Spurs cling tight to winning margin

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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.

Then there was Parker's spin move in the first quarter of Game 5 that led to a layup that he converted, giving the Spurs an early 21-8 advantage and Parker the confidence that his ailing left ankle wouldn't be a bother the rest of the night.

"When I made that move, I thought I would be fine for the game," Parker said afterward.

Maybe the reason the Spurs are in the driver's seat is because DeJuan Blair foolishly kicked Splitter in the head and got suspended for Game 5. Not only did Dallas miss Blair's energy Wednesday, but without his space-eating presence and with Samuel Dalembert tweaking his ankle early (therefore not making much of an impact), the lane became as inviting for the Spurs as a tray of free bagels at a board meeting. San Antonio ended up outscoring the Mavericks 54-28 in the paint in Game 5. Splitter got his revenge, too, by figuratively drumming the Mavs over the head with 17 points, 12 rebounds and five assists.

Maybe the difference just comes down to how well the Spurs know each other compared to a Mavericks team that has major pieces that just came together this season. Like in the second quarter Wednesday; when San Antonio's offense started to get bogged down, you see the Spurs go back to an old reliable, like Ginobili jumping like he's pulling up for 3 only to laser a pass inside to Duncan for an easy layup, and you remember exactly what the Spurs have going for them. Or those two running a pick-and-roll together a few possessions later with similar effectiveness.

"We'll take it where we can get it," Duncan said of the familiarity. "I don't know how you qualify that or quantify that, but we'll take it where we can get it."

Yup, there's just not much separating these two teams, and that's the appeal of the series. It doesn't have the overtimes galore or the jobs-on-the-line drama of Thunder-Grizzlies or Rockets-Blazers, but there is certainly a charm to it nonetheless. Two cities with 275 miles between them, two teams with a difference of 13 wins in their regular-season records, and five games that have all pretty much been a toss-up.

And now it shifts back to Dallas for Game 6 on Friday where it could finish up, or staying more in fashion with the rest of the series, see the Mavs tie it up 3-3.

"Both home games we were right there," Nowitzki said of Games 3 and 4 at American Airlines Center. "We could have won both. We could have lost both. This is how close this series has been."

So close that both teams sound like they expecting the toss-up to continue.

"It's been very even," Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said. "There's just things that we're going to have to do better in Game 6 that are all about guts and digging down. And we can do it. And we will do it."

And if the Mavs indeed do what Carlisle is suggesting?

"Our goal is to get to four games, however long it takes," Duncan said. "We hope to finish it in Dallas, but if it has to go to 7, it has to go to 7."

And it kind of feels like it does have to go the distance.

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