Mavericks better avoid Spurs in first round

SAN ANTONIO -- The Mavericks' visit to San Antonio on Sunday evening illustrated just how important it is for Dallas to earn the Western Conference’s sixth seed.

That’s because the Spurs appear extremely likely to be the second seed, waiting in the first round for the team that finishes seventh, the spot the Mavs currently occupy.

Considering that San Antonio’s 112-106 victory at the AT&T Center extended the Spurs' winning streak over their former rivals to eight games, the Mavs would surely prefer to avoid the Spurs in the first round, right?

"Well, the way our record is against winning teams, I don’t know if we want to see anybody, just to be quite honest with you," Dirk Nowitzki said.

Ah, nothing like brutally honest Dirk right after a disappointing loss.

There’s a lot of truth to that pessimistic statement. The Mavs are 13-18 against teams that are above .500 this season. They’ll be underdogs against any of the West’s top teams in a series, assuming the Mavs manage to emerge from the four-team fight for the conference’s final few playoff spots with an invitation to the ball.

But the Mavs split the season series with the Houston Rockets, are 1-1 with a road win against the Portland Trail Blazers and held big leads in the fourth quarter both times they faced the Los Angeles Clippers, although Dallas crumbled down the stretch on both occasions.

The odds would be against the Mavs if matched up with those foes, but stranger things have happened than Dallas pulling off an upset over the Rockets, Trail Blazers or Clippers. Like, say, March snowfall in Dallas.

A Mavs upset over the Spurs? That’s more like a snowball’s-chance-in-hell situation.

Nobody owns the Mavs right now like the Spurs. Oh, an argument can be made for the Oklahoma City Thunder, who have defeated Dallas in 11 straight meetings, including a first-round sweep in the 2012 playoffs. That’s why an 8-seed isn’t much, if any, more attractive than finishing seventh for the Mavs.

But at least the Mavs play the Thunder tough fairly often. That losing streak to OKC includes two overtime games and two others with one-possession outcomes.

This six-point loss to the Spurs was the exception. The average margin during the Spurs’ win streak over the Mavs is 15.5 points.

There’s no such thing as a moral victory for an NBA team with playoff hopes, especially in March, but the Mavs honestly felt pretty good about giving the Spurs a decent run.

"This effort is good enough to beat a lot of teams, but not them with the way they played tonight," coach Rick Carlisle said. "I’ve got to look at our team and look at where we are and where we’re trying to get to. I’m disappointed by the result, but not the effort. I thought the effort was good."

That’s how much better the Spurs are than the Mavs, especially with Tony Parker running the show after a six-game break that should keep him fresh the rest of the season.

The Mavs played as well offensively as they could have reasonably expected, with Nowitzki (22 points) and Vince Carter (21) leading the way for a squad that shot 46.4 percent from the floor. It’s the first time the Mavs cracked triple digits at the AT&T Center since Nov. 26, 2010, which is the last time they won here.

Did you know it’s impossible for a seventh-seeded team to win a playoff series without getting at least one victory on the road? Anyway …

Try as they might, the Mavs can’t stop the Spurs, a problem that starts with the pick-and-roll matchup nightmare that is Parker, who had 22 points on 10-of-15 shooting and seven assists.

"They’re not just doing it to us," Nowitzki said, a fair point considering that the Spurs are 43-16 and coming off a Finals appearance. "If Parker is wheeling and dealing and making his shots, especially those little 16-, 17-footers, then you adjust your pick-and-roll coverage and be a little bit more aggressive on him. Then you get [Tim] Duncan and [Tiago] Splitter on the roll. If you take that away, their two shooters are on the weak side.

"They have a lot of options out there. They play well together. Whatever pick-and-roll coverage you decide to do, they have a million counters to it, and they’ve been together forever. You’ve got to give them credit."

You’ve got to give San Antonio credit, and the Mavs have got to avoid the Spurs in the first round to have any hope of winning a playoff series.