Spurs-at-Mavs Preview: Two West Heavyweights

Spurs. Mavs. Heavyweights. And Dirk likely outside the ropes. I preview tonight's game while prepping for my role on the Mavs pregame show on the flagship station 103.3 ESPN at 7:30. ...

The heavyweight Spurs and Mavs have spent the first third of the NBA season recording knockouts of Southwest Division outsiders at a championship pace.

Tonight the two top teams in the West step into the ring together. But in addition to Dallas undertaking this assignment while looking up at SA in the standings, they'll likely do so with Dirk sitting outside the ropes (here's all the latest news you need on that front).

Here's our preview of Spurs-at-Mavs:

The Storyline: "Ohh … Thursday might be pushing it,'' Dirk said on late Tuesday night, reflecting on his sprained knee. "I don't know about Thursday. We'll see. I've been a quick healer all my life … but we'll see.''

Nowitzki's knee injury has been diagnosed as a sprain and he is being listed as "day-to-day'' from there. The MVP candidate departed Monday's game in OKC in the first half and the Mavericks nevertheless manhandled the Thunder, 103-93. But on Tuesday, the Dirk-less Mavs lost to the lowly Raptors by a score of 84-76, the Mavs posting season-lows in multiple categories without their MVP candidate.

"We've got to get used to playing without the big fella for awhile,'' said Dallas center Tyson Chandler. "Without him, we struggled. We had a tough time adjusting.''

Coach Rick Carlisle has already shut down the possibility of Dirk making himself available. Check the video:

Here's Rick's mini-presser:

Even as Mavs GM Donnie Nelson tells us there is a "longshot'' that Dirk goes for it ... we don't anticipate that.

The Storyline changes as soon as the ball tips off … because at that time, Life Without Dirk means the team putting his absence out of its mind.

The Spurs Locker Room: Meanwhile, the Spurs made a statement by topping the defending NBA titlist Los Angeles Lakers on Tuesday.

"It's always great to beat the champion,'' said Manu Ginobili after the 97-82 win. "You know that when you win the championship, you get a big target on your chest and everybody goes hard against you.''

The Best in The West: Generally, San Antonio and Dallas go hard against everybody. And what they have done against non-divisional foes is stunning: They are a combined 43-6 against non-Southwest teams.

"This division again is back to being one of the toughest divisions in all of sports," Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said. "The Spurs are having a great year, and they're going to continue to be good. Look, this is a long, long year. We're about a one-third of the way through in terms of the number of games played. There's a long ways to go and a lot to be decided.''

But the excellence of the Southwest Division? That's already been decided.

The Last Meeting: The Spurs are 27-4. The Mavs are 24-6. The Mavs can argue that the only real separation between the two was evidenced back on Nov. 26, when the Mavs won in the Alamo City, 103-94.

That, and Dallas' 11-1 road record, is among the reasons Spurs nemesis Jason Terry was recently moved to proclaim his Mavs team as the NBA's best.

"It's still a fight,'' Jet said late last week. "But we've positioned ourselves now to go out and have a great season. I think personally we're the best team in the league. And that's no disrespect to the Spurs or anybody.''

Dallas has been impressive in rattling off 17 wins in 18 tries before Tuesday's aberration. But the truth is, the Mavs have a reason to be a bit stunned at being 24-6 and relegated to second place in the conference and in the division, because Jet's claim is defied by what is happening in San Antonio:

A great team with a high pedigree and a veteran core -- Tim Duncan (34), Manu Ginobili (33) and Tony Parker (28) – seems to have retooled on the fly.

The Spurs' Numbers: Coach Gregg Popovich's club is suddenly an up-tempo bunch that is fourth in the league in scoring at 105.9 per. That's up from 101.4 last year, when the Spurs remained more of a grind-it-out team. Pop has loosened things up so much that San Antonio is even a league-leader in 3-point tries -- fifth in the league in attempts (22.2 per game) and first in accuracy (40.2 percent).

The History: Revenge and rivalry is always an issue in Dallas-San Antonio games. They've gone neck-and-neck over the course of the last decade in the division, two of the few franchises to ever post 10 straight years of 50-plus wins – with San Antonio's championships the deciding difference between the two. Mavs owner Mark Cuban pokes fun at the city's "ugly river'' and postseason clashes often tell the final tale.

And that's where San Antonio has the most recent edge.

Yes, Dallas has won four straight regular-season games against San Antonio, including five of the last six. Additionally, the Mavericks have won the last three regular-season meetings and five of the last seven at the AAC.

But most memorable is the fact that the Spurs booted Dallas from the playoffs in the first round last year in six games.

Oh, the Mavs might argue that "this Dallas team'' isn't "that Dallas team,'' maybe backed by the presence of Chandler, who has changed the Mavs' defensive production.

But if Dirk Nowitzki is knocked out by injury, "this Dallas team'' figures to have a problem with "that Spurs team.''

The Lineups: The game tips at 8:30 p.m. and it again, pending injury updates, it will likely start something like this:

San Antonio Spurs Dallas Mavericks
Tony Parker Jason Kidd
Manu Ginobili DeShawn Stevenson
Richard Jefferson Caron Butler
Tim Duncan Shawn Marion
DeJuan Blair Tyson Chandler

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