-- SAN ANTONIO -- As much as Gregg Popovich has a reputation for being an impossible interviewee, it's rare when he doesn't leave reporters with something worth printing.
And so, after his pregame rap with the media seemed to be winding down after just two minutes of terse answers from the San Antonio Spurs head coach, Pop offered to extend the session. If nothing else, it would take his mind off all the machinations of defensive schemes and rotations that a head coach runs through right before the start of a playoff series.
First, he tried out a bit of humor.
"I didn't even have any wine last night because it's a noon game," said Popovich, lamenting the early start. "That's the worst part about a noon game."
Then, there came some honesty that you might not expect from a man who is fifth all-time in playoff wins and already has four rings on his résumé when asked if he still gets nervous before a game like Sunday's.
"Heck yeah," Popovich said. "If you don't get nervous, you're dead."
Turns out the nerves were warranted, as the Spurs had to rally back from a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit against the Dallas Mavericks to win 90-85.
And while Popovich might have abstained from popping a bottle on Saturday night, Tim Duncan uncorked what Kobe Bryant would describe as a vintage "vino" performance Sunday afternoon. He drowned the Mavs' hopes of a Game 1 upset with a game-high 27 points to go with seven rebounds and helped the Spurs to a plus-23 in the 38 minutes he was on the floor.
After the game, Dallas coach Rick Carlisle identified Duncan as one of the top 10 players of all time along with Dirk Nowitzki. Yet while the Spurs stuck Tiago Splitter on Nowitzki wherever he went and hit him with frequent double-teams to hold him to an 11-point day on 4-for-14 shooting, the Mavs were willing to take their chances with the 17-year veteran Duncan going up against them.
For Carlisle and Nowitzki, the eighth-seeded Mavericks' best shot at knocking off the No. 1 overall seeded Spurs came down to simple math.
In the Spurs' 4-0 regular-season sweep of the Mavs, San Antonio averaged 10.3 made 3s per game, shooting 43.3 percent from deep, and won the games by an average of 10.5 points. In those games, while his teammates were drilling shots from long range, Duncan was unspectacular yet efficient, averaging 18.5 points on 51 percent shooting.
In true pick-your-poison fashion, the Mavs decided that they'd rather have the 37-year-old Duncan go one-on-one than have the rest of the Spurs team up from 3. They clamped down on the Spurs' shooters like they planned, with the Dallas defense employing more switches than a square dance early on, and San Antonio struggled from the outside, hitting just 3 of 17 attempts (17.6 percent). But the Big Fundamental became the Big Nullifier.
"We got killed on 3s in the first four outings this year, so, I think there was no secret," Nowitzki said afterward. "We stayed a little bit more home on the 3-point shooters and, I mean, you got to give them something. Duncan in there is obviously still solid. He can go over both shoulders. He's got a little face-up and he's still very good on the block. But I guess two points is better than three."
Duncan was more than solid Sunday. He was superb. And he proved his value as much in his absence as in his presence.
After bumping knees with Monta Ellis and falling to the floor, Duncan had to ask out of the game with 3:24 remaining in the third quarter. The Spurs trailed by two when he exited. By the time he had made a trip to the locker room to change his knee brace and was ready to check back in with 9:26 remaining in the fourth, San Antonio was now down by six and was lost on offense. The Spurs went 2-for-12 as a team in that nearly six-minute stretch without him, according to data compiled by ESPN Stats & Information.
"Honestly, I was a little selfish at that point," Duncan said. "I was a little more concerned with my knee than what was going on out there. I kind of had my head down, just trying to make sure everything felt good and I was ready to go when that time came."
He stayed selfish when he returned to the game, in a good way. Duncan scored nine points in the final frame to help fuel a 17-1 spurt by the Spurs that turned a 10-point deficit with 7:45 to go into a six-point lead with 1:46 remaining. Tony Parker, who chipped in 21 points and six assists, said that he and Duncan paced themselves all season long to be able to play extended minutes in crunch time, as they did against the Mavs.
It's hard to fault Dallas for its game plan. After all, the Mavs had lost nine straight games to the Spurs (now 10, after Sunday's loss). Something needed to change. But to not specifically try to take Duncan out of it -- even if he's aging, even if he was one of six Spurs to average between 10-17 points per game this season (15.1) and not the dominant scorer he once was -- almost seems silly in retrospect. Especially considering that Playoff Tim Duncan (21.9 points, 12.0 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 2.4 blocks) has always been an even bigger beast than Regular-Season Tim Duncan (19.9 points, 11.1 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 2.2 blocks). And this is Playoff Tim Duncan recognizing that this could be one of his last runs at it.
"It's always a great time and I always look forward to it," Duncan said. "It's a different intensity, a different level and obviously it means more. So, I'm always excited around this time. I think now, I might be even more excited because I know there are only a couple more left in my career. I'm excited and I'm going to take the opportunity and really remember it."
The Spurs were eight minutes away from making like Indiana, Toronto and the L.A. Clippers on Saturday, giving away the higher seeding they worked so hard to get the first chance that presented itself. Instead, in these nascent NBA playoffs, they can identify more with another team sharing a championship-or-bust mentality, Oklahoma City, which had its resolve strengthened with a Game 1 scare from Memphis when the Thunder let a 25-point lead dwindle all the way down to two.
As Popovich said, it's good to get a little nervous. It proves that you're alive. As long as Duncan is setting the tone for San Antonio, those nerves will simply be transferred into positive energy, like gusts of wind hitting a windmill.
"He is the base from which everything else occurs," Popovich said. "It just gives us a comfort level and a point from which to operate."
More games like Sunday out of Duncan, and Popovich could have some championship champagne in store to make up for that wine he missed out on the night before the playoffs.