Big brother hasn't been a bully lately
Tide has turned in Texas rivalry, but Mavs still come up short in championships
DALLAS -- Over the past six postseasons, the Sacramento Kings, Phoenix Suns, Miami Heat, Golden State Warriors, New Orleans Hornets and Denver Nuggets have sent the Dallas Mavericks home for the summer.
The San Antonio Spurs? Please. That was so early 2000s. Once upon a time, the Mavs used to refer to the Spurs as their big brothers because of the South Texas arm-twisting, and owner Mark Cuban even instructed president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson to construct a roster specifically to take down the mighty Spurs.
"That's old news," Cuban said. "That's not a knock on the Spurs, but there's eight or nine teams [in the West that are contenders] so you can't construct a roster just to play one team. You just have to put together the best team you can."
Both Cuban and Dirk Nowitzki -- the hero of Game 1 with 36 points in this fifth Mavs-Spurs playoff installment of the Nowitzki-Tim Duncan era -- consider this Dallas team, freshly reinforced with Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood, to be the best of the bunch. Better even than the 2006 team that ended, in seven games, the Spurs' stranglehold over the Mavs franchise and launched Dallas to its first NBA Finals appearance.
OK, so everyone knows how that ended (see Miami), and that the Spurs returned to the NBA Finals in 2007 to claim their fourth championship in the Duncan era, further chafing the hard-working folks in the Mavs' front office and keeping the brain-trust wheels perpetually turning.
"We've never sipped from the cup before," Nelson said. "We have not done that, and so if that doesn't motivate you, you're in the wrong business."
Part of the "Beat San Antonio" plan of the past included trading for center Erick Dampier in 2004 and signing 7-footer DeSagana Diop in 2005 for a two-on-one approach to defending Duncan. In Game 1 on Sunday, Dallas got a 15-point, 18-rebound performance from its current center tandem of Dampier and Haywood. The Mavs have won their past two playoff series against San Antonio, and going back to their first-round victory last season, they've won five of their past six playoff games against the Spurs.
Butler came through with 22 points in Game 1, the kind of performance the Spurs surely envisioned from Richard Jefferson, their big offseason acquisition attempt to keep up in the West. Jefferson scored four points in 32 minutes as his season-long disappearance continued.
Each time Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is asked about the Mavs' trade that has worked out so favorably, he shrugs, and says, "I thought it was a good trade and it's worked out to be true."
While Butler made the most of his Mavs playoff debut, Jefferson had the unenviable task of guarding Nowitzki on the baseline and helplessly watching as the 7-footer arched a step-back jumper over Jefferson's outstretched arm and swished it for a crushing 93-84 lead to seal the all-important home opener.
"That was definitely a big win for us," Nowitzki said. "But really, that win means nothing if we lose on Wednesday. So we have to come out with the same focus."
After the Mavs finished their second day of practice before Wednesday's Game 2, Cuban focused on reminding everyone just how delightfully acrimonious this rivalry remains.
"I hate the Spurs," Cuban said, smiling.
Cuban, also known for his sideline scowl in bad times, will smile even wider if his Mavs put their big brothers in a 2-0 headlock going to San Antonio. The No. 7-seed Spurs have issues to solve, like reducing sloppy turnovers and minimizing fouls that put the NBA's best free throw shooting team on the line 34 times.
And they will wait to see if second-year guard George Hill is physically capable of being a factor in the series. He tried to play in Game 1 with a sprained right ankle, but Popovich kept him on the bench for most of the second half after a scoreless first half. Without steady scoring from Jefferson or the marginalized Roger Mason Jr., the Spurs figure to be in trouble.
All that is moot, though, if the Spurs can't figure out how to deal with their oldest nemesis. Nowitzki, the lone Mavs player who was there in 2001 and 2003 when this great postseason rivalry grew legs, has repeatedly torched them in postseason meetings ever since.
"You know the way they play and the way they grind things out over the years; they're going to keep coming," Nowitzki said. "It's going to be a tough, long, grind-it-out series, and we've got to be ready for it."