Mavs vs. Spurs: Old rivalry, new twists

For old foes, the present versions of the Dallas Mavericks and San Antonio Spurs are practically strangers.

OK, maybe strangers is too dramatic, but consider:

All three meetings this season occurred prior to the Mavs shipping four players, including Josh Howard, to Washington as Dallas recast its team on the fly with Caron Butler, Brendan Haywood and DeShawn Stevenson. The Spurs also haven't seen hustling forward Eduardo Najera in a Mavs uniform since 2004.

The first meeting between these two division rivals came way back on Nov. 11 in San Antonio, and the Spurs won 92-83 despite Tony Parker and Tim Duncan being sidelined with injuries.

In the second meeting just one week later in Dallas, a 99-94 Mavs win, Parker again didn't play and Manu Ginobili lasted just 7:28 before a groin injury forced him out. As for the Mavs? Howard, Shawn Marion and Erick Dampier did not play. Check out this starting lineup: Jason Kidd, Roddy Beaubois, Quinton Ross, Dirk Nowitzki and Drew Gooden. Off the bench, the Mavs used Jason Terry, J.J Barea, Kris Humphries and Tim Thomas.

Honk if that lineup sounds familier.

On to the third meeting more than three months ago in San Antonio. It was actually the healthiest either team had been in the series, but it still predated significant changes by both clubs. The Mavs, obviously, made the blockbuster trade during All-Star weekend. San Antonio still had yet to move second-year guard George Hill into the starting lineup, where he's blossomed as a dangerous scorer, and Ginobili had yet to catch fire as a starter after Parker went down with a broken hand in the first week of March. Defensive-minded guard Keith Bogans and rookie center DeJuan Blair are now key role players off the bench instead of everyday starters.

The one constant in all three games? Nowitzki, who averaged 32.0 points and 9.7 rebounds and remains a nightmare matchup for the Spurs.

So the final meeting at 7 tonight at the American Airlines Center ultimately is rife with the potential for another playoff series and numerous new storylines for two Texas franchises that have slugged it out for the better part of a decade.

After an underachieving start, the Spurs have won 19 of 27, almost magically peaking under coach Gregg Popovich once again at the right time. They enter Wednesday's game looking for a sweep of the NBA's six division leaders within the past three weeks.

Parker is back but has come off the bench in each of the five games he's played. Hill is also back earlier than expected from a sprained ankle. Popovich immediately returned Hill to the starting lineup as the point guard, where he was brilliant in place of Parker and with Ginobili as his backcourt partner. Richard Jefferson still has his struggles but also shows flashes of being the scorer the Spurs had hoped. And as Duncan's scoring has declined for a second consecutive season after the All-Star break, he remains a dominant low-post threat.

“As much as people said we had a bad season, I think we’re ready to battle anybody in the West,” Hill told reporters after the Spurs clobbered Minnesota on Monday, 133-111. “I think our whole team is pretty confident we can go against anybody and give our best punch and take their best punch.”

The Mavericks have won four in a row, most impressively having taken Portland's best punch last Friday, and restored hope for a long playoff run after a 5-6 mark followed a 13-game winning streak. That's how good, but also unsteady, this team has been, especially and suprisingly on its home floor, where it will meet the Spurs for Game 82 of the regular season Wednesday night and quite possibly for Game 1 of the postseason this weekend.

Stay tuned.