AT&T CENTER–On most nights, the San Antonio Spurs are a fine-tuned, highly sophisticated basketball machine. A whirling dervish of player movement built around a complex layer of basketball reads.
In Game 2, that machine was brought to a grinding halt in the Spurs 92-113 loss to the Dallas Mavericks, evening the series at 1-1.
Like all complex machines, sometimes even the slightest misfire can reverberate throughout, crashing the entire system. The result? When things go awry for the Spurs, they tend to completely implode.
Against Dallas, the Spurs explored every conceivable way to blow a home playoff game. They turned the ball over 24 times, leading to 33 Mavericks points, and finished just 18-29 from the free throw line. Though they shot 50 percent from the field and behind the three-point line, the Spurs allowed Dallas, an elite offense by any measure, 28 more field goal attempts.
“It’s 24 turnovers. It’s been something we’ve had trouble with all year long,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich admitted. “When we’ve had games like that we’ve been unsuccessful. That’s been a weak link for us throughout the year when we’ve lost a game, and it came back to hurt us tonight.”
Wednesday night started out promising enough. The Spurs were better prepared for the Maverick’s switching defensive schemes, distracting the Mavericks with a bevy of screens for Tony Parker while Tim Duncan sprang Danny Green free for three on the weakside to open the game.
They attacked switches with direct posts to Duncan, and left Dirk Nowitzki helpess on an island to defend Parker. The Spurs got out to a 13-6 lead, but then quickly fell apart at the seams.
Danny Green was yanked early after two atrocious live ball turnovers were directly responsible for four of the Dallas Mavericks first six points. Kawhi Leonard joined him on the bench a few minutes later with two quick fouls, picked up his third in just under two minutes of court time in the second quarter, and mostly disappeared for the rest of the night.
Turning to the bench has been somewhat of a nightmare for Popovich, which has been the story of this series through the first two games. Perhaps the biggest strength of the team all season, the Spurs’ bench has been thoroughly outplayed with the exception of Manu Ginobili.
Marco Belinelli, Boris Diaw, and Patty Mills, so integral to San Antonio’s success this year, finished -21, -31, and -10 in the plus-minus category, respectively.
The Mills-Belinelli-Ginobili backcourt combinations were absolutely flammable on defense. Monta Ellis (21 points, three assists) and Devin Harris (18 points, five assists) expertly found the pockets of air between the Spurs big man hanging back in the lane and the guard trying to fight over a screen, pulling up for jumper after jumper. They attacked poor closeouts, getting into the middle of the Spurs defense, sending rotations flying around chaotically, and leaving the Spurs vulnerable on the boards (14 offensive rebounds, 14 second-chance points).
The Dallas Mavericks scored 113 points on a night Dirk Nowitzki was relatively quiet, scoring 16 points on 7-19 shooting. The Spurs, having shot themselves in the foot throughout the game, managed just 92.
“It’s a bad combination to not play good defense at one end and give the ball up at the other end,” Popovich said. “That’s a bad combination at both ends of the floor. That means you get your butt kicked and that’s what happened tonight.”
The Spurs have recovered from similar games in the past, and as Tim Duncan (11 points, seven rebounds) stated after the game, the team never expected to breeze through these playoffs at 16-0. Though it’s not time to panic, there are enough trends from the series to show concern.
Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle has done a masterful job of slowing down the Spurs offense with his switch-heavy schemes and cross matching. By enticing Duncan post-ups and Parker (12 points, three assists) isolations, while staying at home on all shooters, the Mavericks have disconnected the engine from the Spurs machine. In essence, they’re betting that Parker and Duncan don’t have enough 35-plus point games left in their legs to get them out of their current tactics.
“They’re not comfortable out there,” Jose Calderon said. “That’s the way we want it. I think that’s the main thing: Just make them uncomfortable. If you let them play, it’s a tough team. They’ve got rhythm, they’ve got shooters, they’ve got a little bit of everything. That’s why we try to mix everything up just to try to get them out of their comfort zone.”