Devin Harris still saves best for Spurs

DALLAS – Perhaps this series is a reward to Devin Harris for all his hard work while rehabilitating from complicated summer toe surgery.

“A reward to play the San Antonio Spurs? I don’t know,” Harris said.

No, it certainly isn’t a treat for most players to get matched up with the Spurs in the playoffs. Harris, however, is an exception.

For whatever reason, Harris tends to be a burr in the Spurs’ side, especially in the playoffs. That was true in 2006, when ex-Mavs coach Avery Johnson’s decision to insert the then-second-year guard in the starting lineup for Game 2 was a critical decision in a classic series that Dallas won in seven games. It’s still true during Harris’ second stint with the Mavs in 2014, as Harris averaged a team-high 18.5 points and 5.0 assists off the bench to help Dallas split the two games in San Antonio.

The 31-year-old Harris has scored at least 17 points in 10 of his 50 playoff games during his nine-year career. Seven of those 17-plus-point games came at the Spurs’ expense, including the first two games of this series, when Harris shot 60 percent from the floor.

So, if anybody is happy to see the Spurs in the playoffs, it’s Harris.

“It’s what I came back for,” Harris said, referring to his decision to return to Dallas this summer after stints with the New Jersey Nets, Utah Jazz and Atlanta Hawks after the Mavs made him the centerpiece of the package they gave up to get Jason Kidd. “It’s why I wanted to come back, to be in this type of situation and play in these type of games and be in this type of series. It’s perfect fit for me.”

Then again, midway through this season, Harris was just happy to be playing basketball again. Harris, an All-Star in 2008-09 and a solid starter for most of his career, admitted there were moments that he wasn’t sure he’d get back to play at a high level during a rocky rehab from the operation on the second metatarsal in his left foot.

Harris didn’t know that he needed the surgery until a physical examination by Mavs team doctor T.O. Souryal after the guard agreed to a three-year deal worth more than $9 million in early July. That discovery prompted the parties to mutually agree to take that offer off the table, at least temporarily costing Harris millions of dollars.

The Mavs signed Harris for the veteran’s minimum of $1.27 million for one year later in July, using a chunk of the money they saved by not finalizing his previous contract to fill the starting shooting guard spot originally slotted for him with Monta Ellis.

So instead of getting a starting job for the whole season, Harris accepted a reserve role that he’d need to rehab months to fill. At that point, it’s not as if he had other realistic options.

It worked out well in the long run for the Mavs, who need Ellis’ offensive firepower to make the playoffs after a one-year hiatus. Harris ended up being one of the most valuable reserve guards in the league after he finally got into the Mavs’ rotation following a rehab process that took even longer than anticipated due to a stress fracture he developed in his non-surgically-repaired third metatarsal in the left foot in December.

“It’s been a long road since the summer,” said Harris, who had to change the mechanics of how he ran. “We’ve had a lot of things happen, but I stayed positive and worked hard and obviously we’re in a good situation now.”

Harris gave the Mavs a third proven, experienced guard after coach Rick Carlisle was forced to rely on rookies Shane Larkin and Gal Mekel for the first half of the season. His ability to push the tempo and create off the dribble has paid major dividends for the Mavs’ bench, with fellow reserves Vince Carter and Brandan Wright much more effective when they play with Harris.

“He’s been great,” Dirk Nowitzki said of Harris. “I thought when he came back in January, that’s kind of when we were all healthy and that’s when we really started playing well on the road. He’s a big key for us off the bench. We don’t have a lot of penetrators out there. I’ve said it all year that him and Monta have a lot of responsibility to get in the paint for us and get other guys shots, get themselves shots. He’s been great on both ends of the floor.”

Harris has been significantly better so far during this series. He averaged 7.9 points and 4.5 assists while shooting 37.8 percent from the floor in 40 regular-season games, scoring more than 16 points only once. His playoff numbers after two games: 18.5 points, 5.0 assists, 60 percent shooting.

It was a long journey for Harris between his two stints with the Mavs, with the road getting especially rough this summer. But just like the old days, he still seems to save his best for the Spurs in the spring.