Western Conference Is All-Texas Showdown
SAN ANTONIO (AP) _ Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban was drenched in sweat as he sat in his team’s workout room and fired the first mild salvo in the Great Texas Showdown, a.k.a. the Western Conference finals.
``The state of Texas is great. The city of San Antonio is great, but Dallas is a better city no matter what happens,″ he said.
Cuban’s comment probably won’t sit well with the silver-and-black clad citizens of the smaller of the two towns when the best-of-seven series begins Monday night.
The first Shaq-less and Kobe-free Western Conference finals of the decade is a matchup of two 60-win teams that closely monitored the other’s progress in early April, when the Spurs closed in and eventually caught the Mavericks atop the Midwest Division.
The styles of the teams are as different as the two cities separated by 275 miles of Interstate 35.
``We have more weapons than they have, but their best player can make their average players look great,″ was how Dallas’ Nick Van Exel summed it up Sunday.
The Spurs revolve around their franchise player, Tim Duncan, and run their offense based on the way their opponent defends him. If Duncan is double-teamed, the ball gets worked around to one of their outside shooting specialists _ Stephen Jackson and Bruce Bowen _ or one of their penetrators _ Tony Parker or Manu Ginobili.
If Duncan is left in single coverage, he’ll dip into his vast array of post-up moves and create his own shot, feeling equally comfortable banking the ball off the glass or shooting it straight in.
The Mavericks prefer a helter-skelter style that creates fast-break points. In the halfcourt offense, they rely on jump shots because of their lack of a low-post scorer.
And whereas the Spurs are somewhat predictable on offense, the Mavs are anything but. From Dirk Nowitzki’s face-up game to Steve Nash’s directionless dribbling to Michael Finley’s all-around offensive talent to Van Exel’s explosiveness off the bench, Dallas and its creative coach, Don Nelson, have innumerable ways to confound an opponent and turn a game into a shootout.
``You’re never prepared for everything with Nelly, never,″ said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, who spent two seasons as Nelson’s assistant at Golden State. ``He’ll have a beer tonight and he’ll try to think of some way to confound me and our team because that’s the way he’s built, and he’s the best at it.″
While the Spurs won the NBA championship in 1999 and advanced to the conference finals in 2001, this will be the first appearance for the Mavericks in NBA’s final four since 1988, when they lost to the Los Angeles Lakers in the first Game 7 in franchise history.
Dallas has already played two Game 7s in this year’s postseason, defeating Portland in the first round and Sacramento in the next.
``Game 7 you’re on an emotional high, and then two days later you play another game. We have to make sure we forget about this now and get ready for San Antonio,″ Nowitzki said.
San Antonio is a significant city for Nowitzki, because it’s where his career took off. In 1998, he was playing at an event called the Nike Hoop Summit, a high-school All-Star event held during the Final Four, at which he had an incredible performance despite playing with the flu.
When Dallas and San Antonio met two years ago in the conference semifinals, Nowitzki scored 42 points in Game 5, when the Spurs eliminated the Mavericks.
Nelson brought his dog ``Lucky″ to practice Sunday as his team went over strategy for the upcoming series. Nowitzki said Dallas would make liberal use of a zone defense, which will allow 7-foot-6 center Shawn Bradley to act as a shot-blocking deterrent to Duncan and David Robinson.
But Nelson cautioned that the Mavs will not stick with any single defensive scheme for too long, because Duncan is a master at making adjustments. Nelson also said the role player he fears most is Ginobili, the rookie from Argentina who’s averaging nearly 10 points a game in the postseason.
Nelson declined to comment on his uncertain job status, which remains a much-debated issue in Dallas. Nelson, who has never led a team to the NBA Finals, is in the final year of his coaching contract but has three years left as general manager. Cuban has said there will be no talk of an extension until the summer.
The Spurs also have plenty of uncertainty in their future. Robinson is set to retire after this season, and the contracts of Steve Smith, Steve Kerr, Kevin Willis and Danny Ferry will expire _ giving San Antonio upwards of $15 million in salary-cap space to offer to free agents this summer.
All that is in the future, however, and what matters now is the present.
``We wanted to play Dallas; Dallas was the team that everyone said was going to give us the best challenge. Sacramento was wounded a little bit,″ Spurs guard Stephen Jackson said.
The Spurs are the favorites, largely because of Duncan, but the Mavericks are not to be taken lightly.
Dallas benefited from injuries to Portland’s Derek Anderson in the first round and Sacramento’s Chris Webber in the second round, but the Mavericks showed some newfound maturity and played their best ball when it was absolutely essential to make the big leap their fans had waited so long for.
``We’re very confident with ourselves,″ Van Exel said. ``We’ve got swagger.″