DALLAS -- The Dallas Mavericks faded at the finish, reverted to their jump-shooting past long before crunch time and let the San Antonio Spurs dictate tempo when it mattered.
Spurs push past pauses
Not how it went in their epic playoff series, if you recall.
"After the great series we had, tonight was obviously a special game," said Spurs guard Manu Ginobili. "But, no, it was not really the same atmosphere."
That was evident on the scoreboard and on the baseline near the home team's bench. That's where Mark Cuban sat quietly throughout much of the fourth quarter, glumly watching his Mavs sink to a 97-91 defeat to their hated state rivals, making good on his pregame vow to shrink his considerable courtside presence and "do whatever the league tells me to do."
"I'm turning over a new leaf," Cuban said with a sly smile, struggling to convince his skeptical audience while sporting a Mavs T-shirt with the message HE FINE ME on the back, all in response to David Stern's new code of conduct for owners.
"You'll see. I'm gonna kill 'em with kindness."
Score Cuban's delivery on that promise as one of the few Game 1 successes for the reigning West champs, as they soberly began what has to be the longest regular season facing any team in the NBA.
Not even a victory over their mighty neighbors, frankly, would have made it any shorter, since most of the pertinent questions about the Mavs can't be answered until they slog through another 81 games. Only in the playoffs can they prove to doubters everywhere that they haven't already blown their best shot at a championship, having failed to finish off the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals after slaying the Spurs -- with Game 7 in San Antonio, remember -- for the first time in franchise history.
The teams' first real game since that overtime classic -- we're ignoring their exhibition game last week -- was never going to approach that standard, not with Dallas still working in three new players in a 10-man rotation after an injury-filled preseason. At least it did get rather heated, living up to last spring in one category, right around the time Josh Howard shoved Bruce Bowen in response to a Bowen takedown.
Veteran referee Jess Kersey departed soon thereafter, needing five stitches in his chin after taking a ball to the face. Then the Mavs' aggressiveness went missing, which changed the game. The free-throw discrepancy was 37-16 overall in San Antonio's favor and 23-10 after halftime, without any postgame complaints about pro-Spurs treatment from the two refs who managed to make it to the final buzzer.
That's because Dallas knows its game devolved into a fruitless succession of isolations that led to missed jumpers. Which enabled the Spurs to finally slow things down, albeit six months too late.
But they'll take it. The Spurs were pretty pleased with their comeback, on a night which began with Tim Duncan airballing his first jumper. Duncan's blip -- just 13 points after all the raves about his readiness for the new season -- was easier to dismiss after Tony Parker scored 19 on a bad ankle . . . and after Francisco Elson quickly lived up to the Spurs' dreams of a long, athletic sidekick to flourish at Duncan's side.
Elson chipped in with 12 points, six rebounds and two blocks in 26 quality minutes, highlighted by his quite credible coverage of Dirk Nowitzki. Elson's rangy presence helped hound Nowitzki into a 3-for-10 second half and, more importantly, freed up Duncan to stay out of foul trouble while enabling Bowen to focus on Howard.
The Spurs know the developing Elson won't be this dependable every night, just as they know Nowitzki (21 points, 11 boards) will rarely make just two trips to the line. The performance nonetheless illustrated why they were prepared to part with Rasho Nesterovic and Nazr Mohammed, who were reduced to bench ornaments in the Dallas series, and replace them with the raw former Nugget and project big man Jackie Butler at bargain prices.
Elson flat-out runs the floor, giving a much-needed jolt of athleticism to the aging Spurs. You weren't going to see Nesterovic or Mohammed grab a rebound and then beat the defense downcourt for a dunk, as Elson did late in the third quarter to start nudging momentum in the visitors' favor.
Then again, maybe the three-time champs always had it for this one. The Spurs have never lost a season opener with Gregg Popovich coaching them, improving that record to 10-0 with some throwback San Antonio defense in the final quarter.
"It's [only] one win," Duncan said, "but it's a great start to our season."
For the Mavs? Just a start, really.
As far away as the playoffs are for the Texans chasing their first championship, you'd have said so win or lose.
Layne Murdoch/ /Getty Images
Tony Parker, battling a sprained ankle, had 19 points as the Spurs took the first of four regular-season meetings with the Mavs. Dirk Nowitzki finished with 21 points and 11 rebounds for Dallas.
• The Spurs are considered to be a half-court team, but when they run, they do the little things better than almost everybody else: Their outlet passes are half a beat faster, their wings stay wider, and they get early paint touches.
• The term "locker room guy" is thrown about too often, but it fits Greg Buckner perfectly. His former coaches speak of him in almost reverent tones. He does not have to shoot well most nights to have a positive impact.
• After watching so many games Wednesday night, then watching the Spurs-Mavs, it is obvious that the gulf between the good and bad teams is wide.
• With all the talk about Denver's new offense, it was their defense that stood out -- and their toughness. George Karl felt they were soft two seasons ago and intended to do something about it. He did, and they are soft no longer. And they played better on both sides of the ball after 'Melo got ejected. There is a lesson to be learned there.
• I'm officially starting the "Shaun Livingston is a bust" watch. It's just a watch, not a warning yet, but for the fourth pick in the draft two years ago he's simply not getting enough done. I'm giving him until 2007. That's January 1, 2007.
-- David Thorpe
• Mark Cuban just couldn't help himself, doing some vigorous Air Drumming when he thought Tony Parker was double-dribbling.
• Well, Carmelo Anthony is now tied with Sheed for ejections. At least 'Melo doffed his jersey and gave it to the Staples fans on his way out. The crackdown on begging to differ is off to a rough start.
-- Andrew Ayres
• What's the French word for "Hot Plate"? Good heavens Boris Diaw is out of shape. The guy's main asset was his quickness, but right now he's slower than melting chevre.
-- John Hollinger
The Spurs opened their season with a 97-91 victory at Dallas, making Gregg Popovich the fourth head coach or manager in North American pro sports history to win his team's opening game in 10 consecutive seasons. The others who recorded streaks of 10 or more seasons were Tom Landry, 17 (1965-1981); Bill Fitch, 11 (1978-1989); and George Allen, 11 (1966-1976).
Dallas and San Antonio both tinkered extensively with the lineup of role players in the offseason. But Francisco Elson might give the Spurs an early edge in this category.
Western rematch: Spurs win this round
Noah Graham/NBAE/Getty Images
Nuggets coach George Karl could have reason to frown after a tough 96-95 loss to the Clippers. But he might brighten fairly soon if newcomer J.R. Smith (21 points) keeps up his good shooting.
Quote of the Day
-- Andrew Ayres
Bill Walton opens this video monologue rockin' a mean Bo Diddley beat and singing the lines from "Not Fade Away." (That's a Buddy Holly song that Bill's beloved Grateful Dead covered an astounding 530 times in concert, according to Wikipedia.)
"I'm going to tell you how it's going to be..."
He's concerned how it's going to be for his favorite team, the Suns. How's it going to be with a heftier Boris Diaw on the perimeter? Not good. He likes Diaw better as a center. But getting him back in the middle might prove tough with Kurt Thomas and Amare Stoudemire both back in the lane.
To see who Walton picks to win it all (not his Suns, nor his son in L.A.), check out the video.
Why the Spurs are Walton's pick
Jason (Auburn Hills, MI): Yes, we are going to put Jalen in the "missing piece" category for teams like Detroit, Miami or Phoenix. One more proven star coming off the bench of any of these teams could mean a lot.
Chad Ford: Jason is still punch drunk from the Pistons' loss Wednesday night. Jalen Rose and "proven star" in the same sentence.
Sean (Philadelphia, PA): Tell Jason from MI that the last comic standing chat doesn't start unitl 3pm.
Chad Ford: FYI, Jason.
Scott (Reno, NV): How long before we hear from a struggling NBA player blames the new ball for his troubles? Any prediction on who will cast the first stone with that excuse?
Chad Ford: Amazing that after all the complaning the ball still bounced on opening night and went into the basket. This will be a dead issue in a few weeks ... but I think you're right ... someone will use it as an excuse. I'm thinking Kwame.
Channing Frye, PF, Knicks
Frye might not average quite that many minutes -- a propensity for fouling should keep him in the low-to-mid 30s -- but we're still looking at about 17.0 points and 8.0 boards and a shooting mark in the high 40s, with an outside shot at a 20-10 year if he can cut down on the hacking. That's why Frye got my vote for Most Improved Player in our writers' poll this week.
Josh Smith, SF, Hawks
But his selection on this roster has as much to do with is age -- he won't turn 21 until December, and one has to think that with increased maturity will come a drop in the concentration lapses that have been his main barrier to success thus far.