Mavs pass assist mantle to surging Spurs

Indiana Pacers coach Frank Vogel opened the season by imploring his team to become an unselfish, ball-movement offense like the champion Dallas Mavericks.

But when he told his team Sunday prior to its Game 4 against the Miami Heat to pass like champions, he was probably talking more about the San Antonio Spurs.

The Spurs, winners of 18 in a row and headed back to the Western Conference finals for the first time since 2008 after sweeping the Utah Jazz and the Los Angeles Clippers, have put on a clinic this postseason in championship passing. No team is throwing the rock around with such exacting precision and spectacularly devastating results.

Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are combining for nearly 12 assists a game. Tim Duncan, Boris Diaw and Stephen Jackson are combining for more than seven. And that still leaves five or so assists unaccounted for.

The Spurs' dynamic and often artistic offense -- the only one generating more than 100 points a game in the playoffs (102.5), better than three more points a game than their likely West finals opponent Oklahoma City Thunder -- has reminded just what the re-tooled Mavs lost in a year's time.

Dallas was the No. 1 passing team in the Western Conference last postseason and the best of the four 2011 conference finals teams, having averaged 20.1 assists a game. The Spurs are blowing that mark out of the water, averaging 24.1. They've assisted on 193 of 308 baskets (62.7 percent) in eight playoff games and they were even better in the just completed sweep of the Clips, assisting on nearly seven of every 10 buckets (107 of 154, 69.4 percent).

During this truncated regular season, the Mavs were rarely at full strength -- including the game's all-time second-leading assist man Jason Kidd missing multiple games three different times with back, calf and groin injuries -- and finished 15th in assists. And they regressed further in the four-game sweep at the hands of the Thunder.

The Mavs rank 15th among the 16 playoff teams in assists. Kidd averaged 6.0, but only Jason Terry (3.8) averaged more than 2.0 a game as the team averaged just 15.5 assists in the four games. OKC, not known as a high assist team led by high-scoring point guard Russell Westbrook, out-assisted the Mavs on average by two a game.

San Antonio, meanwhile, is whipping the ball around which such proficiency that no one else is even close. The Celtics rank second at 21.9 assists a game led by triple-double threat Rajon Rondo. The Spurs' two playoff victims averaged 6.25 fewer assists a game, and that includes perennial All-Star point guard Chris Paul.

Of course, players have to make baskets for assists to be racked up. And no one can match the Spurs in that category either. Even Mavs owner Mark Cuban prior to the start of the playoffs questioned whether the 3-ball-happy Spurs could live that way in the postseason. They can and have. San Antonio is killing it from the 3-point arc to the tune of 42.3 percent with six players shooting at least 43 percent from downtown. The Clips are the next best at 37.8.

Overall, San Antonio is shooting a whopping 49.1 percent with the resurgent Duncan hitting running hooks and jumpers from seemingly every angle for a team-best 54.0 percent.

The Mavs shot the 3-pointer fairly well in the first round (37.2 percent) but overall made just 40.4 percent of their shots, not terribly far off from their disappointing regular-season shooting of 44.3 percent that ranked 19th in the league.