The San Antonio Spurs lost just four postseason games against the Portland Trail Blazers, Oklahoma City Thunder and Miami Heat en route to their fifth NBA championship. With that fact in mind, many wonder how the Dallas Mavericks were able to force San Antonio into a Game 7 in the first round of the playoffs. Some would say the Mavs gave the Spurs their best challenge throughout the playoffs.
"I’m not sure if that was it or they hit their stride in Game 7 because they’ve been playing so well since then," Nowitzki said. "I actually think our coverages kind of caught them off guard and they weren’t ready for it."
After the Spurs secured the NBA crown with Sunday's Game 5 win over the Heat, Nowitzki congratulated them on their achievement:
Congrats to the spurs. Amazing team work. Great coach. Well deserved...
— Dirk Nowitzki (@swish41) June 16, 2014
The playoffs allowed Dallas to commit its undivided attention to slowing down San Antonio, which certainly helped its cause. It allowed the Mavs to catch the Spurs off guard, but there were other factors in play. The Spurs were able to clinch home-court advantage throughout the playoffs in the final week of the season. With that in the Spurs' back pocket, coach Gregg Popovich could rest key players, essentially taking his foot off the gas. Even if that took place in a span of three to five games at the end of the regular season, it was enough time for them to lose their edge, causing them to look lethargic against Dallas.
"I just wanted to say what a great series it was and how difficult it was. I am certainly glad it is over," Popovich said after the series against Dallas. "It kept many of us up night after night trying to figure those guys out. [Coach] Rick [Carlisle] did a great job with his game plan. His coaches confounded us. The players were great. It is a really good veteran team that was playing its best basketball here at the end of the year.
"I congratulate them. They were really tough and really good. The organization could be really proud of that group in a lot of ways."
The narrative has changed over the passing weeks in regard to analyzing the opening-round series. As the playoffs wore on, the confounding attack was given less praise as the Spurs later went on to say they were just starting to round into playoff form. The results after the Dallas series certainly suggest San Antonio wasn’t clicking on all cylinders early on. The numbers suggest they were just slow out of the gate. Of San Antonio’s 16 playoff wins, eight of them were by 20 or more points.
Nowitzki struggled through the early portion of the series, producing numbers well below his season averages. Despite that, his team pushed San Antonio to the limit. Carlisle certainly did everything he could to ensure his team would compete against its I-35 rival. The biggest adjustments he made saw Dallas relentlessly switching on pick-and-rolls, create a willingness to sacrifice in the paint in order to preserve protection against San Antonio’s 3-point attack and rely more on DeJuan Blair as a reserve big man instead of Brandan Wright. It all led to an unexpectedly competitive series, only to be deflated by a blowout loss for the Mavs.
"You can throw anything out there for an explanation. I know one thing: We competed," Nowitzki continued. "I love how we made the best team in the West work. Game 7 was just tough. I wish we could have stuck around a little closer. You can go down 20 in that building. It’s OK. Once we got down 30 or more, there was really no shot to get back into it.
"I was hoping in the second half that we could keep competing and get a little closer, but that never happened. That was a little disappointing, but there were great memories this season."
While it was a crushing exit in Game 7, Nowitzki said they accomplished their goal of getting back into the playoffs. On top of that, he noticed they were winning their fans back.
"I think just being around the town -- going to eat, walking around -- there were a lot of people who came up to me and said that we made the city proud again,” Nowitzki continued. “They said they were proud with how we fought to get into the playoffs and how we battled against the Spurs. I think the fans appreciated that."
They took San Antonio to seven games, but they won’t be hanging a consolation banner in the American Airlines Center because of it in the coming weeks, though the series can be something to learn from. They’ll need to learn in a hurry because the Spurs aren’t going away any time soon. The Game 7 blowout notwithstanding, many will still consider Dallas as the team that ultimately gave the eventual champions their toughest challenge. According to Nowitzki, the jury is still out on how factual that statement is.