a fourth title is not out of the question.
Don't laugh. San Antonio looked old and creaky for much of the season, with Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker missing portions of the 82-game regular-season slate with injuries, while big man Tim Duncan had to be shepherded at times through the grind of everyday competition. While role players struggled, Coach Gregg Popovich had a hard time finding the right combinations on the floor, and that's why the Spurs finished seventh in the Western Conference standings.
In Game 3 of this series against the Dallas Mavericks, it looked as though the Spurs found the right matchups in the first 30 minutes, and as a result, they carved out a 57-49 lead midway through the third quarter. Yet, as soon as they established a position of superiority, their plans briefly unraveled on Friday night at the AT&T Center.
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Ginobili - who has been the best player in this series - suffered what looked to be a broken nose early in the second half, and when he went out, Dallas reeled off a 19-2 run to turn that 57-49 deficit into a 68-59 lead. After thoroughly outplaying the Mavericks in the game's first 30 minutes, the Spurs looked like they were going to be felled by the injury bug yet again. However, just when the outlook seemed particularly bleak, a funny thing happened: Ginobili - busted nose and all - walked back from the locker room and to the scorer's table to report into the game.
That might as well have been the moment Dallas received its own punch to the face.
Ginobili - along with Parker and Duncan, the soul of the immensely successful Spurs franchise over the past decade - needed a few possessions to find his footing, but before very long, the artful Argentine made his gorgeous incisions through the heart of the Dallas defense. The Spurs' offense ground to a halt in Ginobili's absence, but Dallas's 19-2 run would be erased and overcome in very short order.
The Spurs roared back to life with their South American star back on the court. While Duncan proved to be the ever-consistent anchor in the low post with his second straight 25-point game in this series, Ginobili devastated the Mavs with relentless dribble penetration. Parker - the French point guard who has also enabled San Antonio to remain among the NBA's elite - found his own way to contribute to a fourth-quarter surge in the Alamo City. With Duncan scoring in the low post and Ginobili relentlessly attacking the rim, Parker parked himself on the perimeter and knocked down a steady stream of clutch jumpers which drove a stake into the heart of Coach Rick Carlisle's Mavs, who now face a 2-1 series deficit and must figure out a way to win Game 4 on Sunday.
The years have changed, and their bodies have gotten older and more vulnerable, but Ginobili, Duncan and Parker looked as good as ever in this contest. When the smoke cleared in San Antonio, the Spurs' big three had combined for 63 points on 25-of-46 shooting. On a night when Dallas's Dirk Nowitzki scored 35 points but gained no help from the rest of the Mavs' starting five, it was the steadiness of the Spurs' stars which carried the day. Ginobili, Duncan and Parker all brought a high-level game to this all-Texas tilt, while Dallas starters Caron Butler, Shawn Marion, Erick Dampier, and Jason Kidd combined for only 16 points on just five made field goals. Butler and Marion were so out of it in the first half that Carlisle benched them for the second half in favor of Jose Juan Barea (14 points) and Jason Terry (17 points), the only other Mavs who had their heads screwed on straight.
While this game showcased the enduring brilliance of San Antonio's three stars, it also revealed the extent to which Dallas's acquisitions - from the 2009 offseason and from the middle of this past regular season - are not panning out in the playoffs. If Nowitzki doesn't get some help quickly, and if Manu Ginobili doesn't get slowed down by his messed-up nose, the Spurs - who are playing with renewed hunger and focus after their so-so season - could very well become the foremost Western Conference challenger to the Los Angeles Lakers.
Just like old times.
Pro Basketball Fans Senior Staff Writer
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