Playoff atmosphere surrounds Mavs-Spurs

The Dallas Mavericks (48-20) and San Antonio Spurs (54-13) have played three times this season, but you have to go back to Nov. 26 to find a game with any meaning attached to it, and even that matchup has faded to back of the early-season memory bank.

The Mavs, before injuries sidelined Dirk Nowitzki for a month and knocked Caron Butler out for at least the regular season, impressively won that game down the stretch in San Antonio, 103-94. The other two games, San Antonio victories at home and in Dallas, both came with Nowitzki sitting out with a sprained right knee.

Here's what Spurs coach Gregg Popovic took away from those meetings: "I hate playing them without Nowitzki. It’s a worthless situation. If we win, we don’t take a whole lot of satisfaction out of it. ... For me, it’s a worthless waste of time. I’d rather be at dinner.”

Make your dinner plans early tonight. This final meeting between the Spurs and Mavs will finally pit the two teams at full strength, or at least very close to it. The Mavs might still be without the services of Peja Stojakovic (stiff neck). But, who they will have on the floor for the first time this season against San Antonio is the player who rattled the Spurs in Game 6 of their first-round playoff series last season -- Rodrigue Beaubois.

Beaubois is coming off his best two-game stretch of the season, scoring 16 points in 22 minutes at Portland and 18 points in 37 minutes against the Golden State. He was 13-of-19 from the floor and 5-of-10 from 3-point range in the two games to bump his scoring average in double figures at 10.1 in 14 games since his long-awaited return from a broken left foot.

For the first time this season, the Mavs saw the X-factor they believe Beaubois can be at both ends, especially against the Warriors, whose smaller lineup is tailor-made for the second-year guard. Beaubois was 6-of-8 from the field and four assists and four steals. The far superior Spurs will be a more rugged test for Beaubois, who shrunk in Saturday's loss to the Los Angeles Lakers.

“He [Beaubois] had a great game [Wednesday]," Mavs forward Shawn Marion said. "He took the challenge of guarding Monta Ellis and he did a good job of doing it. [Ellis] made some tough shots, but at the end of the day that’s what you want. I love that, I love seeing the competitive nature in him, stepping up and trying to play some defense, because that’s what we need.”

While the Mavs won't catch the Spurs for the Southwest Division title or the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference, a win can reassert some confidence over the Spurs as well as help Dallas in its cause to outrun the Lakers to the No. 2 seed. The Mavs and Lakers enter Friday's games tied in the standings, though L.A. plays host to the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Dallas, which snapped a two-game skid and is 3-4 in its past seven games with all four losses coming to potential playoff foes, is taking this one as a playoff-caliber game. The Spurs should be ready having had three days off to right itself from a 30-point loss at Miami on Monday night. San Antonio, while running away with the top seed, has a little something to prove as well with a loss at the Chicago Bulls and a blowout loss at home to the Lakers prior to the Heat debacle.

"It’s tremendous. ... Everybody is going to talk about how it’s just another game, but not for this team, not for us," said Mavs guard Jason Terry, who is always outspoken when it comes to the Spurs. "We’ve struggled since the break against teams that we are right there in contention for the championship. It’s a measuring stick for us to see how far we have come and they’re playing great. It’s on us to go out there and see what we can do."

So make those dinner plans early.