On a night when the NBA commissioner admitted there were changes coming to the playoff format that resulted in this premature matchup of the west's two best teams, the Mavericks acted like anything but No. 4 seeds. They're up 3-1, and full value for it, against the defending champion, Incredible Shrinking Spurs who are running out of ideas, and legs.
That's what it looked like, anyway, the first two possessions of OT neatly displaying their trouble: First it was Jason Terry, en route to a big-shot 32-point night, getting Tim Duncan on a switch and inhaling him on a driving layup. Then it was Devin Harris taking it all the way to the cup on a fast break. It was close, but the Spurs never regained the lead from there. They literally couldn't keep up.
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A lot went right for the Spurs: Tony Parker got it going from the start and had a career-high 33, and his 1A entrymate Duncan had 31. But here's their problem: They've downsized and their usual strong defence, second best in the league this year, has been blown away by: the Mavericks' Nowitzki, the NBA's reigning matchup nightmare now that he's expanded his game to include putting the ball on the floor; the ultra-quick Harris, who drew the assignment on Parker most of the way but still had enough at the other end to drive and kick and foul out Manu Ginobili; and the likes of Terry and Jerry Stackhouse, who were a combined 22 of 44 shooting. San Antonio shot 53 per cent, and Nowitzki, looking good enough to go on a sore ankle, didn't make a basket from the floor in the fourth quarter -- not good enough to go, that.
Here's how ESPN.com's Marc Stein puts it:
The Mavs' ability to control tempo since making Harris a starter in Game 2 (has) put Horry -- a starter as recently as Game 3 -- on the bench for most of the evening. So concerned about keeping up with Dallas' relentless pace, Pop has gone away from every big man on his roster not named Duncan. Horry played nine minutes in this one. Rasho Nesterovic, Nazr Mohammed and Fabricio Oberto combined to play one second.
The most discouraging part for San Antonio, though, is that it was right there twice in spite of these issues and couldn't win the close one it normally wins.
"The bottom line [is] we could have come away here with two wins," Popovich said, clearly stunned that the Spurs didn't get at least one.
The Spurs are obviously going to be a tough kill back at home in Game 5, and it'd be absolutely zero surprise to see the series go back to Dallas once more. But San Antonio is on a slide from which it's tough to get off: after giving up 85 points in winning Game 1, the Mavs have rung up 113, 104 and an OT 123. Popovich is down to his final furious lever-pulling after going with five different starting groups in the past eight playoff games.
Don't discount the Clippers and Suns entirely, but these Mavericks sure look like your western champions in this unofficial western championship.
Related: Cavs wake up, lighting up a grim game of halfcourt suffocation with a big final quarter, and they're tied at two games apiece against the Pistons, which doesn't seem to impress guaranteeing Rasheed Wallace: "They won tonight, can't take nothing away from them, even the sun shines on a dog's ass."