These two pillars -- the old Spurs and the, well, old Mavericks -- have been written off at various points of 2008-09. The Spurs were cast aside when Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker suffered early injuries and the team took its time to find itself in the West's top eight teams. The Mavericks? ... Well, every single day. But here we are, with both teams facing reasonable paths to the conference finals. Right?
Reason to Watch
This is a series of legends. Tim Duncan might be in worse shape than ever, but he still dropped 20 points, 19 rebounds and six assists in the season-ending victory over New Orleans. Dirk Nowitzki hasn't been further from MVP consideration since 2004 or so -- but he's still one of the most marvelous scorers in the league, and one of the best offensive forwards ever. Tony Parker hasn't reached his age-based peak, and he boasts an insane resumé and an insane game. Jason Kidd is flickering out, but he proved this year you can teach an old dog new tricks (read: the spot-up three).
How San Antonio Can Win
The Spurs need Duncan to renew that N.O. game a few times, because really he's their only above-average big man. Kurt Thomas is stout, but Matt Bonner and Drew Gooden are limited, and Dallas has a big advantage in depth in the frontcourt. Gooden is the type of player who can get hot for a series, who can pop out of nowhere for a 20-point, 10-rebound game. But relying on that -- especially considering how mucked Gooden's season has been, and how recently he joined S.A. -- is too chance-based. Duncan needs to be the best big man in this series.
How Dallas Can Win
Josh Howard must live. This team is gobs better when he's attacking, both on offense and defense. He can be among the best defenders in the league at the three. While he has no natural match-up on the Spurs, he's versatile enough to cause problems from the 2 to the 4. On the other end, Howard has been irrelevant for about 80% of this season, and 100% of last season's first-round series. But signs of perking up have appeared the last couple weeks.
Video Clip to Get You Pumped
Every Dirk highlight should be dubbed in German. And the video says, this is Dirk's most famous and-1 -- it might be the biggest and-1 of the decade. And the Mavericks would have won the championship, too! if not for those pesky
Stud of the Series
Tony Parker. The Mavericks operate at production deficits at two of the five positions: small forward, where they have played a smorgasbord of role players through Howard's injuries, including but not limited to Antoine Wright and Gerald Green, and point guard, where they have a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer who can longer stay in front of a school bus, let alone the league's Ferrarri point guards. Parker isn't your typical set-up man, but he's a fine distributor. The Mavericks will be forced to help on Parker constantly, and I have faith T.P. will find the open Spurs.
(Jason Terry might be a good answer here, as well.)
Other than Kidd's defense, I would offer some reluctance in expecting a Howard revival. For whatever reason, it's easy to get Howard playing recklessly, carelessly. The Spurs might not be the absolute best defensive team any longer, but they're damn good. Providing just some resistance against Howard might send him back into a basketball tailspin, a la last year's New Orleans series. And that'd be close to a death sentence for the Mavs.
San Antonio: Brinson, Moore, Steinmetz, Ziller.
Dallas: Jones, Pollakoff, Watson.
I took Spurs, and I assume a six- or seven-game series. To me, it's a tug-of-war between Duncan's constant power and Dirk's fireworks. Each have won old battles -- these are hardened soldiers who have done this before and just might do it again. But in the end, I can't ignore the clip-on-loop of Parker dribbling by Kidd. If any opponent made Kidd a liability on defense ... well, that'd be New Orleans. (See: last year.) But if there's a No. 2, it's San Antonio. Parker is too fast, too smart, too good for Kidd, and I think the next couple weeks will bear that out.