Commentary

Spurs send message, but it's not clear

Did Popovich want to face Mavs in playoffs or was he just worried about stars'  health?

Updated: April 15, 2010, 9:03 AM ET
By Jeff Caplan | ESPNDallas.com

DALLAS -- Did the master manipulator from the River City just fire the first psychological salvo of this impending first-round playoff series?

Did the white-haired wise one with four championship rings and no necktie just jab his coaching finger at the Dallas Mavericks and say, "I want you"?

[+] EnlargeSpurs
AP Photo/Tony GutierrezSpurs coach Gregg Popovich says he kept Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili out of the season finale because he was worried about their health, not because he wanted to ensure that his team would face the Mavericks in the playoffs.

San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich swears that not dressing Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan for Wednesday's regular-season finale, won by the Mavs 96-89, was all about resting his two most important players and not about playoff positioning. A Mavs win set up a Dallas-San Antonio series, while a Spurs win threatened to send San Antonio to Utah.

So was it really about rest?

"The way it unfolded, it looks like they want to play us and so they got us, you know?" Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said. "You never know all the motivations. Airplane fuel is expensive -- you know, it's a short trip."

So, Pop, why did you sit them after saying the opposite at the morning shootaround? They even warmed up before the game as if they'd play.

"Well, I'm tired of those guys. They haven't done a darn thing for us for quite a while so I wanted to send a message that we're a little bit angry at them," Popovich pontificated. "Hopefully, they'll start playing better this weekend."

The Mavs had expected a full-on battle. Insulted?

"I don't necessarily tell you guys everything I talk to the team about, and those guys in the locker room will have their own opinions," said Carlisle, 1-0 vs. Popovich in the playoffs. "I don't make a big deal out of it."

So, what was the deal, Pop? Did ya want Dallas?

"Yeah, we've beaten the Mavs so much lately that's who we wanted. I mean, come on -- they've had their way with us for a while," Popovich said after the Mavs' third straight win over his team. "The real bottom line is that I'm paranoid about Tim being healthy and Manu being healthy for the playoffs. ... We're entering this playoff pretty healthy except for what happened to George [Hill], and I didn't want to screw that up."

OK, so we already have ourselves a nice little playoff tit-for-tat between two old Texas dogs.

"The regular season is over and now it's more fun for everybody: fans, coaches, players, cats and dogs, everybody," Popovich said. "So, it's great stuff."

Sitting in the ESPN studios in Bristol, surely Avery Johnson is squeezing his microphone. Think he wouldn't love a piece of this?

And so, on Sunday at 7 p.m. CT, the No. 7 seed Spurs and the No. 2 seed Mavs will begin their second consecutive first-round playoff series, third postseason brouhaha in five years and fourth in eight years.

As for the Mavs players, they didn't take the bait on Pop's maneuverings and stuck to a basic script.

"They decided to take the loss and play us and so it should be a fun matchup," said Dirk Nowitzki, a veteran of the past three I-35 playoff series. "Portland would have been a long flight, so I think that's a plus. Both teams don't have to travel a lot, both teams know each other pretty good, so it should be a long, grind-it-out type series with tough, physical play, and we should be ready."

The Spurs, presumably, should be rested and ready. Popovich has made it his life's work to win NBA titles and manage minutes, and for good reason. The Spurs were a mess in losing in the first round to the Mavs last season, 4-1, with Ginobili shelved and Duncan hobbling on aching knees.

Duncan and Ginobili will suit up in Game 1 having not played since seeing limited minutes Monday night.

However, it's the one player Popovich chose to play that could be a problem. Superb second-year guard George Hill had just returned from a sprained right ankle Monday night. He lasted five minutes Wednesday before tripping over a cameraman along the baseline and tweaking his ankle. His status will be crucial to the Spurs' chances of an upset.

As for the game, neither team could take much from it. The Mavs had control most of the way but, typical of this season, never could put it away. In fact, if not for the shorthanded Spurs bricking 20-of-22 from the 3-point arc, it might have gotten really ugly. Somehow, the Spurs trailed just 87-81 with 3:31 left, and Carlisle had to summon Nowitzki off the bench for safety's sake, although he didn't bother to roust Jason Kidd, who played 28 minutes and scored 18 points. Nowitzki had to go 33 minutes, scoring 19 points, to secure the win and the No. 2 seed.

If anyone left with a measure of confidence, it had to be Spurs rookie DeJuan Blair. The 6-foot-7 backup center, who started with Duncan sitting, clobbered the Mavs' two taller centers, finishing with 27 points and 23 rebounds.

"Look, we didn't play well tonight and San Antonio's situation was a whole different thing, and the game itself wasn't much to watch," Carlisle said. "It is over and that is good."

Even better, on Sunday, everyone will be in uniform.

Jeff Caplan covers the Mavericks for ESPNDallas.com. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.

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