The San Antonio Spurs figured they were probably going to face the Dallas Mavericks in the first round of the playoffs. So they went ahead and made sure of it by having Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili sit out the season finale – against the Mavericks, no less.
Dallas beat San Antonio 96-89 Wednesday night in a game Dirk Nowitzki said had "a little preseason feel out there." The Spurs took an early lead, but the Mavs went ahead with a 16-2 spurt at the end of the first quarter and never trailed again. Dallas locked up the second seed in the Western Conference, San Antonio the seventh. Even if the Spurs had won, they could’ve moved up to No. 6 and the Mavs could’ve fallen to No. 3, which still would’ve meant a first-round matchup. The only other way it could’ve worked out was San Antonio playing Phoenix, and apparently the Spurs preferred their chances against their in-state rivals.
"If they’re looking for us," Dallas center Brendan Haywood said, "they’ll see us this weekend."
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Yet Haywood was among many in the Mavs locker room who insisted they weren’t offended that a lower-seeded team wants to play them. Nowitzki laughed and said, "It seems like we play them every year in the playoffs anyway."
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said his decision was all about resting his stars. There was a little gamesmanship to it, too, as he had both in the initial lineup he turned in. Neither even ended up sitting on the bench.
Popovich probably felt better about his decision after George Hill, who recently missed four games with an ankle injury, aggravated it by tripping over a cameraman during the first quarter. He didn’t return.
"The real bottom line is that I’m paranoid about Timmy and Manu being healthy for the playoffs," Popovich said. "We’ve had playoffs where Timmy hasn’t played, where Manu hasn’t played, where Timmy’s been half-speed, where Manu’s been half-speed for a variety of reasons. We’re entering this playoff pretty healthy except for George and I didn’t want to screw that up. … I want a healthy team come playoff time and that’s really the bottom line."
Getting the No. 2 seed mattered to Dallas because it comes with home-court advantage in a second-round series. The Mavs sure didn’t look hungry for it in the early minutes, trailing 14-10 late in the first quarter.
Then Jason Kidd made a pair of free throws, a 3-pointer, set up Shawn Marion for a fast-break dunk and followed with a three-point play, all without the Spurs scoring a single point. San Antonio finally made a shot, but then Jason Terry swished a pair of 3s, the last with 1.9 seconds left in the quarter. The Mavs never pulled away, their biggest lead just 14. The Spurs got within six with 3:31 to go, forcing Dallas coach Rick Carlisle to put Nowitzki back in a few minutes after taking him out. Things didn’t very interesting after that.
"I don’t think either team really gave away any coverages – I was open all night long," said Nowitzki, who scored 19 points. "They definitely are going to switch up some of their coverages once we get started Saturday or Sunday."
Nowitzki will be playing differently, too. He was so comfortable on the perimeter that he didn’t take a single free throw his first 29 minutes. He got to the line during his re-entry and made both foul shots, upping his franchise-record streak to 74 in a row. He’ll go into next season 24 from setting the NBA record.
Caron Butler scored 20 points, Kidd had 18 and Terry 10.
San Antonio’s Tony Parker scored 16 points, his most in the six games since returning from a broken right hand.
DeJuan Blair scored 27 points, one shy of his career high, and had a career-high 23 rebounds – but failed to grab a pair during that late stretch when the Mavs kept the Spurs from getting any closer than six.
"I knew Tim and Manu weren’t going to play so I knew I had to step up and play with confidence," Blair said. "They got the rest and we got a feel for (the Mavericks)."
The upcoming playoff series will be the third in five years between these Texas teams. The Mavs won the last two, in the first round last year and in the second round on their way to the NBA finals in 2006.
Dallas won the season series 3-1, but that’s practically irrelevant because the first two meetings were back in November and another was in early January, before the Mavericks remade their roster in a blockbuster trade with Washington.
NOTES: The Spurs had won two straight and six of eight. … Anyone questioning Popovich’s passion for this game only had to see how he chewed out Keith Bogans for a mistake – with 16.4 seconds left. … The Mavs showed a video of Marion pushing a button, then cut to a clip of Texas Stadium imploding, then ends with Marion looking shocked. … Dallas reached one of Cuban’s big goals for the season: Keeping alive its NBA-best streak of consecutive sellouts. This was No. 358 in a row. … T-shirts with an image of a screaming Cuban were thrown out to the crowd. Cuban’s wife looked happy to have snagged one.