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It’s Never Been Easy

By Jeff Koch on May 4, 2014.

Dallas 96, San Antonio 119
Spurs win series 4-3

Finally, a game between these two teams like we all kind of expected all along. Like the 9 that had preceded it over the last 2 1/2 years.

It only took 7 games and 2 weeks, but the Spurs finally looked like the Spurs again. From top to bottom (at least the bottom of the shortened playoff rotation), everybody did what they do, played their role to perfection, and brought energy and execution to the proceedings. In a lot of ways, this series really boiled down to whichever team won the “_____ really stepped it up” battle. For 6 games, that list was littered with Mavs players: Devin Harris, the suddenly vilified DeJuan Blair, Vince Carter, Shawn Marion, Jose Calderon. For the Spurs, only Tiago really made that list.

But in a critical Game 7, the Spurs were the Spurs from the tip and never looked back. Even with 3 stars, the Spurs, more than any other team in the playoffs, rely on a cohesive and inclusive style of play. When a star goes off, it’s often to the exclusion of the team and the detriment of the team. The Mavs defense forced Parker to be a ‘star’ early in the series, but it was at the expense of the offense, and froze out the rest of the team. Tonight Parker was Parker in the ways we all know and love: dissecting the Mavs defense, scoring at will (when needed), but, more importantly, completely disintegrating the Mavs defense, collapsing it upon itself and leaving the entire floor open for shooters and cutters.

Not to be outdone by Parker’s hot start, Manu came in and was vintage. High energy on both ends, getting steals and deflections, running the offense, and doing to the Mavs defense the same thing Parker does, but in his own unique way. (Again, this was the Mavs defense we all expected for 2 weeks.) He orchestrated the second unit, and for the first time this series, our bench was the better bench.

Feeling upstaged, Parker came back in and picked up right where he left off, pushing the first half lead to 29.

All the while, Duncan was his steady self, scoring at the rim, protecting it on the other end, and diving for loose balls to save possessions and extend the lead because that’s what players and leaders do. (Duncan is 38 years old, nearly 2 1/2 years older than this author).

But this game was won because the stars worked within the system, not outside of it, and every player stepped up. Splitter again frustrated Dirk in ways I’ve never seen in over a decade of close scrutiny. Green was playing quietly great D (as he has most of the series) and continued to hit big shots. Kawhi was Kawhi, for everything that means. Diaw was cutting, passing, scoring, rebounding, making smart plays, and doing everything he does that makes him such a pleasure to watch. Patty continued his string of positive games, only getting a few short stints (of meaningful minutes), but making the most of them. His shot is coming around, but is still not there. But the way in which he really effects the game is with his energy and his peskiness, both of which were in ample supply tonight.

It took 7 games and 2 weeks, but the Spurs are right where they should be. While the regular season rightfully earned them the #8 seed, Dallas was a team more engineered for the playoffs, full of veterans and smart players and a savvy coach. They are also a tremendously proud team, and had the belief that only vets and playoff warriors can have. They never folded nor thought they should lose, and that is to give tremendous credit to them. Now that the series is over, I see the extended battle as a good thing, getting the Spurs some good playoff reps, and (finally) elevating them to playoff basketball, ready for the next series.

And wouldn’t you know it, we get the Blazers next. A well-coached team with an unorthodox power forward who can shoot the lights out from midrange, a quick-as-a-whip PG who can break you down into the paint and shoot it from outside, and a roster full of shooters, gritty defenders, and all around smart players. Sound familiar? In many ways, this series against the Mavs is the perfect preparation for this Blazers team, who resemble each other in so many ways.

While the Mavs are certainly more playoff tested and post-season savvy, the Blazers are younger and more athletic. But this is the first time this team has been in the second round, and you have to wonder if they’ll feel just happy to be there. If there season ends in a few weeks, it will be a success for them. Also, considering the way in which the last series ended (notice, they’re already calling it the greatest shot in Trailblazer history), it might feel like they’ve already won the playoffs. The second round is going up a notch, and jumping from The Rockets to the Spurs is a much bigger jump than The Mavs to The Blazers. The Spurs are disciplined and smart, actually run offense in the 4th quarter, and won’t give games away.

The Blazers, unlike the Mavs, do most of their damage with their starters. The Mavs, particularly in this series, seemed to take full advantage of their bench, while the starting units always seemed to play to a draw (or even to the advantage of the Spurs). It will be interesting to see if the Spurs bench can get things going in this series against a much less experienced group of players (and will Marco get some daylight to get himself going? I don’t think he’s lacking in confidence, and he’s playing in big playoff games before). On the flip side, the battle against starting units will also be interesting.

Lillard and Aldridge present the biggest problems, obviously. I am going to be very interested to see if Splitter gets the call on Aldridge, and how that goes. His game is very similar to Dirk’s, but at his younger age, he’ still quite a bit more athletic. Lillard and Parker can’t stop each other, and both do most of their damage once they’ve gotten past their defended into the paint. Green could get the call on Lillard, but that would force Parker on to Wesley Matthews, who loves to bully smaller players in the post (and is pretty good at it). Leonard will be on Batum, which will also be a great match-up. And Robin Lopez, the Blazer’s center, is a quietly awesome role player, the exact type of center you want on a team that already has plenty of scoring.

Over the last 2 weeks, The Spurs haven’t looked quite as sharp as we expected and the Blazers have looked more so. But the playoffs are a function of match-ups, and that Blazers-Rockets series was designed to make offenses look unstoppable. It’s 0-0, and everything that just happened doesn’t mean squat. We won’t know anything about how these two teams match up until they actually start playing. Don’t be fooled by anything you’ve just seen. Trust in the Spurs and their process.

As many of you probably know, I’m a Portland native, get to follow this Blazers team, and have a lot of friends who are pretty big Blazers fans. While I enjoy the team and root for them (in any case it doesn’t come in direct conflict with the Spurs best interests), my heart will always lie with these Spurs. I love you Portland, but for the next few weeks, it’s on.

Go Spurs Go.

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