This serves as a chance for the 28-4 Spurs to assert themselves as the best team in the Southwest Division, the best team in the West, and maybe the best team in the NBA.
The Spurs did that for one night … and in fairness, have been doing their best to stake that claim for two months.
Maybe the absence of MVP candidate Nowitzki takes some of the luster off the win. But then so does the awful production of Terry, usually a gifted Dallas scorer who played 30 minutes but missed 12 of his first 13 shots and finished 3-of-16 for eight points – and even those numbers aren't as impressive as they sound.
"We just couldn't get over the hump,'' said Mavs coach Rick Carlisle. "It was tough, it was frustrating, but our guys kept battling. I take the positives out of it, but right now, we've got to really work together. Without Dirk in the lineup, the margins for error are extremely slim."
The Mavs (24-7) knew they'd need jump-up help with Nowitzki in street clothes (he's hoping to participate this weekend as the Mavs travel to Milwaukee and Cleveland). They got that from Caron Butler, who doubled his average with 30 points, from Jason Kidd with a triple-double, and even from out-of-mothballs scrub Brian Cardinal, who replaced Dirk in the starting lineup and plodded to 10 points.
If Butler scores 30 and Kidd scores 12 and "The Janitor'' scores 10 and your team scores 93, you can beat the Spurs – if Jet doesn't disappear.
I'm taking nothing away from San Antonio, which went on the road downed its main rival – just two days after downing the Lakers -- thanks to a balanced cast that fueled a 21-2 second-quarter run by running … and then hung on at the end by controlling the pace.
Leading the charge was old and new: The legendary Tim Duncan contributed 17 points and 11 rebounds, and really challenged Tyson Chandler in such a way that T.Y. wasn't free to roam as a defensive helper. And the 26-year-old rookie Gary Neal came from nowhere to pitch in with 21 mostly-perimeter points.
Those two helped San Antonio win for the 12th time in 14 games as the Spurs continued their best-in-franchise-history season start.
"Any win is a good win, and on the road they're even sweeter,'' Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. "We were fortunate in a lot of ways. I don't think we were very sharp and I thought Dallas showed a lot of character, a lot of class, which one would expect. They were very aggressive, fired up and really got after it and played a damn good game and we were fortunate to get out of here with a win."
The compliment should be appreciated. Dallas gets a brownie point here.
Unfortunately, they needed six more real points.
It's worth noting that "the real Mavs'' – the Nowitzki-led Mavs – were similarly hot before The UberMan went down earlier this week. The Mavs had won 17 of 18 before dropping a Tuesday home game against Toronto and then losing this game with its in-state foes.
The Mavs pledge to rebound from this, and they do have a history of competing with the Spurs toe-to-toe – or, at least, close to that, the edge of course going to San Antonio's championship pedigree. Dallas had won the last four regular-season meetings, including one a month ago in San Antonio earlier this season.
People can toss around teams like the Lakers, Heat or Warriors, but one name should always sit atop any list of Mavs' rivals: the San Antonio Spurs.
There have been tremendous ups, devastating downs and more than a handful of monumental battles. Dirk Nowitzki may have missed Thursday's divisional showdown, yet the stage retained its majesty. With or without Dirk, this was seen as one that was going to be a battle … and it was.
MORE FIRST IMPRESSIONS:
*Even in a 99-93 loss, the game did not disappoint as the shorthanded Mavs rode the offense of Caron Butler, tapped into a late mini-surge from Jason Terry, and saw Jason Kidd post a triple-double (12 points, 13 assists and 10 rebounds) as they refused to fade away.
*With one of the loudest and most attentive crowds of the season, particularly early, the Mavs fed from the energy and took to the court to impose their will and embrace the slogan at the top of their locker room strategy board: "Defense – Hit First."
With Jason Kidd controlling the game, Caron Butler followed his lead and the Mavs jumped out to an early 24-19 lead with two minutes left in the first quarter.
*Then … the dam gave way.
San Antonio went on a 26-5 run to build a 16-point lead on a pile of converted three-point attempts.
Still, Dallas would not quietly shrink away. As the second quarter wore on the Mavs defense shifted to a zone, dug its feet in and held the Spurs to 3-of-12 shooting to close the half.
Before Manu Ginobli's 3 in the final seconds ended their run, they had also scored a 10-to-0 run … and went into the intermission down only seven.
*Caron Butler was everything the Mavs could have hoped for on this night. The Spurs had no answer for him, and the resurgent Richard Jefferson disappeared beneath him with seven points on 3-of-10 shooting.
Butler shouldered the weight of the offense by totaling a game- and season-high 30 points, living by the mantra the Mavs pushed prior to the game: play aggressive, but with intelligence and efficiency.
The only problem, he was absolutely alone in this for the bulk of the game.
*More specifics on Jet: Jason Terry again struggled through the first three quarters, making only one of his first 10 shots.
With an anxious sigh we welcomed the arrival of the fourth quarter and hoped for some Jet magic. Only, it didn't come … at least not in time.
Terry went 2-of-6 for the final quarter, with both makes coming on desperation 3-pointers in the final minute. He would finish 3-of-16 from the floor for a total of eight points.
*Jason Kidd faired a little better early, but couldn't find the basket late.
He finished with a triple-double, but couldn't deliver the win … though he clearly left everything on the court. Like Butler, he just didn't get enough help.
Kidd hit four of his first seven shots, but would go 1-of-8 the rest of the way.
Despite his shooting struggles, he found ways to positively impact the game throughout, as evidenced by his triple-double, the 106th of his career and seventh against the Spurs, more than he's put together against any other team … and a triple-double that surely rings hollow in his ears without the win.
*An interesting note:
Alexis Ajinca played just over 11 minutes in this game.
Perhaps this becomes a little less peculiar when you consider the situation. Prior to Tuesday's game, Carlisle stated that he understood why Dwane Casey had turned to Ajinca against the Thunder … the Mavs needed a player to stretch the defense and provide a hint of a perimeter threat.
They needed scoring.
Against the high-octane Spurs, it would seem reasonable to assess this as a similar situation … and Ajinca did provide a small offensive spark with seven points.
*In another bit of slight surprise, it was Brian Cardinal getting the start at power forward … and he was again effective during his time.
"It's tough to fill Dirk's role, his void," Cardinal said after the game. "I don't think that can happen with just one guy. I think collectively we have to do that and we played hard tonight, but they got hot and played well and give them the credit because they knocked down a lot of good shots."
Cardinal couldn't fill Dirk's shoes, though very few can.
However, he did live up to his "Janitor" nickname with endless hustle and finished with a season-high nine points, including making all three of his 3-point attempts.
*The Mavs had won four straight regular season contests with the Spurs coming into Thursday night.
In their last meeting, back on Nov. 26, the Mavs pulled away from in San Antonio on the back of a 12-2 run in the final five minutes, and behind the brilliance of Dirk Nowitzki, who hit 12-of-14 shots on his way to 26 points.
*Gary Neal, the Spurs 26-year-old rookie had averaged 14.8 points over his previous six games.
Rick Carlisle specifically mentioned him as a key-supporting contributor prior to the game, and he took the heart of the Mavs on this night with 10 points in the fourth quarter.
"When we needed it, he stepped up and hit the shots," George Hill said of Neal after the game. "Our whole team was looking for him and he made the shots."
Neal finished with 21 points, including 5-of-8 from behind the arc.
*San Antonio dominated the Mavs on the boards, out-rebounding Dallas 50-to-35.
*"When he's on the floor the game changes significantly," Carlisle said of Dirk before the game, and later added, "Great players are game-changers whether they have the ball or not."
It obviously would have been nice to see Dirk out there Thursday night … as we noted earlier on Thursday, he certainly wanted to push himself to try … and now he'll push himself to try on Saturday in Milwaukee.
*Dallas only missed two free throws for the entire game.
They both came in the third quarter and both could have tied the game at the time. Yet, DeShawn Stevenson missed his second attempt and Tyson Chandler couldn't convert an and-one.
*In the books, this is another loss. It undoubtedly hurts, but there is a small amount of solace to take from how Dallas played without Nowitzki … and essentially without Terry. This was not a repeat performance of the Raptors' game.
"We don't take too much out of the win,'' Pop stated with clear motivational undertones directed at his own team, as is his customary method. "A lot of things I think we did pretty sloppily and we're thrilled to get the win on the road … I thought they did a lot better overall than we did in a lot of ways."
Pop always has his own motivations for such comments, and they are generally for his own team's benefit … so take from that what you will.
In the end, you're left with Carlisle's words after the game:
"It's a tough loss, but we've just got to keep at it."
"Character … class … aggressive … fired up.'' All true.
But in this one, it was the Spurs who really showed up … and more than just Dirk who failed to show up for Dallas.