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On the offensive

Lineup shift gives Johnson, Mavericks upper hand

Posted: Wednesday May 10, 2006 1:58AM; Updated: Wednesday May 10, 2006 11:50AM
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Devin Harris
Devin Harris (pictured) logged 33 minutes of action, scoring 20 points, while Adrian Griffin played only four.
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
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SAN ANTONIO -- Before Game 1 of the Mavs-Spurs series, a member of the San Antonio coaching staff watched warmups and mentioned what he thought would be a key to the series. It had nothing to do with Tim Duncan and his balky feet or Dirk Nowitzki, but rather with a less-heralded player: Adrian Griffin. If Griffin were still starting after two games, the coach said, he'd be surprised.

It didn't take that long. After starting Game 1, Griffin not only began Tuesday's Game 2 on the bench, replaced by Devin Harris, but he didn't come into the game until 3˝ minutes were left in the first half. It was indicative of what may be -- Duncan and Nowitzki's performance aside -- the difference-maker in this series: the matchup of wing players.

Coming in, the Spurs' wings had a mental edge, as they'd just finished playing the role of tackling dummies for the Kings' duo of Bonzi Wells and Ron Artest. To then face off against the (relatively) lithe Mavs guards must have been like jogging with ankle weights for a mile and then taking them off. Blessed relief. Dallas' wing players, on the other hand, had the advantage of being physically rested.

The benching of Griffin on Tuesday was a concession from Avery Johnson that his team lost the battle in Game 1. In Johnson's system, Griffin is the equivalent of Bruce Bowen, an attack-dog defender who can guard an array of positions but shoots only when absolutely necessary (and sometimes not even then). In Game 1, Griffin played 19 minutes. While he displayed his usual sticky D, he only scored three points, effectively giving San Antonio's wing players a free pass defensively when he was in the game.

This left Johnson with a dilemma. The success of the Mavs this season has been predicated on defense, but Dallas' best offensive weapon was Jerry Stackhouse in Game 1. If Johnson plays Stackhouse and Josh Howard (or, to a lesser extent, Harris) together, the Spurs have matchup problems. Stackhouse is too tough a cover for the Spurs' shooters (primarily Brent Barry, who looked lost against him in Game 1), and Harris is too quick for their bigger guards (like Michael Finley). Neither is the defender Griffin is, but sometimes you're better off having scorers than stoppers.

So we get the type of Matchup Battleship we saw last night, Pop and Avery each trying to find the best, if at times unconventional, lineups. It's not just Bowen on Dirk, bear-hugging and all, but Robert Horry trying to guard Howard on the perimeter (not so good) and Johnson going small with three-guard lineups. The key to any head-to-head game, from Connect Four to the NBA, is to make your opponent react to your move. On Tuesday, Pop was the one playing catch-up.

As the series continues, if you want an indicator of how the series is going for the Mavs, just watch Griffin's minutes; if he's not playing, their offensive strategy is working. On San Antonio's side, watch Barry's minutes; if his shooting keeps him on the floor for long stretches, consider Popovich to have the upper hand.

Other notes/thoughts from the Spurs-Mavs:

• Gotta love David Robinson showing up to the SBC Center in a Ginobili jersey for Game 1. Rarely are star athletes so lacking in pretension. Can you imagine Michael Jordan wearing a Chris Duhon jersey to a Bulls playoff game? Kareem sporting a Kwame Brown?

• Former Spur Malik Rose, who used to have to guard Duncan in practice, had this to say about Duncan's foot problems: "I compare Tim to Steve Kerr. Steve could miss 10 shots in a row and they'd still run at him on the 11th. Tim's the same way. Plantar fasciitis or no, he'll always command that double."

• As much as Avery Johnson is celebrated for his defense, he's doing some interesting stuff on offense as well. One scout who was at Game 1 talked admiringly of his half-court sets, specifically the way the Mavs will run high pick-and-rolls into side pick-and-rolls (Johnson's "horns" series of plays).

• Through two games, the Spurs' "center" combination of Rasho Nesterovic and Nazr Mohammed has totaled one point in 23 minutes. So much for the tradition of twin towers in San Antonio.