Updated: March 23, 2008, 11:38 AM ET


These two teams are used to clashing for division titles, now they fight for playoff relevance.

No Country For Old Men

What are great teams supposed to do when something that has come so easily for them in the past begins to be a major problem? Well, that is the question the two teams that face off Sunday will have to find the answer to. When the San Antonio Spurs step onto the court to face their in-state rival the Dallas Mavericks, (ABC, 1 p.m. ET), it will feature the past two Western Conference representatives in the NBA Finals.

Last season, the Mavericks won 67 games and the Spurs won the champions. You don't achieve either one of those feats without knowing how to beat the better teams in the league. However, if the season were to end now, the Spurs and the Mavs would find themselves in uncommon territory, on the road to start the playoffs. This is largely because both teams' inability to beat the other elite teams in the league, especially of late.

Right before the trade deadline, the Mavs brought in Jason Kidd to keep up with the top teams in the West. They do have a winning record (9-7) since that trade. However, a closer look at the numbers shows every win they have has come against sub-.500 teams and every loss has come to teams with records above .500. At the time of the trade, I was in favor of the move. I still believe the Mavs are a better team with Kidd than with Devin Harris. Unfortunately one thing has become very clear; Kidd is no longer a threat to score. He has lost that quick burst to blow past defenders. He looks like he has lost the confidence to make an open jumper.

There in lies Dallas' problem. Other teams have recognized this and have begun to shade Kidd's defender towards either Dirk Nowitzki or Josh Howard. This creates some cramping and doesn't allow the offense to flow as freely as it did under Harris. The key for the Mavs to break out of this is simple. Kidd is not going to become a jump-shooter overnight. That means Howard and especially Jason Terry need to start stepping up their play.

Terry has been a clutch shooter in the past. The Mavs have lost a lot of close games this season, so Terry needs to be the guy to come through. With all the attention on Nowitzki and Howard, and Kidd's struggles shooting, it leaves the game in Terry's hands. If he can start hitting big shots and the Mavs can pick up a couple of big wins the rest of the way, things can begin to turn around for Dallas.

The problem in San Antonio is slightly different. The Spurs are an unchampion-like 18-19 against teams with winning records, to make matters worse, five of those wins have been against teams that just barely crack the .500 mark (Toronto, Washington and Portland).

Now, some of those losses did come of the beginning of the season. Early in a season, the Spurs have typically played relaxed and relied on the bench more to win games, which leads to some close losses. That excuse can't be used any longer though. The Spurs have lost five of their past six games against winning teams.

The reason for their struggles is that they are having a hard time keeping teams out of the paint. The age on this team is showing. They are the oldest team in the NBA. Bruce Bowen, Michael Finley, and even Manu Ginobili at times are a step slower right now. This is causing problems on the perimeter and leading to scoring totals against the Spurs reaching levels we are not accustomed to seeing. Their team defense simply hasn't been good enough.

The Spurs just need to refocus and rededicate themselves to the style that has led them to past championships. The man who needs to lead them back to that elite level is Tim Duncan. Duncan has not had the dominate season we're used to getting from him. Too many times the Spurs' have played big games during which you don't even notice Duncan out on the floor. Duncan needs to start putting up those 25-point, 16-rebound games and treat the next three weeks as if they were the playoffs.

I'm not afraid to say that I have more confidence that the Spurs can turn it around come playoff time. In fact, I can't see a scenario in which the Mavs make it out of the first round this season. But if the Spurs continue to play the way they have been lately, they too will be heading home early.

ESPN analyst Tim Legler is a regular contributor to the Daily Dime.

Past Dimes: March 16 | 17 | 18 | 19 | 20 | 21 | 22-23 | 23

The NBA Is Dancing This March

By Scoop Jackson | ESPN.com
This year the NBA's Western eight will be greater than the NCAA's 65.

The Western Conference has become the pinnacle of the basketball world. No longer is UNC-Duke the best two-plus hours in basketball. Now it's San Antonio-Phoenix, or Dallas-Golden State, or Houston-Dallas or the Lakers versus anybody. Ever since the All-Star break, the battles out west have taken on a life unseen since MJ stepped away from the game for the second time. After the race to the playoffs is over, a team around 20-plus games over .500 will be left standing on the outside, wondering how the heck it missed the postseason.

Case in point: San Antonio, the team almost everyone outside of L.A. considers the best team in the league and the front-runner to win the chip (again). In the past week San Antonio has lost to Denver and Phoenix, beat Denver, then lost to New Orleans by 25. While everyone was wrapped up in the Houston Rockets' historic win streak, no one noticed that the defending champion Spurs -- at full strength -- have been losing games late in the season to teams they will see early come late April and beyond.

Read the rest of Scoop Jackson's article

Chatting With Hollinger

Tyler (San Antonio): Correct me if I'm wrong. The problem with the Spurs isn't the big three. It's everyone else right? ... (Finley and Horry need to hang 'em up!!)

John Hollinger: San Antonio's role players definitely look a little long in the tooth. I'm interested to see what happens when Barry comes back -- go back and look, their struggles (by their standards) started when Barry went out of the lineup.

Ray (San Antonio): Is there any rational explanation as to why the Spurs offense just goes MIA for up to an entire quarter in games? I was at that Boston game and I saw it coming the whole time because they just go ice cold.

John Hollinger: I was there too (just did the drive from SA this morning), and it caught me unawares because the Big Three scored so easily in the early going. As I wrote last night, the Spurs have had a problem with hitting the wall offensively in the second half, which is strange because Pop rests his guys so much that you'd think they'd be fresher at the end.

Jim, Providence, R.I.: Don't you think Ginobili looks ridiculous with all his flopping on the court?

John Hollinger: I think he's ridiculously good, actually. Sure, he embellishes a bit ... it's not like he's the only one.

See the rest of John Hollinger's chat wrap


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Eastern Conference Clash

On Sunday, the Detroit Pistons visit the Washington Wizards (ESPN, 8 p.m. ET).

The Wizards have won two of their past three games against the Pistons.

However, it has been all Pistons lately when they've come to D.C.; they have won nine of their last 11 in the Capital.

Something's going to give; both teams have been playing good ball recently with the Pistons winning four of five and the Wizards winners of five of their past six.

-- ESPN Research

Chatter Box
Which do you rate as the best Mavs roster in Avery Johnson's coaching tenure? The group that got within one quarter of a 3-0 lead in the 2006 NBA Finals?

Or the roster that now pairs Jason Kidd with Dirk Nowitzki? Galloway and Company invites Marc Stein -- who likes the new look better, in spite of the Mavs' 0-7 misery against playoff-bound teams since bringing Kidd back -- to join the debate on ESPN Radio's Dallas affiliate (103.3 FM).

Listen to the interview

Duncan Digs Dallas

The Spurs and Mavericks have played three times this season, with the home team winning each game.

If the Spurs win Sunday, they will win the season series 3-1 -- after the Mavericks won the season series 3-1 last season.

A clear reason for the Spurs' success this season against Dallas has been the play of their star, Tim Duncan.

Tim Duncan, 2007-08 Season
vs. Mavericks vs. Rest of NBA
PPG 27.5 19.4
FG Pct. 56.1 49.7
RPG 10.0 11.5

-- Peter Newmann, ESPN Research

Decisions, Decisions

Getty Images

Avery Johnson and Jason Kidd must get on the same page if Dallas is to succeed.

Reverse Effect

Since Jason Kidd arrived in Dallas, the Mavericks are 0-7 against teams with winning records. Here is a look at the breakdown.

Dallas Mavericks (Since Kidd Trade)
vs. teams under .500 vs. teams over .500
W-L 9-0 0-7
PPG 107.2 98.4
Opp. PPG 88.7 104.9
FG pct. 50.5 42.3
Opp. FG pct. 41.4 44.6

-- Lisa Brooks, ESPN Research

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