San Antonio Spurs 90, Dallas Mavericks 85: Tim Duncan’s been here before

AT&T CENTER–Now 17 years into Tim Duncan’s career, the formula is all too familiar. Duncan (27 points, seven rebounds) anchored a strong inside game, and a suffocating Spurs defense able to produce “stops on demand,” held an elite Dallas Mavericks offense to one irrelevant field goal over the last 7:45 to give the Spurs a 90-85 victory in Game 1.

For nearly two decades the Spurs have churned out enough of these victories to produce a mind-numbing effect on national audiences. Only now, time has cast a new light on the Spurs.

The wins are no longer dismissed as routine,  but are instead cherished because of the limited supply that remains.

“[The playoffs] are always an exciting time. It’s a different intensity and different level; obviously it means more,” Duncan said. “Even now, I might be more excited because I know there’s only a couple more left in my career.”

This might be merely the beginning of the 2014 NBA Playoffs, but it’s also a late chapter in a long line of clashes between Duncan and Dirk Nowitkzki. And should the Spurs go on to find a storybook ending, there’s no better place to start than against the player Duncan seems destined to compete with forever.

Neither are at the top of their powers anymore, but downgrading from legendary to just “great” makes using the term decline relative. Nowitzki struggled in this game with only 11 points on 4-14 shooting, felled by solid defensive work from Tiago Splitter, and in all honesty, some unfortunate bounces. But these Mavericks are resourceful, as any team helmed by Rick Carlisle should be.

The Mavericks boast an explosive offense (3rd in offensive efficiency), but are hampered by a flammable defense (22nd in defensive efficiency). In the shortened sample size of a seven-game series, the Mavericks hopes are pinned to Carlisle’s ability to provide enough smoke and mirrors to mitigate their weaknesses enough for that offense to take over.

Against the Spurs, the strategy was obviously to pick their poison, hoping that enough exposure to Duncan and Tony Parker over the years would have built up enough resistance to at least tolerate their individual brilliance.

On the first few possessions of the game, simple pick and rolls resulted in either Nowitkzki or Samuel Dalembert switching onto Parker. The switches occured often and easily enough to assume the Mavericks put themselves in such mismatches by design.

Even as Parker zoomed past helpless defenders for 17 of his 21 points in the first half, the calculated risk was that by enticing Parker and the Spurs into isolations, they could stagnate their vaunted motion offense and cutoff their three-point shooters.

By switching everything and staying at home, the Mavericks stayed out of the frantic help rotations that are the lifeblood of the Spurs second unit. There are counters to this strategy, of course, but for a game it flustered a Spurs bench that had been a major strength all season.

“We got killed by three-pointers the first four meetings [of the regular season] we got killed on threes,” Nowitkzki said. “I don’t think it’s a secret we stayed at home with their shooters. You have to give them something. I guess two’s are better than threes.”

For a quarter it seemed a foolish proposition, as the Spurs rolled to a 21-12 lead. But the Mavericks score in bunches, and opting to bleed out slowly bought enough time to deliver some meaningful punches of their own.

Devin Harris turned back the clock to 2006, wreaking havoc on the Spurs defense by stepping behind the three-point line (3-7) and attacking closeouts and gaps for 19 points and seven assists, as the Mavericks bench outscored the Spurs bench 46-23, with Manu Ginobili accounting for 17 of those 23 points.

As the clock ticked towards the end of the third quarter, the recipe for an upset seemed in the works. A knee-to-knee collision suffered by Duncan with 3:24 left in the third seemed to portend disaster.

Though Duncan would prove to be fine, Dallas was able to seize momentum at the start of the foutth quarter while the Spurs starters rested and trainer Will Sevening examined Duncan’s knee.

Brandan Wright got free for a jumper, as did Vince Carter. The bench failed to generate quality look,  and even as Duncan returned with the starters, the Mavericks extended their lead to double digits.  The formula was familiar, with Carlisle’s schemes doing enough to turn things over to Nowitzki in the fourth for a big finish,  only that finish never came.

With the starters in, plus Ginobili in Green’s place, Kawhi Leonard and Splitter locked in on the Nowitkzki-Monta Ellis pick and roll. Splitter’s length afforded him the ability to bother any Ellis pull-up without straying too far from Nowitkzki, Leonard’s ability to recover and fight through screens assured Splitter didn’t have to.

Behind Leonard and Splitter stood a decade worth of defensive rotations and playoff battles, all ingraimed into the muscle memory of Duncan, Ginobili, and Parker.

The difference between the Mavericks and Spurs at this point, is that while Dallas has schemed–to mask defenses, to generate offenses, to land marquee free agents–the Spurs have simply built. So when those schemes and changes of pace have been exposed, the Spurs still have a solid foundation to rely on.

At the center of it all was Duncan, calling out defensive orders, settling the offense, and finding opportunities in the gaps of the Maverick’s schemes.

“He’s not going to score 24 a game or anything like3 that, but he’s the base from which everything else occurs,” Gregg Popovich said. “Whether he’s scoring or not, he just gives us a comfort level point from which to operate. He plays defense, he rebounds, scores here and there and just does his job.”

Duncan may no longer be the center of everything the Spurs do, but he remains the foundation. He legitamizes them, same as he always has. And like him, the basketball world is excited he gets to do it just a little bit longer.