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Friday, November 03, 2006

Spurs Spoil Mavericks' Home Opener, 97-91

There is a lot of talk about NBA rivalries but the best on court grudge match in the league right now is the Texas tussle between Dallas and San Antonio for bragging rights in the Western Conference. San Antonio had the best record in the conference last year but Dallas won the playoff showdown in a thrilling seven game series. On Thursday night, the Spurs rallied from a 10 point deficit to ruin the Mavericks' home opener, 97-91, in the first game of TNT's doubleheader. Tim Duncan had a quiet game (13 points, 10 rebounds, 5-13 field goal shooting) but Tony Parker (19 points), Manu Ginobili (16 points, five assists), Bruce Bowen (12 points, 5-6 shooting from the field) and newly acquired Francisco Elson (12 points, six rebounds) picked up the slack. Dirk Nowitzki led Dallas with 21 points and 11 rebounds and Josh Howard contributed 20 points, six rebounds and four assists.

Dallas led 27-26 after a closely contested first quarter. Nowitzki scored eight points on 4-5 field goal shooting. TNT's Craig Sager reported that the Mavericks originally planned to raise their Western Conference Championship banner on opening night but owner Mark Cuban decided to delay the ceremony until Monday's game against Golden State. Some speculate that Cuban did not want to fire up the Spurs but he insisted that the reason was simply marketing: the Spurs game would sell out no matter what and the banner ceremony would boost attendance for the Warriors' game.

Elson played well in his Spurs regular season debut. Fabricio Oberto started at center, but Elson got most of the minutes and he played good defense against Nowitzki, enabling Duncan to avoid foul trouble by guarding one of the Mavericks' offensively challenged centers. That in turn lets Popovich put Bowen on Howard instead of Nowitzki. Elson displayed a variety of post moves and also scored off of a pick and roll play with Ginobili. The Spurs' coaching staff told TNT that Elson is the fastest player on the team other than speed demon Parker.

During the telecast, Steve Kerr talked about Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich's defensive philosophy of forcing players to the baseline. The old defensive mantra that many people heard from their high school coaches was "Don't give up the baseline!" Popovich has a different idea: the on ball defender forces his man to the baseline and he receives help from Duncan, Elson or whichever 7-footers are on the court at the time. Cavaliers Assistant Coach Hank Egan, who previously coached under Popovich, offered this explanation when I interviewed him last season: "I think that it used to be (taught to) not give up the baseline and that is still said sometimes, but (now) it's (taught) more that if you give up the baseline we can come and help you without giving up rebounding (position). If you allow a player to go to the middle and we help, it's going to be away from the basket. So then we are turning them loose on the boards..."

The Mavericks played with tremendous energy during the second quarter, forcing turnovers and getting out on the break, enabling them to launch 13 more field goal attempts than the Spurs in the first half. Dallas led 51-45 at halftime. Nowitzki had 13 points and Parker 10, while Duncan scored only three on 1-6 field goal shooting. DeSagana Diop played excellent defense against Duncan and even blocked two of his shots.

Referee Jess Kersey was hit in the face by a loose ball near the end of the first half, bloodying his chin, affecting some dental work he had earlier in the week and leaving him a little woozy. He did not return to action, so the remainder of the game was called by only two officials. Last week, when the teams renewed acquaintances in the final game of the preseason and the Spurs romped to a 100-79 win, ESPN's Hubie Brown talked about how players could get away with more off the ball contact when there were only two referees instead of three. The game did seem to become a little bit more physical after Kersey's departure but that also might just reflect the nature of this rivalry; Howard received a flagrant foul for pushing Bowen even before Kersey left the game.

Dallas pushed the lead to 58-48 early in the third quarter but was only ahead 63-60 when Nowitzki picked up his fourth foul with 4:17 remaining. He went to the bench and a little over a minute later the Spurs had a 66-65 lead after two Duncan baskets and one by ex-Maverick Michael Finley. Dallas Coach Avery Johnson took a timeout, Dallas' reserves settled down and by the end of the quarter Dallas was back on top, 75-72.

San Antonio's defense forced the Mavericks into two turnovers and 0-6 field goal shooting to start the fourth quarter and the Spurs surged ahead, 80-75. Dallas did not score until Diop made a layup off of a nice Nowitzki feed at the 6:50 mark. Diop was not able to convert the ensuing free throw, so Dallas still trailed by three. The Spurs extended their advantage to 85-79 but five straight Dallas points closed the gap to 85-84 with 2:37 remaining. Bowen nailed a three pointer to put the Spurs up four but Nowitzki countered with a fadeaway jump shot. Then the teams traded missed shots and missed free throws until Duncan's put back of Elson's miss gave the Spurs a four point lead with :50 left. The Spurs closed out the win by making four of six free throws. The Spurs outscored the Mavericks 25-16 in the fourth quarter.

San Antonio took the first round of the heavyweight bout for Western Conference supremacy but this fight figures to go the distance. Or, as Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich put it, "All the games with Dallas will be like this one. One team will lose that just as easily could have won."

posted by David Friedman @ 12:57 AM

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