This was supposed to be the easy series for the Spurs after winning nine in a row against their bitter rival. This was supposed to be a Texas showdown between two great forwards in Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki. This was supposed to be Duncan and company passing the banner to the youth of the team.
However, this series hasn't been easy, Nowitzki hasn't had to carry the load (his playoff usage rate is a career low of 22.1), and the Spurs' Big Three are being relied on as heavily as ever. As a result, San Antonio is facing a tough road going into Game 4. If they lose, they face a 3-1 deficit in the series that will be hard to pull out of. Let's take a look at three things the Spurs need to stop in order to win tonight's game and tie the series.
Stop Turning the Ball Over
Game 2 was a massive black eye for the silver and black. Coach Popovich prides himself on a disciplined team, but the Spurs were anything but in that game. They tallied 24 turnovers, the highest total all year for the Spurs, and those turnovers led to 33 points for Nowitzki and company. The Spurs showed their age too, as Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and Duncan all contributed heavily to the turnover total.
While Game 2 was a sore spot for the Spurs, they have now lost the turnover battle in all three games. Dallas is currently averaging only 11 turnovers per contest, while the Spurs have averaged 16, slightly above their regular season average of 14.4 per game. If you take out Game 2, 25 turnovers in two games is actually good news for the Spurs.
The biggest problem with turnovers starts with Ginobili, the high-risk, high-reward player for San Antonio. While he led all Spurs in scoring in the second game of the series, he's also turned the ball over 12 times in the playoffs. If Ginobili can reduce his turnovers in Monday's game, the Spurs could take control of the series once again.
Stop Using Just the Big Three
The Spurs obviously need their Big Three as much as anyone, but the usage rate for them compared to the bench is currently through the roof. Of course Duncan can still play at a high level, but amassing 105 minutes of playing time in just three games may not be the wisest move. I would never question Pop, but one has to wonder if Duncan can keep playing so much if the series goes much longer. The Spurs were supposed to win the series in five, allowing them rest their main man. Now they're not going to be able to do that.
The top two highest PER numbers for the Spurs belong to Duncan and Ginobili. For the minutes played, it's not a surprise the Big Fundamental has a 25.5 PER. However, considering his turnover problems, it's surprising that Ginobili has the second highest PER at 23.3, while Tony Parker is fourth on the team with a 18.9 PER. Though these are excellent numbers for the Spurs, guys like Kawhi Leonard (13.3) and Marco Belinelli (4.6) need to step up their games to get the Spurs out of the first round. Continued reliance on just three aging players will only go so far.
Leonard has been crashing the boards well all series, but is only attempting nine shots each game. Leonard was a big key for the push through the playoffs last year, so getting him involved is a must for the Spurs. He may have the best all-around game on the team, but if he can't score any points, he won't do the Spurs any good.
Then there's Belinelli, who has been non-existent in this series. For being one of the Spurs' best three-point shooters during the regular season, Belinelli only has 14 points in the whole series. The Spurs need to get back to spreading the ball around the perimeter and looking for that open man. If Belinelli can start getting more time and knocking down his shots, it could inject some needed energy to the Spurs.
Stop Vince Carter
Here's a little talked-about fact about Vince Carter: he's seventh in career three-pointers made. A more well-known fact about Carter: he can still nail a game-winning three. He's not the most dangerous threat for the Mavericks, but he's one of a few forgotten veterans that has stepped up in this series for them.
Devin Harris and his 18 points were key in keeping Game 1 close. Then it was Shawn Marion and his 20 points in Game 2 that helped propel their huge victory. And Monta Ellis has completely taken over the series, contributing 61 points (including 29 in game three) in the three games so far.
I wrote about the Spurs being able to go deep into their roster in the series preview, but the Mavericks took the Spurs' blueprint and have done the same with their own team. They have allowed San Antonio to focus on one player while someone else has stepped up. The Spurs can't afford to take anyone on this team lightly if they want to win Game 4.
Winning the turnover battle is a must. Getting more out of their role players is necessary. And getting back to their defensive ways - the Spurs had the third-highest defensive efficiency mark in the regular season according to our numberFire metrics - will snuff out any momentum the Mavericks might have.
Currently, our numbers give the Spurs a 44.07% chance of winning this series. If the Spurs can hang on for a victory in Game 4 though, the tides should shift in their favor. If they can't, it will be 2011 all over again.