SAN ANTONIO -- In a basketball world bubbling with anticipation over the prospect of icons meeting in the NBA Finals, the little team that could (and has) sent a message that it is good enough to do it again.
The San Antonio Spurs have the perfect team colors. In the glamorous, high-definition world of the NBA, they are 1950s TV -- plain black and white with, like the old-time rabbit ears, a touch of silver.
So while network executives and marketing puppeteers salivate at the possibility of LeBron vs. Kobe in the Finals, the Spurs are hovering in the shadows, going about their business quietly, positioning themselves for a run at their fifth championship since 1999.
The Spurs established another first -- albeit a minor one -- Thursday night when they defeated the Dallas Mavericks 97-87 to win the first-round playoff series 4-2.
The NBA instituted best-of-7 series for the first round of the playoffs in 2003 but until Thursday night, no seventh-seeded team had won a first-round matchup.
It would be inaccurate, however, to characterize the victory as an upset. The Spurs finished the regular season only five games behind the Mavericks and Tony Parker missed 26 games because of injuries.
"We're even," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said after the game. "Nobody is better than anybody else. The whole Western Conference seems to be that way."
In Game 4, the Mavericks did their best defensive job of the series, limiting Duncan, Parker and Ginobili to a combined 31 points.
Hill had 29 however, and the Spurs won the game by three points.
In Game 6, the Spurs pounced on the Mavericks, limiting Dallas to eight points in the first quarter and building a lead at 41-19 in the second period.
But the Mavericks came back and not only caught up, but also took the lead briefly in the third period.
San Antonio rebuilt its lead to nine points in the fourth quarter, but when Dallas came back to within two, it was Hill and Antonio McDyess who recaptured the game for the Spurs.
Those two combined for nine consecutive Spurs points and Hill finished with 10 in the final period to add an important fourth dimension to the Spurs' big three.
"I worked all summer on being able to make open shots and try to take my game to another level," Hill said, "and I think it paid off this year. Having a little bit of confidence from your veterans is always going to give you more confidence. They start to believe in you and set you up with plays that are easy for you."
In the six games, Ginobili led the Spurs with 114 points, Duncan had 109, Parker had 95 and Hill had 86.
|Manu Ginobili's gritty play epitomizes the Spurs' old-school mantra. (Getty Images)|
In their four victories, the Spurs limited Dallas to 88, 90, 89 and 87 points, respectively.
In their two losses, the Spurs allowed 100 and 103 points, respectively.
"I was real pleased with our team's overall defense," Popovich said. "They were covering for each other and guarding a team that's hard to guard."
For the Mavericks, it was a disappointing end. They came into the series feeling they had the best team in franchise history -- even better than the team that went to the 2006 Finals and the 2006-07 team that won 67 games.
When Dallas won Game 1 100-94 behind 36 points from Dirk Nowitzki on a 12-of-14 performance, it appeared that the Mavericks might be the superior team.
Dallas owner Mark Cuban was optimistic. It seemed that the major investments that he had made the last two years would pay off.
When Cuban traded for Jason Kidd in February 2008, Cuban had to take on $17 million in contracts and luxury tax to complete the deal.
During the last offseason, Cuban gave Kidd a $25 million deal, Shawn Marion a $40 million package and then took on at least $30 million of contracts and tax to bring Caron Butler, Brendan Haywood and DeShawn Stevenson to Dallas in February.
For those keeping count, that's a commitment of $112 million.
Cuban said after that Game 1 victory that his team was good enough to win a title. And he was correct.
But meeting a team with the pedigree of San Antonio in the first round was everyone's nightmare. Seventh seeds do not consist of a nucleus of players -- Tim Duncan, Parker and Ginobili -- who have been the foundation of three titles. (Duncan has four but his first came before the other two arrived in San Antonio).
No one -- not the Lakers or any of the elite Eastern teams -- wanted to play the Spurs in the first round.
That misfortune fell to the Mavericks, who simply could not cope with the Spurs defense for long enough periods to win. In their four losses, the Mavericks had at least one period when they didn't score 20 points. And in Game 6, they didn't even make it to 10 in the first period.
"The first quarter has been a big story in this series," Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said, "and it was our undoing tonight."
Nowitzki averaged 26.7 points in the series but Jason Kidd and Jason Terry had severe shooting problems. Kidd made only 14 of 46 field-goal attempts (30.4 percent) and Terry made only 26 of 62 (37.7 percent).
Instead of competing for a championship, the Mavericks added to their list of dubious achievements. Thursday, they became the first two seed to lose a seven-game first-round series.
In 2007, they became the first top seed to lose to an eight seed in a seven-game series.
And in 1987, they became the first two seed in history to lose in the first round to a seven seed.
The Spurs, meanwhile, have a chance to become only the fourth team in NBA history to win five titles, joining the Celtics, Lakers and Bulls in that stratosphere. And if they needed any extra incentive, they should know that no seventh seed has ever won an NBA title.