Not surprisingly, the center of the Spurs (in more ways than one), Tim Duncan, took an analytical approach.
Not surprisingly, the center of the Dallas Mavericks(in more ways than one), Tyson Chandler, took an emotional approach.
Score one for the analytical approach.
"We haven't played great over the last five or six games," Spurs captain Duncan said hours before tipoff of what would be a 97-91 victory at the American Airlines Center. "We're trying to get back on track and play well. We know (Dallas) is a very good team we'll likely see sometime in the playoffs."
But flattery will get you nowhere with the Mavs' Chandler, in his first year with the team but nevertheless the "heart-and-soul'' (says Dallas coach Rick Carlisle) of what this 48-21 club is trying to accomplish in its rivalry with the Spurs, now 55-13 and leading the conference.
"I think everyone on this team has a little bad blood towards the Spurs," Chandler said.
Both powerhouses entered the game having experienced problems in the standings and, most specifically, problems on the defensive end. The Spurs came in not only having lost three of their previous eight, but also having yielded almost nine more points per game this March than they did in February. That's stunning for a franchise so traditionally built on defensive fundamentals – yet given the early-season emphasis on a sort of SmallBall and an up-tempo pace, maybe this old dog is trying to learn too many tricks?
"We're trying to tighten up our game plan,'' Duncan said. "We know this is the stretch run to playoffs, so we need to start playing our best basketball. We'll figure out how to do that defensively, and on the offensive end I think we've been scoring enough points. We just need to figure out how to be a better defensive ball club."
Dallas is no different in those regards. … except that some of the issues continued in this loss as the Mavs are now 3-5 in their last eight games and have lost six straight games to teams seeded in the top eight spots in the West. Meanwhile, their early-season defensive emphasis has faded: going into Friday, in 17 games since February 9, the Mavs had allowed 102.4 points per game. Here they kept San Antonio below the century mark, but nevertheless allowed 80 points alone to the three Spurs stars, Duncan (22), Manu Ginobili (25) and Tony Parker (33).
"Well,'' Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said dryly, pretending to be unimpressed, "that's what they're contracted to do.''
Following that theme, Nowitzki (23 points, nine rebounds, three assists) was the rare Mav who performed "like he's contracted to do.'' Dallas fell behind by 18 early in the second quarter, eventually tied it at 60 and then was a possession away from a midway-through-the-fourth tie … but turnovers triggered another Spurs run. San Antonio outscored Dallas 13-2 for a period while the Mavs keep adding to their turnover total of 19 (leading to 25 points).
Shawn Marion seemed on pace to match Dirk as he scored 13 points in 14 first-half minutes, but The Matrix injured his right wrist and didn't play after intermission. Dallas can hang some hopes on the notion that Marion might be able to limit Manu of these teams meet again in the postseason. But that will leave some other holes in need of plugging. Jason Terry scored 19 the hard way, having made just two of his first 11 shots and also totaling four turnovers. J.J. Barea had 13 and Roddy Beaubois eight as Dallas closed with the unorthodox quintet of Dirk and four smallish guards.
Maybe the Mavs can take stock in their willingness to absorb blame for the loss. Said Terry: "I take responsibility for (turnovers) … because they scrap and claw for the ball and you have to be stronger with the ball.''
Responsibility is a start. "No excuses,'' said Mavs coach Rick Carlisle, and that helps, too. And then some way to combine the "analytical approach'' and the "emotional approach'' in a way that fuels a win over a Western Conference contender.
Not just San Antonio and the "bad blood'' that exists. Any opponent. Anybody's blood.