Series preview: Spurs vs. Mavericks
Our 5-on-5 crew breaks down the first-round matchup between the Spurs and Mavericks:
1. What's the scariest thing -- good or bad -- about the Spurs?
Graydon Gordian, 48 Minutes of Hell: They have yet to play to their full potential. Nearly every key player on the Spurs was hampered by injuries at some point this season, and they still walked away with the best record in the league. They're now at full strength.
Tim MacMahon, ESPNDallas.com: Other than Pop [Gregg Popovich] interviews? The Spurs are the best team in basketball, with the emphasis on team. Their excellence is rooted in great execution on both ends of the floor. San Antonio has talent, with the best power forward to ever play the game (Tim Duncan), one of the premier point guards of his generation (Tony Parker), an all-time elite sixth man (Manu Ginobili), a rising all-around star (Kawhi Leonard) and several quality role players. But the Spurs' whole is greater than the sum of their parts.
Aaron McGuire, TrueHoop Network: Kawhi Leonard. Scary can mean many things -- fearsome, dangerous, reminiscent of "The Busy World of Richard Scarry." Leonard hits all three, combining San Antonio's scariest defender with their hardest-to-game-plan-against offensive contributor. He snags the offensive boards nobody else in San Antonio battles for. He's a rare wing player who can completely take over a game without scoring in bunches.
Andrew McNeill, 48 Minutes of Hell: Synergy. This entire Spurs rotation has enough "corporate knowledge" to know where and when to be on every possession. Up and down the roster, they also have some of the best basketball IQ around, meaning they're able to improvise and break from the system and make the right plays.
Marc Stein, ESPN.com: The ball never stops moving. The ball always seems to end up finding an open shooter. The open shooter always seems to make the shot. Just a hard team to guard, man.
2. What's the scariest thing -- good or bad -- about the Mavericks?
Gordian: Dirk Nowitzki. After all these years, I'm still not sure people understand the awesome feats he's capable of on a nightly basis. He's the most offensively talented 7-footer of all time. It's always scary to face Dirk.
MacMahon: Dirk Nowitzki is still "That Dude," to borrow the phrase from the T-shirt he wore on the flight home after the Mavs' last playoff win in Miami. The big German remains one of the league's elite offensive weapons ... and the only opponent to carry his team to a Game 7 victory on Tim Duncan's home court.
McGuire: Yes, their offense overachieved against bad teams. Yes, they're the worst defensive team in the playoffs by a mile. But Rick Carlisle is one of the most creative offensive playcallers in the league, and these Mavericks have explosive offensive talent that can take just about any series if they manage to get hot. Belittle them at your own peril.
McNeill: The Dirk Game. Even at 35 years old, Nowitzki is a terrifying scorer. He's unguardable when he gets to his spot and owns one of the highest releases in the game. Boris Diaw has had some success defending Dirk, but Nowitzki is due for at least one big game.
Stein: Dirk Nowitzki and Monta Ellis clicked faster and better than anyone imagined. They're sensational pick-and-roll partners and, as a result, Dallas has a flammable offense that flows from those two and makes this team a nuisance. The Spurs' respect for Dirk is such, furthermore, that he'll always "scare" them. Probably even when he's 40.
3. Who's the biggest X factor in this series?
Gordian: Monta Ellis. The Mavs have helped him transform from a mercurial, low-efficiency jump-shooter into a high-efficiency threat at the rim and in the midrange. However, he still has limitations that he'll need to transcend for the Mavs to have a real shot at winning.
MacMahon: Rick Carlisle. Pop is rightfully recognized as the league's best coach. Heck, Carlisle calls him the best coach ever in any sport. But Carlisle is awfully good, too. The coaching job he did during the Mavs' title run, when he outwitted Phil Jackson and figured out a way to delay the crowning of King James, is historically elite.
McGuire: Tiago Splitter. Traditionally, Splitter has been a surprisingly pesky thorn in Dirk's side. Splitter may be next-to-useless against a hyperathletic 4 like Serge Ibaka or LeBron James, but he's proved to be an excellent switch onto aging finesse men like Dirk.
McNeill: Kawhi Leonard. No matter how good he becomes as a scorer and one-on-one defender, Leonard will always and forever be an X factor because of the havoc he can wreak on the in-between plays. The out-of-nowhere steals and deflections. The go-go-gadget-arms offensive rebounds. He's tough to account for each possession.
Stein: If the Mavs want to make this a longer series than the outside world expects, it's Samuel Dalembert. The only decent D that Dallas plays happens when Dalembert is a factor. Can he find a way to avoid foul trouble to stay on the floor? Would it even matter against the Spurs' precise execution? Skepticism is inevitable.
4. What's one BOLD prediction for this series?
Gordian: Danny Green will lead the Spurs in scoring. The Mavs struggle to defend the 3-point line, and Ellis, who will guard Green, periodically loses players who are active off the ball. The Mavs were especially bad at guarding 3s from the corner, the Spurs' sweet spot. Green could have a huge series.
MacMahon: Mark Cuban, who might be the most despised man in San Antonio, won't say anything inflammatory. He's watched his mouth during the playoffs since his self-imposed silence -- a suggestion from his coach and superstar -- in the last three series of the Mavs' title run.
McGuire: The Spurs lose one of their first two home games. They haven't fielded a full squad since April 6, two weeks prior to Game 1. The Mavs have been playing at full bore for months. During the Duncan years, San Antonio often loses one of the first two playoff home games out of rust and sleepiness (see: 2011, 2009, 2007, 2005, 2003, 2002 and 1999). I expect that'll continue this year.
McNeill: Monta Ellis will be the high scorer in this series. Dirk is deadly, but with the Spurs focusing much of their attention on the big German, Ellis will get some freedom. Monta can also hit the midrange jumper off the pick-and-roll, which is an area the Spurs are typically content with giving up shots.
Stein: Mark Cuban won't say anything to enrage the San Antonio fans he loves to rile up. (Yeah, right.)
5. Who wins this series and in how many games?
5-on-5: 2014 Playoff Series Previews
Our five-expert teams break down every first-round series in the '14 postseason.
• 5-on-5 preview: Pacers vs. Hawks
• 5-on-5 preview: Heat vs. Bobcats
• 5-on-5 preview: Raptors vs. Nets
• 5-on-5 preview: Bulls vs. Wizards
• 5-on-5 preview: Spurs vs. Mavericks
• 5-on-5 preview: Thunder vs. Grizzlies
• 5-on-5 preview: Clippers vs. Warriors
• 5-on-5 preview: Rockets vs. Blazers
Gordian: Spurs in 5. I believe Dirk is such an overwhelming talent that he can propel the Mavs to at least one win, but this is a very difficult matchup for Dallas.
MacMahon: Spurs in 5. Hey, the law of averages indicates that the Mavs have to beat the Spurs again one of these days after dropping nine in a row to their Interstate 35 rivals. But Dallas' poor defense makes it unlikely that this series will have much drama.
McGuire: Spurs in 5. Even when the Spurs DO lose one of their first two home games, it isn't necessarily a bad omen -- they've only lost two of the seven aforementioned series even though they ceded home court in all of them. Dallas has a fighting chance at one of the first few games, but Pop's defense will tinker as the series goes on and end it swiftly.
McNeill: Spurs in 5. I'm leaning toward Spurs in four, but it's so hard to beat a team eight straight times in a single season (San Antonio swept the regular season series 4-0). The Mavs also score so well that I think Dallas can avoid the sweep.
Stein: Spurs in 5. San Antonio has racked up nine consecutive regular-season wins over their old rivals to the north. The Spurs, to be honest, are in the Mavs' heads a little bit by now. You saw how badly Dallas wanted to move up to the No. 7 seed given how fierce Wednesday night's battle in Memphis was. The Mavs wanted to avoid the Spurs as much as Memphis did. The respect for Dirk and Rick Carlisle is such that you have to assume they'll find a way to end their recent hex against the black-and-silver to win a game. But it's tough to envision a long series here.