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April 17, 2010
Playoff Preview
Dallas-San Antonio

by Kevin Pelton

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The Dallas Mavericks and the San Antonio Spurs might just have the NBA's best current rivalry. The two Texas teams share not only proximity but also a history of success. The Spurs and Mavericks had the league's two best records in the 2000s, and that has resulted in a number of playoff meetings with plenty on the line. This is the fifth time in the last 10 years the two teams have faced each other, and second in as many postseasons.

The overall statistics and the seeds disagree about Dallas and San Antonio more than any other teams. As has been the subject of much discussion, the Mavericks boast the worst point differential among the eighth Western Conference playoff teams, yet they will have home-court advantage up until the Western Conference Finals. San Antonio, the seventh seed, is one of two teams in the West with a point differential of +5.0 or better. The Spurs' differential is 2.4 points per game better than the Mavericks', which ties the largest advantage any lower-seeded team has had in a series in the past decade.

WHEN DALLAS HAS THE BALL

Pace: 91.0 possessions per 48 minutes (17th NBA)
Dallas Offensive Rating: 111.6 points per 100 possessions (10th NBA)
San Antonio Defensive Rating: 106.2 points per 100 possessions (9th NBA)

At 10th in the league in per-possession scoring, the Dallas offense wasn't bad, but the Mavericks' standard is much higher than that. 2009-10 marked their lowest rank in Offensive Rating since the 1998-99 lockout season, when Dirk Nowitzki was a rookie. Given all the talent on the roster, Dallas was surprisingly average when it came to making two-point shots, shooting 49.1 percent on twos as compared to the league mark of 49.2 percent. Really, the only thing the Mavericks did at an elite level on offense was take care of the basketball, led by the sure-handed duo of Nowitzki (who turned the ball over on just 7.8 percent of his possessions) and Jason Terry (8.6 percent).

Nowitzki might not be the dominant force he once was, but he still remains a very difficult matchup. The Spurs like to avoid putting Tim Duncan on Nowitzki, so expect Antonio McDyess to primarily handle the defensive assignment. McDyess did a phenomenal job in the regular season of defending Nowitzki one-on-one without help, keeping him out of the paint and contesting his shot attempts. The only danger is that McDyess can be overly help-conscious. He needs to stay at home in this series, even if it means a relatively good look for another Mavericks player. Nowitzki had more success against reserve Matt Bonner, using his quickness advantage, but though he averaged 28.8 points in four meetings with San Antonio, he shot just 40.4 percent from the field.

Instead of isolating Nowitzki, Dallas would probably be wise to involve him in the pick-and-roll with Terry and Jason Kidd, a staple of the team's late-game offense. Those sets will make it more likely the Spurs have to involve an extra defender and leave someone open. Mavericks starters Kidd and Erick Dampier (as well as his backup, Brendan Haywood) are both bit players in the offense, but Kidd has developed into a dangerous three-point shooter and both Dampier and Haywood are capable finishers, meaning San Antonio will pay if its rotations are not stout--and that's been the case much more this season than in years past.

Caron Butler will be an interesting wild card in this series. His numbers did not rebound as much as Dallas surely hoped they would after his midseason acquisition from Washington; his True Shooting Percentage as a Maverick was 50.9 percent, as compared to 50.6 percent with the Wizards and 55-plus percent the previous two seasons. Butler has the physical tools to make life difficult for the smaller Manu Ginobili when the starting lineups are on the floor. Whether he can actually do it is anyone's guess.

The other big question for Dallas is whether electrifying rookie guard Rodrigue Beaubois will see the court in this series. The Mavericks are 2.3 points per 100 possessions better with Beaubois on the floor this season, per BasketballValue.com, and 6.4 points worse in that span when playing Jose Barea. Beaubois' inconsistent playing time--he played at least 10 minutes just twice in the month of April--is an indicator the coaching staff still does not trust him. If he plays, however, his speed could be a difference-maker after the Spurs outquicked Dallas in last year's playoff series.

WHEN SAN ANTONIO HAS THE BALL

Pace: 90.3 possessions per 48 minutes (20th NBA)
San Antonio Offensive Rating: 111.7 points per 100 possessions (9th NBA)
Dallas Defensive Rating: 107.5 points per 100 possessions (12th NBA)

In late February, our Summer 2010 preview described rumors of Ginobili's demise exaggerated. Two nights later, Ginobili had a breakthrough 26-point performance (as well as an incredible block of Kevin Durant) against Oklahoma City that jumpstarted a stellar final two months of the season and ultimately secured him a lucrative three-year contract extension. Combine the fact that Ginobili was previously playing better than most observers realized with better health and more minutes and he ended up carrying the team down the stretch.

Ginobili presents some issues for the Mavericks because they like to finish games with the smaller Terry playing shooting guard. Most of the time, Dallas can crossmatch and put Kidd on twos, but Ginobili is one of the rare players whose quick first step makes this problematic. Ginobili did not do much in the three regular-season meetings he played in (he sat out Wednesday's season finale), but all three games came before he turned his season around.

As on the other end of the floor, the Mavericks prefer not to have star match up with star in the frontcourt. Instead, Dallas will go with size on Tim Duncan in Dampier and Haywood unless the Mavericks go small at some point and put Nowitzki in the middle. Duncan was fairly average by his standards in last year's playoff matchup, scoring 19.8 points and shooting 53.2 percent from the field.

In that 2009 series, Tony Parker's ability to break down the Mavericks' defense was critical, but Parker is almost a forgotten man in San Antonio after a down, injury-plagued season and the emergence of George Hill as an effective option at either guard position. After breaking a bone in his right hand, Parker returned and played decently in the last six games of the regular season. His reentry into the Spurs' rotation was accelerated because Hill suffered a sprained ankle and missed four games. Hill then re-aggravated the injury in the season finale and is a game-time decision for Game 1 of the series.

Another key figure for San Antonio is forward Richard Jefferson, who played a major role in the team's March surge. Jefferson's True Shooting Percentage in that month (61.7 percent) stands out from his disappointing regular season, though he wasn't bad in April either (55.2 percent). Jefferson will get open shots when Shawn Marion looks to offer help, and whether he knocks them down is critical. In wins, Jefferson made 39.4 percent of his threes, as compared to 20.4 percent in losses.

PREDICTION

Every opening-round series in the Western Conference figures to be competitive. Still, this stands out as the best matchup because of the history between the two teams and because it is so difficult to predict. Leaving aside the individual matchups, the question is this: How valuable is the Spurs' edge in point differential as compared to Dallas' home-court advantage? There have been six series in the past decade where the lower-seeded team has been at least a point per game better in terms of differential. Four of those six series have ended in upsets.

In TrueHoop's Stat Geek Smackdown, I was one of two experts to take the Mavericks to win the series, in part because I was looking at the head-to-head results, which saw Dallas win the regular-season series three games to one. Obviously, Wednesday's game should be thrown out, since the Spurs were indifferent to winning at best and possibly tanking to assure themselves this matchup. That still leaves the Mavericks as the winners of the season series, but all three games were so distant (the last was played on Jan. 8) that I'm now of the opinion they're largely meaningless in terms of telling us anything about this series.

The question then becomes, how much better is Dallas with the addition of Butler and Haywood? Since the All-Star break, the Mavericks' point differential adjusted for schedule is +3.1 points per game. San Antonio is +4.4 in that span. That's still a big difference for a playoff matchup, but not an overwhelming one. This series should be tremendously close and filled with ups and downs, but ultimately I see Dallas as the slight favorite.

Dallas in 7

Cast your ballot in the First Annual Internet Basketball Awards, presented by Basketball Prospectus, featuring voting on all major awards and the All-NBA, All-Defensive and All-Rookie teams. Voting ends April 20.

Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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