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Mavs vs. Spurs hard to gauge without Nowitzki

by | Special to CBSSports.com
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DALLAS -- While sitting out a game because of a knee sprain recently, Dirk Nowitzki agreed to a live interview during a game with the Mavericks' television announcers.

The Mavericks were on the way to a rare loss, but they still were 18 games better than .500. While that record may be surprising to the rest of the NBA nation, it is stunning in Dallas, where drive-by critics have been suggesting for several years that the Mavericks "blow it up."

The Mavericks made it to the NBA Finals in 2006, where they squandered a 2-0 lead and lost to Miami in six games. They have not been close to returning since.

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They have become Yesterday's Team. They are old in age and routine. They have six players on the roster who have been in the league 10 or more years. Seven of their players are 30 or older. They have won 50 or more games 10 consecutive years, but they have won one playoff series in the past four years. The overall record shows they are winners. When it counts the most, however, they are losers.

So even though the Mavericks have had the second-best record in the league for much of the 2010-11 season, Nowitzki is not celebrating.

"We're playing well," he said to the announcers, "but we all know that championships are not won in December."

The San Antonio Spurs know that very well. During a nine-year period that began in the 1998-99 season, the Spurs won four titles. Tim Duncan was there for all four and Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker were there for three. Duncan is 34 and will turn 35 in April. Ginobili is what seems to be an old 33 and Parker, although 28, seems like he's been around since Bob Cousy retired. The Spurs have won 50 or more games for 11 consecutive years, but in the past two years, they have won only one playoff series. They have become Yesterday's Champions.

Or so it seemed entering the season. But the two old teams aren't ready to be buried yet. They met for the second time this season Thursday night and the Spurs did what they were supposed to do, beat a Nowitzki-less Mavericks team 99-93.

That improved the Spurs record to 28-4 and although the Mavericks "fell" to 24-7, they still have the West's second-best record.

Championships aren't won in December. Neither are division titles. Playoff seeds are not determined. But for the two Texas rivals, every game is like another tug in an arm-wrestling match. Neither one will be put down in the regular season, but every inch of movement means something.

"The history of the rivalry is there," Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said. "It was there long before I got here. It's something that there's an awareness of. Both teams look forward to playing each other and that challenge."

Carlisle may be in only his third year in Dallas, but in his first two seasons, the Mavericks and Spurs have played in the playoffs. Dallas won in 2008 when Ginobili missed the series because of an injury. But the Spurs answered back last year and it was painful for Dallas. The Mavericks had won 55 games and were the second seed in the West, but lost in five games to the seventh-seeded Spurs.

For Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, each game with Dallas is one "that you can gauge where you're at because you respect what they've done also."

In gauging where the two teams are, the Spurs have an advantage. They are 18-2 at home [with one of those losses to the Mavericks] and 10-2 on the road.

The Mavericks began having problems at home last season and the issues continue. They were 32-9 at American Airlines Center in 2007-08, but 28-13 last season. Their impressive start is due in large part to their 11-1 road record. They are only 13-6 at home, although two of those losses have come with Nowitzki sidelined.

Even that injury added to the competitiveness of the two teams. Popovich said before the game the Spurs were in a no-win situation because if they beat the Mavericks, it was because Nowitzki -- who is listed as day to day -- was out. And had they lost, it was a huge boost for the Mavericks.

After the Spurs played a pedestrian game that did not impress Popovich, he said the win meant little -- other than it is obviously important to win.

"We don't take too much out of the win," Popovich said. "A lot of things I think we did pretty sloppily. We're thrilled to get a win on the road. Anybody would be. But we didn't show very much. We didn't improve as a team, that's for sure. I thought they did a lot better overall than we did."

For the Mavericks, there were no excuses. They were upset because if they had shot better, they could have won with their star player out. But they shot only 42.7 percent. Jason Terry, the Mavericks' second leading scorer at 15.8 points a game, had only eight points on 3-of-16 shooting.

"With Dirk out," Carlisle said, "our margin for error is extremely slim. It was tough. We got close a couple of times, but we couldn't get over the hump."

The two teams have two more meetings and chances are they will see each other in the playoffs. They have met in the playoffs five times since 2001, with the Spurs winning three times. One of those, again, was maddening for the Mavericks. In 2003, San Antonio won in the Western finals and went on to win the championship.

Despite age, each is supporting a new look this season. Duncan is only the fourth leading scorer on the team and is playing a career low 28.9 minutes a game and should be rested for the playoffs. Ginobili and Parker are completely healthy for the first time in several years. Richard Jefferson seems to have adjusted in his second season in San Antonio and the bench has improved dramatically.

For the Mavericks, the addition of 7-foot-1 Tyson Chandler has dramatically improved the defense. Last year, Dallas was 15th in points allowed with 99.3 a game, but this year, the Mavericks are sixth at 93.1 points allowed per game.

Caron Butler and DeShawn Stephenson, who joined the team in a midseason trade last year, had an entire training camp and seem more comfortable.

The Spurs and Mavericks are hoping the newcomers can support the superstars and together the two groups can prove to the NBA that Yesterday's Champions and Yesterday's Team are still viable. Entering the season, neither was given much of a chance of competing with the two-time champion Lakers but that was before the two combined for 52 wins and 11 losses.

If they are healthy and continue to play the quality of basketball they have played so far, either team is capable of challenging the Lakers. It is likely, however, that before the 2011 playoffs are over, they will have to deal with each other.

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