Wednesday, May 17, 2006
DALLAS, May 16 -- The San Antonio Spurs have accomplished so much in recent years that they needed something new to rally around this season.
Their pick: Trying to become back-to-back champions for the first time.
The mid-May update?
Well, now the Spurs are simply trying to avoid turning into roadkill as they usually do in their non-title seasons.
In all five seasons that Tim Duncan hasn't won the NBA title, the Spurs have been knocked out the first time they've faced elimination. It can happen again Wednesday night when they lug a 3-1 deficit into Game 5 of their second-round series against the Dallas Mavericks.
"At one point we were talking, 'We gotta repeat. We gotta repeat,' " forward Robert Horry said Tuesday. "Now we're just thinking about playing good basketball."
The Spurs have been good the last two games, but the Mavericks have been better. Playing at home, Dallas won Games 3 and 4 in the closing seconds, pulling out a 123-118 victory in overtime Monday night.
San Antonio goes home for Game 5 carrying a three-game losing streak, the longest in a season that featured a franchise-record 63 wins. How the Spurs respond in Game 5 will determine whether this team deserves to be lumped in with the others that plummeted when pushed to the playoff ledge.
"We feel good," defensive stopper Bruce Bowen said. "Guys' attitudes are great."
"Amazingly," added Horry, "when we came in today, nobody was down. Usually, when you come in guys are complaining or moaning about what's going on. Everybody was cheerful. Everybody is looking forward to getting back out on the court and getting a win."
The last game was the best of a series that keeps getting better.
San Antonio came out with Duncan and four players 6 feet 7 or shorter, then ran circles around Dallas, with Tony Parker doing most of the running. He finished with a career playoff-best 33 points, Duncan scored 31 and Manu Ginobili had 26 -- and it still wasn't enough for the Spurs.
They nearly had a storybook ending with former Mavs star Michael Finley answering two games worth of boos with a go-ahead three-pointer with 15.4 seconds left, but reigning Mavs star Dirk Nowitzki forced overtime with a pair of free throws, then Dallas's two point guards, Jason Terry and Devin Harris, made key plays in the extra period.
As much as this series has lived up to its billing, the Mavericks are eager to get it over with -- now.
"You never want momentum in a series to change," Nowitzki said. "You saw it in the first round with Phoenix and Los Angeles. The Lakers go up 3-1 and it looks like they had it wrapped. Then Phoenix killed them in Game 5 and I think the whole momentum changed.
"So we can't be satisfied or relaxed. We've got to go out with the same energy and focus. We've got to show a killer instinct."
The Mavericks have thus far, going 7-1 this postseason. The only loss was by two points on the road. They've gone to overtime twice and haven't trailed in either one.
Nowitzki has scored at least 20 points in every game this postseason and in 36 straight games since Feb. 21. But he hasn't been doing it alone against San Antonio. Dallas has had a different leading scorer in every game.
The Mavericks also have held a rebounding advantage in all their playoff games, something Coach Avery Johnson pointed to with pride Tuesday.
Still, it will take closing out the Spurs for him to sleep easy.
"As a coach, you're always thinking the other team is going to come out and play the perfect game and yours isn't," he said.
Johnson also won't be swayed by San Antonio's recent playoff history, some of which he was part of as the starting point guard.
The facts are interesting and a bit surprising for a team that's won two of the last three titles and three of the last seven.
In games the Spurs have had to win to keep a series going, they're 0-5, losing by an average of 13.6 points. San Antonio did avoid elimination by winning Game 7 of last year's NBA Finals, but that's a bit different because the series was ending either way.
The Mavericks' brief playoff history under Johnson includes victories in their last two games when they could be the eliminator. They won a Game 7 against Houston last year by 40 points and drubbed Memphis by 26 to close out a first-round sweep this year.
"Hopefully," Dallas's Jason Terry said, "the next game will be the last."