(SportsNetwork.com) - For the sixth time since 2001, the San Antonio Spurs and Dallas Mavericks will square off in the playoffs.
For the 17th consecutive season, the Spurs will be in the postseason. Think of it this way, if a child was born when Tim Duncan joined San Antonio, that child would probably be making college visits this summer.
"We had an unbelievable regular season, we put ourselves in a great situation to be No. 1 overall," said Manu Ginobili. "We're going for it, like every year."
The Mavericks are back in the playoffs after a one-year absence, meaning Dallas has been in the postseason 13 of the last 14 years. They earned the eighth seed after a gritty overtime loss on Wednesday to the Grizzlies in Memphis.
"Yeah, we'll be OK," Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said immediately after the loss in Memphis. "I feel good about our team. I really do. And (Wednesday night) is a great indication of the fight we have in us. We're going to take that fight to San Antonio."
To say these two teams know each other well would be an understatement. The Spurs have won nine straight against their Texas rivals, including a four-game sweep this season, but that doesn't mean Dallas doesn't know what it takes to beat San Antonio.
"What you've got to do against San Antonio is you've got to be a little smarter than we were in the last couple of outings," said Dirk Nowitzki. "We feel like one little, two little mistakes and boom, it's a three. A brutal missed boxout, pass out and three. Against that team you've got to be smart, you've got to execute perfectly and we've got to shoot the ball well."
If there was ever a season the Spurs could've folded, this would've been the one. Their longevity is stunning, but this season could've very easily been a championship defense until Ray Allen stuck a dagger in the Spurs' hearts.
Miami's Allen made a crazy 3-pointer to tie Game 6 of the NBA Finals, a game the Heat went on to win. Miami took Game 7 to win back-to-back titles, but the inevitability of a San Antonio win in Game 6 was so clear, tape was being put up around the floor in Miami to prepare for San Antonio's celebration.
"What does impress me about the group is that they've gotten themselves in this position after a devastating loss in the Finals last year," head coach Gregg Popovich said earlier in the week. "I thought they were pretty amazing after Game 6 to play as hard as they did in Game 7, when I think a lot of teams would have just given in. Beyond that, they came back, put it aside and have done what they've done. I think that's pretty impressive. I don't think a lot of people have picked up on that but I have and I'm really impressed with them."
For the seventh time since 1997, the Spurs finished with the best record in the Western Conference. The Big Three of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Ginobili returned intact and key contributors did exactly what Spurs' role players do - they played sensationally.
Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, Tiago Splitter, Patty Mills, Boris Diaw and especially newcomer Marco Belinelli played brilliantly for stretches this season.
Popovich is a master of resting his players as the season progresses and San Antonio heads to the postseason in good health.
Dallas is also healthy and got back to the postseason thanks to a few new faces, although the most familiar face was once again great.
Nowitzki made yet another All-Star team with averages of 21.7 ppg and 6.2 rpg. He shot 90 percent from the foul line, almost 50 percent from the field and just about 40 percent from long range.
Monta Ellis and Jose Calderon joined the Mavs in the offseason and formed a very strong backcourt. They combined to average 30.4 ppg and 10.4 apg. Vince Carter is still a productive player who founded his niche as a sixth man. Samuel Dalembert and Shawn Marion provide defense and Devin Harris and Brandan Wright were vital when they returned from injury.
BACKCOURT: Parker made yet another All-Star team, but missed some time late in the season with a back injury. He played 68 games this season and should be well-rested for the playoff push. Parker hasn't lost a step and is still an elite penetrator, plus, he understands body angles better than anyone in the association. Green set an NBA record for made 3-pointers in a Finals with 27. Like Parker, Green missed time due to injury, but he's back in form and will be counted on to extend the floor when Parker knifes through the lane or Duncan gets double-teamed on the block.
While the starting San Antonio backcourt missed a combined 28 games, Ellis and Calderon missed one. (Shame on you, Jose.) Their durability is never in question, obviously, and neither is their play-making. Both averaged over 4.5 assists per game and both shot 45 percent from the floor. Ellis is much more offensive-minded than Calderon, but the Spaniard is protective of the ball (1.27 turnovers per game) and is a great long-distance shooter (45 percent). Neither is a good defensive player.
FRONTCOURT: Much like a fine wine, Duncan might get better with age. He was First-Team All-NBA last season and he'll probably make one of the three teams this season. Duncan played 74 games and averaged 15.1 ppg, 9.7 rpg and 1.87 blocks. He's still an amazing talent and he carried the Spurs on his back at times during last season's Finals run. Splitter was rewarded with a huge contract in the offseason and he was in and out of the lineup, playing 59 games. He's a great compliment to Duncan and is active. Leonard blossomed last postseason and had a good year, but he didn't turn into the All-Star some thought he might. He averaged 12.8 ppg and 6.2 rpg, shot 52 percent from the field and 38 percent from beyond the arc. Leonard is still the best defensive wing play in a San Antonio jersey.
Nowitzki is like Duncan in that there's been little regression. His stepback jumper is one of the most lethal moves in the game. Marion isn't The Matrix any longer, but he's still versatile and still works harder than most on the defensive end. Dalembert started 68 games at center and is simply the best option at that spot. He's turned into a below-average rim protector at this stage.
BENCH: The Spurs' bench led the NBA in scoring this season with an average of 45.1 ppg. They had three second-unit guys average double-figures - Ginobili, Belinelli and Mills - and a fourth in Diaw, who posted 9.1 ppg. This unit is sensational, versatile and battle-tested. Popovich isn't afraid to use them, or inject some of them into the starting lineup based on matchups, or ineffective play from starters like Splitter.
The Mavs were sixth in bench scoring and that was mostly because of Carter. He shoots the 3-ball at 39 percent, plays valuable fourth-quarter minutes and is a veteran leader. Wright and Harris are key assets and DeJuan Blair and Jae Crowder could be useful.
COACHING: Carlisle is an NBA championship winner, an All-Star game head coach and a Coach of the Year. He's at a minimum one of the top-seven coaches in the league.
He's not Popovich.
PREDICTION: With a nine-game series winning streak, San Antonio is a clear favorite, but don't sleep on the Mavericks. They won 49 games and feature several playoff-tested veterans, a title-winning coach and a future Hall of Famer with a ring of his own. However, the Spurs are clicking on all cylinders. Duncan, Parker and Ginobili are rested and ready. Last year's Finals loss has to stick in their hearts and provides serious motivation. They have supplanted the Miami Heat, Indiana Pacers, Oklahoma City Thunder or anyone else as the favorite to win the championship. San Antonio should have little trouble with Dallas in the sense that the series might not last terribly long, but the Mavs will play hard.
SPORTS NETWORK PREDICTION: SPURS in FOUR.