Spurs cling tight to winning margin


SAN ANTONIO -- The first-round series between the San Antonio Spurs and Dallas Mavericks has been as close as they come. Like Donnie and Marie close. Or, to keep it in the realm of basketball references, Doug and Jackie Christie close.

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said before his team's 109-103 Game 5 win Wednesday that the razor-thin edge between the two teams has merely been a reflection of the Western Conference playoffs as a whole this spring.

"I've never seen eight teams so close in ability to win with nobody having a foreseeable or significant margin over the other one," Popovich said. "It doesn't matter what the numbers are, what the seeds are. They're really unimportant. Everybody is pretty darn good."

Indeed, coming into Wednesday, 19 of the 36 postseason games played in both conferences had been decided by two possessions or less, according to ESPN Stats & Info.

The No. 1-seeded Spurs split the first four games against the No. 8-seeded Mavs, with both teams winning on the other team's home court once in the process.

So, what's separating them? Why are the Spurs now one win away from advancing to play either Portland or Houston in the second round and the Mavericks one loss away from an early summer?

In terms of X's and O's, there was on sequence Wednesday that summed up why the Spurs won and the Mavs lost.

San Antonio saw its early 13-point lead disappear as Dirk Nowitzki -- cold for the first 19 quarters of the series -- caught fire in the fourth, making his first seven shots in the period to draw the Mavs within four.

He went for eight in a row -- with an open midrange jump shot from the baseline, set up by pump-faking Tiago Splitter into oblivion, that he called the easiest look he got all night -- and missed. The Spurs responded with a Tony Parker 3-pointer on the other end to put them up seven with 1:52 remaining.

"That was kind of the ballgame there," Nowitzki said after the game, matter-of-factly, after his 26 points went to waste.

As much as that ended up being a crucial moment in the game, these two teams are so tightly matched that so many other variables in play could be picked as the reason why it's the Mavs, and not the Spurs, facing elimination at this point.

Maybe it's because of Luca and Josh. Those being the newborn baby boys of Manu Ginobili and Parker, respectively, who both had sons come into this world during the series. Ginobili's came before Game 2 and he's been playing lights-out ever since. Parker's came before Game 5, and he finished with 23 points, five assists and the game-deciding 3 Wednesday.

"Just coming into the game I kind of told him, 'This is like perfect for you,'" Tim Duncan recalled of his conversation with Parker. "This is what he does. Situations like this where he doesn't get a lot of sleep or he's in a stressful situation, he always seems to play better. I somewhat expected it from him."

Maybe the edge comes down to two spin moves. There was the one Monta Ellis made at the end of Game 4; it got him all the way to the rim for a potential game-tying layup, but he missed with 4.6 seconds to go. If he makes it, maybe the Mavs hold on to win at home and take a commanding 3-1 lead.

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