SAN ANTONIO -- You always expect the Dallas Mavericks to win a free-throw contest. Maybe you don't expect them to sink a sick 49 in a row, but you know if anyone in today's fundamentally unsound NBA is going to do that in a big playoff game, it's going to be them.
Like Don Nelson said: "We're better than anyone in basketball."
At the line, yes.
At the other end?
That's where rebounds and defensive stands are needed. That's where a team has to make a free-throw display for the ages hold up. That's where the Mavericks, astonishingly accurate as they were from the stripe, really surprised you late, late, late Monday night.
With 2:45 to play in Game 1 of the Lone Star Free Throw Invitational, Tim Duncan sank two freebies to give the San Antonio Spurs a five-point lead. The morning-after hoopla will undoubtedly focus on the Mavericks' unerring aim and the truly tortuous officiating that led to 98 foul shots combined in a three-hour tooth pull ... but don't overlook the fact that the Spurs didn't score another point in that final 2:45.
That's because the Mavericks' famously porous defense stiffened just enough, at the finish, to get what their coaching staff refers to as "situational stops." The defense got five situational stops in a row, including Duncan's airballed jump hook in the final minute with Dallas leading by just a point.
Having long since abandoned the hope that this roster, as presently constituted, can hold the opposition in the 80s or 90s, Nelson and his staff have latched onto a new emphasis -- getting stops at key times to win tight games. In the winner's locker room after this 113-110 triumph, several Mavericks were prouder of their late defensive resistance than any of those many uncontested swishes from 15 feet.
"Without a doubt," said Dallas' Raef LaFrentz. "We don't have to be the best defensive team in the world. But there's no reason we can't do what we did tonight."
Free throws, of course, have been the Spurs' biggest blind spot, and there's no chance Dallas would have stolen the opener without San Antonio missing 17 of 48 attempts. Yet the Spurs were still in prime position to win in spite of all the charity, at 110-105, before the Mavericks started turning them back.
Tony Parker had three of the Spurs' last five shots and was hounded into three misses, the last of them an 18-foot fallaway jumper that wasn't close. The others were an errant 3-pointer by Danny Ferry and Duncan's airball.
LaFrentz downplayed the Mavericks' involvement on the MVP's miss, saying simply that, "Dirk did a good job staying with him and I think (Duncan) lost it on the way up." Duncan, meanwhile, had to figure he was headed to the line -- on the premise that this night had to have one more whistle coming -- whether the ball reached the rim or not.
Not up for debate, though, is that the Mavericks adjusted at halftime, after Duncan rampaged for 26 points in the first two quarters. The other standout aspect of Dallas' Game 1 defense featured an array of half-doubles and fake switches and zoning and trapping that limited Duncan to 14 points after the half. Plus, at the end, they survived Duncan's jump hook with their best (Eduardo Najera) and tallest (Shawn Bradley) Duncan defenders on the bench, both having fouled out.
"The entire third and fourth quarter, they put guys in the middle of the lane in a semi-double team without actually double-teaming," Duncan said. "They were close enough to discourage anything in the middle."
Said the Mavericks' Steve Nash: "We basically just got to him quicker."
Basically, that's defense. Or as much defense as Dallas plays. The crazy thing about these playoffs is that Dallas continues to get by with that much defense and win with an offense-heavy style that isn't supposed to work in the post-season.
Before Monday's tipoff, Mavericks guard-turned-playoff assistant coach Avery Johnson launched into a passionate discourse about the club's improvements at the defensive end. "I'm telling you," Johnson said. "We're getting a lot better at getting situational stops."
Afterward, back among familiar faces in San Antonio and holding a 1-0 lead, Johnson was positively giddy about the crunch-time shutout and the Mavericks' bonus 46-37 edge on the boards. When he wasn't driving baseline for dunks and adding his 17 free throws to the haul, Dirk Nowitzki could be seen hauling down four defensive rebounds in the final 2:45 and blocking a layup attempt by Parker.
So, yeah. The Mavericks' defense merits more than a passing mention. It was much more than a footnote to the 49-for-50 clinic ... and Nelson's successful intentional fouling of Bruce Bowen, which helped Dallas cut into an early 18-point deficit.
"Last year, we don't win this game," Johnson said.
Another aspect of the Mavericks' evolution is that they don't plan to overreact to the win, either.
"We're definitely more playoff-ready than we were (the last springs) because of what we've gone through in the playoffs," Nash said. "Nobody wants to go seven games, but (going the distance in the last two series') obviously helped us.
"But we're not going to act like this is the greatest thing in the world. This is just a start."