Both San Antonio and Dallas won five of their last six regular-season games, including tough, important games against playoff teams on the last night of the season to position themselves for this intriguing matchup. They split the season series 2-2, with each team winning once on the other's home court. Both teams consider themselves fortunate to be playing the other, and each team sees this series as very winnable.
San Antonio's offense vs. Dallas' defense
The Spurs play at one of the NBA's slowest paces (27th in the league), rank 13th in offensive efficiency, seventh in field goal percentage, and third in 3-point percentage. They play slow, deliberate, and shoot a high percentage. Tony Parker runs the show from the start of each possession, weaving and creating while others spot up for the three. Tim Duncan is the post option, and is still a difficult cover one-on-one, and the rest of the Spurs will spot up around the 3-point line to space the floor for Parker and Duncan to work. They make the extra pass to the wide-open shooter as well as any team in the league. Dallas is in the middle of the pack defensively, ranking 17th in efficiency, 12th in defensive field goal percentage, but are the seventh best rebounding team in the league.
They will play fairly straight up defensively, doubling Parker whenever possible, but not straying too far from the 3-point shooters. Parker has owned the Mavericks this year, and keeping him bottled up and out of the lane will be the primary focus for Dallas as they prepare. They will show Parker a variety of defenders, mixing size and speed. The Mavericks will tag Roger Mason and stay home with him, and give Duncan a variety of schemes in the post. Dallas is ranked ninth in blocked shots, and they like to get out and run, so San Antonio will attack the offensive glass.
Dallas' offfense versus San Antonio's defense
Dallas is most effective when they are running, and they are playing at a faster pace now than their ranking of 16th suggests, as illustrated by their comeback win over Houston on Wednesday night. They are ninth in offensive field goal percentage and fifth in offensive efficiency, but they are 26th in the league in 3-point shooting. The Spurs, although not as dominant defensively as in the past, are still sixth in defensive efficiency and ninth in field goal percentage defense. But, they are an average rebounding team and controlling their defensive boards will be a point of emphasis in practice and film sessions. Jason Kidd runs the show for Dallas and the Mavericks try to get Josh Howard going early with set plays and screening action. Dirk Nowitzki will work from post extended to the elbows to the top of the floor and he and Jason Terry will be the crunch-time scorers. With Nowitzki playing as well as anyone in the league, the Spurs will attempt to frustrate him and crowd him early and often, changing when and how they help and double-team.
Kidd: How fitting for Kidd to end the regular season with a triple-double on 3-for-3 from the 3-point line, because he has been doing that all year, filling the stat sheet and shooting the second-highest 3-point percentage of his career. After starting the season 2-6, the Mavs ended the season 6-2, with Kidd posting double figure assists in six of those last eight games. He averaged 13.3 points and 8.8 assists on 45 percent 3-point shooting in the four-game split with the Spurs. Kidd's size also gives Dallas defensive flexibility, as he can guard 1's, 2's and even 3's when the Mavs go small.
Parker: Parker has been the healthiest, steadiest performer for the Spurs since missing some early games in November, and has literally carried them in brilliant fashion through stretches of the schedule. He had career highs in scoring and assists and shot 50 percent during the regular season, while leading all point guards in usage. Only D-Wade, LeBron and Kobe have the ball in their hands more than Parker. Not only was he the best guard in the league in March and April, he has terrorized Dallas in their four games, scoring 22, 29, 37 and 37, while shooting 50 percent and dishing out seven assists per game. He will have to play major minutes and may have to put up similar numbers for the Spurs to advance.
Wright: Plays as the "fifth starter," a combo two guard and small forward. He defends and does the dirty work. He is not a high-percentage shooter, he scores off scraps from the others. He is shooting 28 percent from the field and 26 percent from three in April, but he hasn't been an offensive factor in any of the four games with the Spurs this year.
Mason: Another great free-agent pickup for the Spurs, Mason brings veteran playoff experience from last year and posted career highs in scoring and 3-point percentage. He is the Spurs' sniper, and he spots up and keeps the lane clear for Parker's forays to the rim. He averaged 13.3 points and 31 minutes in the four games with the Mavericks, including 23 points in 37 minutes in the March 4th loss, starting for the injured Manu Ginobili.
Howard: Howard did one of the great offensive tank jobs in recent playoff history against the Hornets last year, going from 19.9 points a game on 45 percent shooting in the regular season to 12.6 and 29 percent in the playoffs. He's missed 24 games this year with ankle problems, but has averaged 31 minutes a game in six games in April, averaging 17 points per game on only 40 percent shooting. However, in three games versus the Spurs this year, Howard averaged 20.7 points on 51 percent shooting, including a 29-point effort in the Mavericks' win in March on 10-or-15 shooting from the field and 4-for-5 shooting from three.
Finley He tends to be the Spurs' forgotten man, but is the third starter who shoots better than 40 percent from three, and had 17 points and hit the big shot Wednesday night to beat the Hornets to secure the No. 3 seed and home court in the first round. This veteran of 106 playoff games will be asked to score more with Ginobili injured. In four games against Dallas, Finley averaged 9.3 points on 47 percent 3-point shooting, playing 34 minutes per game.
Nowitzki:The NBA's fourth-leading scorer had a PER in the league's top 10, posting his biggest scoring numbers in three years. Nowitzki willed this Mavericks team into the sixth seed, averaging 30.3 points and shooting 55 percent from the floor in April. Even more so, he attacked the basket and did not settle for jumpers, a habit that has plagued him in the past. He averaged 25.8 points and shot 49 percent in four games against the Spurs, and he hung 30 and 35 on them in the first two games. Expect San Antonio to focus their defensive attention his way.
Bonner: Bonner was among the leaders all season in 3-point percentage (finishing eighth in the league) and he will roam the perimeter and spot up to space the floor for Parker. He posted career highs in minutes, points, rebounds and 3-point shooting. In four games against Dallas, he averaged 8.8 points and 4.0 rebounds.
Dampier: Dampier is the silent warrior who just goes about his business in the post, rebounding, playing defense, blocking an occasional shot and scoring when needed. He sets a mean screen and brings a hard foul. He averaged 5.5 points and 4.3 rebounds in four games versus the Spurs.
Duncan: In spite of minor injuries and rumors of Duncan's demise, he posted almost identical statistical numbers and finished second only behind Dwight Howard in PER for centers and fifth overall in the league. While not quite as mobile and athletic, and nursing some knee issues, Duncan still defends and intimidates at the rim, and still has the most cerebral and fundamental post repertoire in the NBA. His scoring numbers dropped in March and April as Gregg Popovich sat him out and limited his minutes, but he continued to defend and rebound as well as ever. His 20-point, 19-rebound performance against New Orleans on Wednesday night is likely what we can expect in this series, as he had stat lines of 19 and 15, 32 and 14, and 19 and 12 in three games against the Mavericks. He and Parker will have to carry the load.
Terry: "Jet" is the best sixth man in the league, bringing nearly 20 points a game, 3-point shooting and clutch fourth-quarter scoring in 33 minutes a night off the bench. He averaged 21.7 points on 52 percent shooting against the Spurs this year. Dallas needs his points and his energy.
Bowen: He plays only 18 minutes a game, but he lives for the playoffs -- expect him to play an extended role in Ginobili's absence. He'll provide defense, 3-point shooting and always some controversy before the end of the series.
Jose Juan Barea: He brings speed and creation, and allows Kidd to play off the ball when Dallas goes small. He averaged 9.3 points versus San Antonio this year.
Brandon Bass: The athletic forward scores and rebounds, averaged 11.6 points and 6.8 rebounds in five playoff games last year.
James Singleton: He provides more help inside, he averaged five points and five boards in 13 minutes a game against the Spurs in the regular season.
Kurt Thomas: The rugged veteran brings scoring, defense and a tough demeanor to the front line. He averaged 3.5 points and 6.5 rebounds in four games versus Dallas this year.
Ime Udoka: He has found an increased role in the past month as a versatile energy guy at the forward spot. He scored in double figures in three of the Spurs' four wins to end the season.
Drew Gooden: He always seems to promise more than he delivers, but Gooden can provide much-needed scoring and rebounding to the front line.
Both of these teams played well down the stretch, and have some momentum coming into the series.
The Spurs have played without Ginobili, so any adjustments have already been made and no panic is setting in. The Mavericks can win only if they can get out and run on the Spurs, but San Antonio will try to keep the pace to a crawl. Just when you think the Spurs are done, they go on a winning streak or win a series. But Dallas may finally have the right formula for breaking through to the second round.
Prediction: Spurs in 7
Mike Moreau is the director of basketball for the Pro Training Center and The Basketball Academy at the IMG Academies in Bradenton, Fla. He also serves as an NBA analyst for Hoopsworld.
Synergy Sports Technology systems were used in the preparation of this report.