The San Antonio Spurs entered their first-round playoff series against the Dallas Mavericks with the best record in the NBA and a nine-game win streak against their opponent. It took the full seven games, but they finally asserted the dominance that seemed likely when the matchup was set two weeks ago.
In an overpowering display, the Spurs handled the No. 8-seed Mavericks 119-96 to close out their otherwise competitive first-round series. Dallas' only lead came after Dirk Nowitzki scored the first basket of the game. Other than that, the Spurs outclassed their in-state rivals in every facet, asserting themselves as one of the league's top title contenders and a team that remains extremely comfortable in high-pressure situations.
The Mavs are known for their elite offense, but they kept pace with the Spurs for the first six games of this series largely through their surprising ability to limit their opponents at the other end. That defense was not present in Game 7, with the Spurs getting off to a blistering start. The first-half stats are gaudy: 26-of-38 shooting from the field (68.4 percent) and 4-of-8 from beyond the arc, with point guard Tony Parker leading the way with 24 points on 9-of-12 shooting.
Parker entered the series with what seemed like a huge advantage over middling perimeter defenders like Jose Calderon and Monta Ellis, but he played below those lofty expectations. In Game 7, he exceeded them, attacking the basket at every opportunity and slicing up Mavericks defenders. His longtime co-stars were terrific as well — Tim Duncan hit for 12 points on 6-of-7 from the field and Manu Ginobili added 11 points on an ultra-efficient four field goal attempts.
At the same time, the Mavericks failed to score at anything resembling their top form. Dirk Nowitzki had 17 first-half points on 6-of-13 shooting, but he was the team's top performer by a considerable margin. Nine first-half turnovers didn't help, either, and the Mavericks entered the halftime break looking at a 68-46 deficit.
Early in the second half, it looked as if they might make it a more competitive game. Head coach Rick Carlisle started a small, shooting-heavy lineup with Nowitzki at center, and the Mavericks started the half on a 15-7 run to cut the lead to 14 with 7:54 remaining. Unfortunately for them, that stretch proved to be their best showing Sunday. The Spurs quickly recaptured their edge and built the lead back up to 94-68 by the end of the quarter, turning the fourth into a formality.
It's hard to exaggerate how thoroughly the Spurs dominated. They got the shots they wanted and made them, spread the wealth around, and held the Mavs to 40.9 percent shooting over 48 minutes. Parker was brilliant and finished with 32 points on 11-of-19 from the field, but it was a full team effort with four players scoring in the range of 15 through 20 points on excellent shooting.
This rout unfortunately put an anticlimactic spin on what was a very competitive series in which two veteran teams fought with the utmost respect for their opponents. Players and coaches exchanged sincere pleasantries after the final buzzer, and Parker specifically told sideline reporter Doris Burke about the Spurs' respect for how the Mavericks play. Playoff series are often rated on how much teams appear to dislike each other, but this one succeeded simply because the basketball was so crisp.
The Spurs will now face the Portland Trail Blazers in the Western Conference semifinals, with Game 1 taking place at the AT&T Center on Tuesday.
On the other side, the Mavericks enter an offseason with several key players hitting free agency. Despite that potential for change, it's clear Carlisle has built a system that can withstand a few alterations. This team may not challenge for a title in this form, but they produced some of the best basketball of the postseason so far.