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Knowledge is power

Familiarity makes for riveting Mavs-Spurs showdown

Posted: Saturday May 13, 2006 2:01PM; Updated: Saturday May 13, 2006 2:01PM
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Manu Ginobili has struggled to duplicate last season's strong playoff performance.
Manu Ginobili has struggled to duplicate last season's strong playoff performance.
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It's hard not to act giddy in anticipation of tonight's Game 3 between the San Antonio Spurs and Dallas Mavericks. The teams have taken on the mind-set of their respective coaches, Gregg Popovich (Coach of the Year, 2003) and Avery Johnson (same hardware, 2006), two like-minded hoop know-it-alls who more or less took on the mind-set of each other when they worked together in Golden State and San Antonio some years before. Because of this incestuous cross-matching of coaches and players (the Spurs boast two former Mavs, Dallas created its current administration in San Antonio's image), the teams have a strange but endearing way of regarding each other.

The reverence shared between these two squads is a little strange, but hardly alarming, and far from astonishing. These guys like each other. They respect the opposite team's abilities but fall short of fearing them. And yet, because both the Spurs and Mavericks are so confident in their own styles and personnel, this veneration hardly manifests itself in the form of fawning -- or worse, self-doubt in the face of a formidable opponent.

With that in mind, we're probably looking at the best series of the 2006 playoffs, and Game 3 will be a pivotal pairing. The Mavericks' dominant Game 2, in which their offense came alive while their steadily stifling defense stayed true, won't deter the defending champs, but it will force them to take stock of their own shortcomings. San Antonio struggles to rebound, Manu Ginobili (20 percent on 3-pointers in the playoffs) looks like a shell of the dynamo who traipsed through the postseason last spring, and the Spurs' perimeter defense is beyond porous -- a strange trademark for the team that was first in defensive efficiency (allowing 101 points per 100 possessions) during the regular season.

Dallas' job, after its Game 2 win, was to take stock in the things that made the rout possible. This is an active club that is at its best when attacking the paint. The Mavericks were the second-best offensive rebounding team, by percentage, in the NBA during the regular season (astonishing for a team that shoots as well as Dallas), and that advantage has carried over to the postseason. They can also throw waves of determined, unflinching playoff performers at the Spurs, and just imagine if Jason Terry (the star of last year's playoff run, currently shooting 27 percent from beyond the arc) gets on track.

With three full days to prepare, expect Popovich to have all sorts of defensive quirks ready for the Mavericks. Expect Bruce Bowen's help defense to improve, but not enough to pry him from Nowitzki's right hand. Expect Ginobili to try to swipe for a few steals, but not to the point where he stops focusing on his own defensive charge. Expect more minutes for Nazr Mohammed and Rasho Nesterovic -- their limited ticks helped the Mavs outrebound the Spurs by 12 in the first two games -- but don't look for either of them to play more than half the game.

Look for balance, because that's the luxury of having three days off between games. San Antonio will make the defensive adjustments, but it won't make rash decisions. The time off was spent overreacting to the Game 2 loss, coming to grips with it and finding a nice middle ground between liability and over-compensation to work off of.

Conversely, expect Dallas (and Johnson, especially) to see these changes coming and handle a recharged San Antonio outfit expertly. The Mavericks believe in their coach so implicitly that they'll feed off his steely resolve -- even in the face of something like a double-figure deficit in the first quarter.

For the first time in the franchise's history, the Mavericks players have faith in one another. More than in the Mark Aguirre years, more than in Don Nelson's iconoclastic trip through the earlier part of this decade and heaps more than the self-loathing bunch that made it to the Western Conference semifinals last season. They believe in their depth, coaches, role players and superstar. It may not be enough to take down an angry Spurs team in Game 3, but it will be enough to ensure a competitive first game in Dallas, and an exciting series.