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1. The Mavericks are afraid of the Spurs, but not afraid enough. The Mavs are too good to be shaking-in-their-boots afraid of anyone (especially since they've already demolished both the Spurs and Pistons this season), but on Thursday they were scared enough to come out supercharged and take a 26-14 lead. That fast start showed their talent and spirit, and, yes, their confidence, but it was also a sign of their nervous energy. But they relaxed a bit in the second quarter, as teams normally do when they take a lead. When that happened, they made eight turnovers and allowed the Spurs to move methodically within a basket by halftime and eventually to move inexorably ahead. A little success is a dangerous thing. 2. The Spurs aren't afraid of the Pistons. While the game was billed as a referendum on the Mavs' progress, it was also a chance to take a close look at the champs: Do they still have it? Are they now a step behind the Detroit Pistons? This game was a reminder of just what the Spurs can do when they are in a tough game. Lest we forget, in the biggest NBA game of the last decade, the Spurs handled the Pistons in the type of game that Detroit is supposedly built for. In deciding games between San Antonio and Detroit, the Spurs are 1-0, and the Pistons are 0-1. Which is why the battle for home-court advantage is unusually intense this year. 3. The Spurs still have it, but they won't have it much longer. It's often said that the Spurs are young enough to win several more titles (and Detroit fans will tell you the same thing about the Pistons), but I don't see it. Oh, sure, they should compete at the top level for at least a couple more years, but they really aren't that young. Duncan is 30 next month. Ginobili is 28 and, like Duncan, slowed by injury. Bruce Bowen is almost 35. Finley, 32. Barry, 34. Van Exel, 34. Horry, 35. They have exactly one young player: Tony Parker, age 23. Some of their struggles on Thursday were age- and health-related. The future in now in San Antonio. 4. The Phoenix Suns had to like what they saw. The Western Conference finals were tighter last year than they seemed -- the Spurs won 4-1, but four of the games were very close. And don't forget: The Suns played part of the series without Joe Johnson, and they were coming off a grueling series with the Mavs. This year, the tables are turned. The Spurs and Mavs, barring a first-round upset, will meet in the conference semifinals, and it's clear that series will be a donnybrook. Meanwhile, the Suns have a relatively easy path to the conference finals. Not only that, but the Suns have shown they can run on the Spurs, and they have to be more confident of that than ever after watching the Spurs struggle at times to deal with the speed of Dallas. Now the Suns just need to get Amare Stoudemire out of his casual business attire. 5. Robert Horry is Tree Rollins. OK, maybe he didn't really sink his teeth into Jerry Stackhouse's arm, but his playful bite during the fourth quarter skirmish had to bring back nightmares for Danny Ainge.
6. Bruce Bowen is a man. What did the amazing defense he played on Dirk Nowitzki demonstrate? Why he's on the preliminary Team USA squad, that's what. 7. The jury is out on Michael Finley and Nick Van Exel. Finley has been lousy this season, with 39 percent shooting despite what are supposed to be wide-open shots produced by the Duncan-centric offense. But on Thursday, he was solid, with 15 points on 5-of-9 shooting, including three big baskets in the fourth quarter. Van Exel hasn't been much better than Finley this year, and on Thursday he almost killed the Spurs with his atrocious 0-for-6 goose egg. See prior point about age -- it happens to the best of them. But, to be fair, for Finley and Van Exel the season will be decided in May and June. If they hit a few timely, Horry-type bombs then, their season-long struggles will be forgotten. Which leads us to a related point: 8. The Spurs' Achilles heel may again be 3-point shooting. When the Spurs have come up short in recent years, it's often been because their perimeter shooting has let them down. In 2004, Hedo Turkoglu and Bruce Bowen couldn't sink open 3s against the Lakers, allowing L.A. to steal the series. On Thursday, the Spurs were 4-for-12 (just 33 percent), which proves nothing. But it has to be a concern, because in their offense the ability to hit the 3 is critical. 9. These teams believe in the teardrop. Or the runner. Or the floater. Whatever you want to call it, you could see on Thursday how much a strategic part of the game the short, running, one-handed jumper is for the Spurs and the Mavs. And we saw some absolute masters: Tony Parker, who deserves a spot in the Cousy-Douglas-Nash Hall of Fame, and Jason Terry, the Mavs' resident expert, for whom Dallas coach Avery Johnson will even draw up teardrops in the huddle (including on one game-winning play this season). But we also saw runners from Tim Duncan, Nazr Mohammed and Bruce Bowen, and they are a staple of Manu Ginobili and Keith Van Horn, too, among others. There are lots of reasons we don't see as many midrange jumpers in the NBA as we used to, but one reason we don't is that they're not high percentage (or highly efficient) shots. As the three best teams in the West (San Antonio, Dallas, Phoenix) demonstrate, driving into the lane for short shots is a much better strategy than settling for a longer 2-pointer. 10. We need to have Reggie Miller broadcast a Spurs game so he can break down Manu Ginobili's technique for drawing fouls. It would be the best episode of "Inside the Actors Studio" ever. 11. This was a big game, but not for the reasons everyone said. Do you think we'll still be talking about a March 2 game when the playoffs start? Me neither. And between now and the postseason, we still have a Mavs-Pistons game (March 28) to go as well as another Mavs-Spurs game (April 7 on ESPN). So this game will be ancient history. And do you think the Mavs are going to be crushed, or even shaken, by this loss? Of course not. They'll just try to learn from it, and come back more resolved. That's the way it works. Good teams learn from failure. No, this game was big for one reason: The result was a potential three-game swing. Had the Mavs pulled it out, they would have had a two-game lead in the West and held the tiebreaker, at least temporarily. Now, instead, the Spurs and Mavs are tied, and the Spurs have the tiebreaker (a 2-1 lead in the season series). Twenty-five games to go. Home court and the No. 1 seed at stake. Can't wait to see how it shakes out.
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The Spurs tied the Mavericks for best record in the Western Conference with a 98-89 win over Dallas on Thursday night. Both teams have a record of 45-12. Thursday's game was only the second in NBA history between two of the league's Texas franchises with both more than 30 games above the .500 mark. The only previous game of its type was the final game of the 2002-2003 season, when the Mavs (59-22) routed the Spurs (60-21), 93-72, in San Antonio.
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Quote of the Day
"Everyone thinks that LeBron has to take that last shot, but he's a guy who will pass it back to the open guy. He did the right thing. He drove extremely hard to the rim, and they collapsed on him."
-- Cavs coach Mike Brown, endorsing his star's pass to Flip Murray for what turned out to be the winning shot in a 92-91 win over the Bulls.
-- Andrew Ayres
Mike in Phoenix, AZ: Mike D'Antoni turned Boris Diaw into a center. Any chance he can turn Tim Thomas into one as well? And what are your impressions about the Bryan Colangelo situation, as it relates to Robert Sarver and the Suns' future? Thanks.Chad Ford: I'm not a Tim Thomas fan, but it's hard to deny that Mike D'Antoni seems to have the golden touch when it comes to players like him. If he can get into shape, Thomas will be a perfect fit in their system. As for the future of the Suns, it appears that they aren't going to hire a GM and give D'Antoni the responsibilites. I love Mike, but I think Sarver's making a big mistake. Having a coach act as GM RARELY works. For those that have the impression that Sarver's cheap, I think this exacerbates it a bit.
Colangelo was a great GM . . . you've got to replace all the stuff he did with someone equally competent. And while D'Antoni does have a GREAT eye for talent, that's not the only thing a GM does. Who handles the trade and free agent negotiations, the business side of things and who looks out for the long term health of the franchise. Coaches are always trying to win now. GMs are the buffer that keeps them from trading the whole team when they get in a funk.
Michael (Windermere, FL): Chad, what do you think of the Magic trade for Darko Milicic now? I've watched the last 4 Magic games, and it appears that all he needed was some minutes to show what he can do! It looks to me that it was a great move by the Magic. Do you agree?Chad Ford: I thought he's look pretty good. It's good to see that energy and some of that nastiness I saw in Serbia a few years ago coming out again. His per minutes numbers have been great. The rust has come off a little earlier than I expected. He's just 20 years old so to me, there's still a lot of upside left. He just needs to get into better shape. I think the Magic will play him more minutes when his conditioning gets better.
Looks like the move is paying off great for the Magic . . . But if I'm Joe Dumars I'm looking at Flip Saunders and asking him why, given what we've seen in Orlando, Darko couldn't have done that for the Pistons. Maybe he needed a fresh start or maybe he just needed minutes. That's what happens when you judge guys before you actually see them play.
Here's what you had to say about B.J. Armstrong's story about Shaq's approach:Shaq and the Heat have lost to Detroit in the past because Shaq (and Wade) were hurt. I'd MUCH rather see Shaq take it easy until the last 15 games of the season and get to the playoffs healthy than bust it in the meaningless regular season. If the NBA (and NHL) are going to let everyone into the post season, then the teams need to be smart about approaching it healthy and ready. Oh, and if Udonis and crew can't D up Duncan, both Mourning and to a lesser extent Shaq can spend minutes guarding him.
Perhaps the most amazing part is what the Mavs are doing as passers. Or rather, not doing. For all the talk we hear about the importance of point guards, and particularly of Nash in Phoenix, the Mavs are providing a glaring exception to the rule. Dallas has the league's best offense even though it ranks 27th in the NBA in Assist Rate. (Phoenix, as you might have guessed, is first.)And if you just go by the percentage of made baskets that are assisted, Dallas is dead last, according to 82Games.com -- barely half of the Mavs' baskets have come thanks to a pass (50.3 percent; the league average is 57.3 percent and Phoenix is third at 64.7 percent). In other words, the Mavs have risen to the top by playing more of that supposedly outdated, selfish, one-on-one, isolation basketball than anybody else.