Mavs-Spurs Preview: Looking For Some Luster

Despite what the standings insist is so, tonight's edition of the Mavs-Spurs rivalry lacks the certain luster usually present when two of the top three teams in a conference tip off. The importance of the game cannot be understated – it's Mavs-Spurs! -- but the announcement that Dirk isn't playing certainly has an impact. We preview it all:

"Ohh … Thursday might be pushing it."

Those were Dirk's words while referring to the last matchup with the Spurs. That was over two weeks ago on December 29th. Now it appears that January 14th may be pushing it as well. San Antonio's division lead now stands at six games and while the conditions may not be ideal, the Mavs have to try to stop the bleeding here.

The Storyline: Here is the honest and obvious truth: The Mavs struggle in nearly every facet of their game without Dirk in the lineup. With Dirk announced as still out with a knee problem (oh, and Tyson Chandler is ill enough to have missed shootaround, too) they will again look for another way to not only score, but to sustain their effort.

Quick starts haven't been the problem recently, but in the last eight fourth quarters (all without Dirk) the Mavs have a combined -29 point differential. That won't get many wins for a team without its' MVP and it is certainly not a promising sign while visiting a team who has been living off of 4th quarter comebacks.

Oddly enough, the defense has taken a significant dip as well since the Big German exited by allowing 97 points per game in his absence. Since defense is supposedly the weakest part of The UberMan's MVP-level game, it seems logical that the Mavs shouldn't suffer in that area as much as they have been. In fact, if using that thought process, the defense should actually improve while Dirk is sidelined.

Improvement is definitely welcome since San Antonio is still smoking on offense, dropping 104.7 points per game.

Tyson Chandler wasn't lying when he said, "We've got to get used to playing without the big fella for awhile. We had a tough time adjusting.'' If they are planning on making adjustments before Dirk returns, then tonight would be perfect timing since they won't be getting any pity from San Antonio.

Key Mavs Stats: In the last 17 games against San Antonio dating back to the 08-09 playoffs, Jason Terry is averaging 13.3 points per game. That's not great, but it's also not terrible. It becomes a glaring problem when it is realized that his field-goal percentage is a shade under 36 percent over that same 17-game span.

That's really not great.

It is popular to say that Coach Popovich is willing to let Dirk get his points, but refuses to let Jet do the same. However, it is more accurate to say that he is willing to let Jet get his points, but never efficiently. In the meeting two weeks ago, some might say it became "let Caron Butler get his points efficiently" (30 points on 10-for-21) and "continue the same strategy on Jet'' (eight points on 3-for-16).

It's unclear who will get "theirs" tonight for the Mavs, but recent history says it won't be Jason Terry.

Key Spurs Stats: Can San Antonio continue this 69-win pace? For a team that loves proclaiming how it's only about what you do in the playoffs, they're not being very Spurs-like by playing Manu Ginobili a career high 31.7 minutes per game.

It's also unheard of for them to play at such a fast pace that they're scoring at the fifth-highest rate in the league. They are relying more than ever on guard play and 3-point shooting (39.7 percent), while focusing less on the defensive end (12th overall). Earlier in the month, the Spurs allowed 128 to the Knicks so maybe it is important that the Mavs believe the Spurs can be scored upon, even without Dirk.

The Last Meeting: Despite the Spurs claiming that they didn't take much from the 99-93 win in their last meeting with the Mavs, it beats the alternative. Duncan had 17/11, Parker had 14, Ginobili had 15, Dirk had a DNP, and that was that.

Although, it wasn't just that.

Gary Neal emerged as the next "no-name" from what seems to be an assembly line out of the Spurs Scouting Factory. San Antonio always has a yearly contributor who they always get more out of than the league expects. It was George Hill, then DeJuan Blair, and now Gary Neal. Shame on us as observers for not being more prepared for him as he had games of 16, 22, 22, and 16 earlier in the year, as well as shooting almost 40 percent from 3.

But come on. Gary Neal?

The Mavs Locker Room: Despite one of the rougher stretches in a while, it's not doom and gloom in the eyes of the Mavs or Coach Carlisle. It's pretty simple. They know the current situation they are in and that they must do better without Dirk.

It's a general (and obvious) consensus that things will not always go smoothly on offense while Dirk is out, but the team feels that should not affect the defense. Coach Carlisle made that clear in the Indiana postgame when he said, "The thing is, when shots aren't falling, we can't allow that kind of frustration to carry over defensively."

Said Jason Kidd: "We couldn't make shots when we needed it, and on the other side, we couldn't get stops when we needed it. The Pacers made shots. They moved the ball and they got scores when they needed them, especially in the fourth quarter.''

The Spurs Locker Room: When you have the best record in the West and your last game was a win in which Matt Bonner had 17 points, not much is going wrong. Despite being down entering the fourth quarter, the Spurs pulled away for a seven-point win over the Bucks in Milwaukee. Even Popovich is in a giddy mood lately as he made light of one of Matt Bonner's shots.

"I have no doubt (Bonner's eyes) were closed. He had no clue," Popovich joked. "Along with his shot, he's learned to drive it and that's made him a pretty dangerous guy."

It helps that the Spurs are injury-free and playing at an elite level.

"San Antonio, they're one of the few teams that no matter what, they don't have the peaks and valleys," Bucks guard Earl Boykins said. "They just play consistent basketball for 48 minutes, and we didn't do that and it showed. They played a solid game."

Consistency must breed happiness.

Spur of Note: Monitor what kind of role Spurs forward/center DeJuan Blair plays tonight. He starts at center, but usually doesn't play consistent minutes against the Mavs because of his struggles guarding Dirk. That obviously will not be the case tonight. He didn't get a ton of action in the last Mavs matchup even with Dirk out, but watch out if he gets on a roll. When given enough game time he is capable of putting up a 27-point/23-rebound performance like he did against the Mavs last April.

Mav of Note: It's not just the people. It's their collective psyche. The Mavericks have won two straight and three of five at the AT&T Center in the regular season. They need to remind themselves of that.

Projected Lineups: Fish and Ro have the FS Southwest pregame show at 6:30. Tip off is at 7 with Bob Ortegel and Mark Followill. ... and Fish will be in the Fox Sports Southwest Game Lounge to chat all night! ... The Spurs have had the same starting lineup in every game this season and we're under the assumption that Dirk is out again. … but given Carlisle's stance and the Mavs' situation (even at 26-11), we are only taking an early guess at how Dallas might line up.

Spurs: Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Richard Jefferson, Tim Duncan, DeJuan Blair

Mavs: Jason Kidd, DeShawn Stevenson, Shawn Marion, Alexis Ajinca, Tyson Chandler

Stick with throughout the day and night and we'll keep you informed!

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