It was Vince Carter in Game 5, Monta Ellis and Dirk Nowitzki in Game 6. The Dallas Mavericks have kept the Spurs' hands full with a balanced attack, and they'll look to do so again on Sunday in San Antonio for Game 7.
Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle doesn't think his team's ensemble success is any accident, according to Sports Illustrated's Rob Mahoney:
We've got a team of go-to guys. That's the way I've been saying it for a long time this year. It's the way our roster was built. I expect these guys to all have a lot of confidence and they've all gotta be ready to step up and make big shots and big plays. They know that. These guys have been in these situations enough [that] they look forward to that moment — where you get the opportunity to live up to it.
The Spurs were built in much the same way. Game 7 may ultimately be determined by who steps up for each team, which role players take on bigger roles.
But make no mistake about it. Game 7 will also feature plenty of star power. Between Nowitzki and Tim Duncan, Game 7 is essentially a referendum on which future Hall of Famer continues his title run during the later stages of his career.
Both teams also boast speedy backcourt pieces in Tony Parker and Monta Ellis, both capable of taking games over down the stretch.
In the final analysis, the Spurs and Mavericks are pretty evenly matched. Don't let that regular-season seeding fool you. It clearly hasn't deterred Dallas from making a series out of this, a series that comes down to one final game on Sunday.
Seeds: San Antonio Spurs No. 1; Dallas Mavericks No. 8
Series: Tied 3-3
Schedule for Series: Game 7 on Sunday, May 4, 3:30 p.m. ET
Key Storylines for San Antonio Spurs
Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich wasn't pleased with his team's defensive effort in Game 6. The Spurs gave up a combined 71 points in the first and fourth quarters, paving the way for the Mavericks to explode for 113 points when all was said and done.
San Antonio has earned a reputation this season as one of the league's best defensive units, but it will have to display far greater intensity in Game 7. Chief among its objectives will be collapsing the defense and walling off the paint against penetration.
Of course, the Spurs will need to score the ball, too, even if their offense isn't humming along as efficiently as it was in Game 6.
Tony Parker led San Antonio with 22 points on Friday, including 13 in the fourth quarter. He'll need help on Sunday, especially from sixth man Manu Ginobili.
The other big story will be whether or not the Spurs can control the hustle plays. They turned the ball over at several inopportune junctures and gave up 13 offensive rebounds in Game 6. Given how close these games have been, a similar performance won't cut it in Game 7.
Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter have both been reliable in the paint. Look for San Antonio to continue running lots of pick-and-roll action to get them opportunities. Much as the Spurs like to shoot the three-ball, games in this series have largely been decided by who gets to the basket.
Key Storylines for Dallas Mavericks
Monta Ellis has been electric for the Mavericks. He scored a game-high 29 points in Game 6, and for the series, he's averaging 21.8 points per contest. The Spurs haven't been able to contain either his speed to the rim or his outside jumper. That one-two punch has been largely responsible for keeping Dallas in the series.
Dirk Nowitzki has done his part, too, scoring 22 points in Game 6 on an efficient 11-of-20 shooting performance. His jumper has proven impossible to guard, especially from the mid-range.
The Mavericks are also getting plenty of energy plays from guys such as DeJuan Blair and Samuel Dalembert. Blair bounced back from a Game 5 suspension in style, tallying 10 points and 14 rebounds in Game 6.
Five of those rebounds came on the offensive end.
Sports Illustrated's Rob Mahoney outlines Blair's significance on Friday:
No player took to the moment in Game 6 more than Blair, who following his Game 5 suspension for kicking Tiago Splitter in the head somehow gave the Mavericks just what they needed. Blair isn't always so handy. There are games in which his presence is more or less untenable, when his troubles in finishing over taller defenders and his issues in tracking full defensive possessions remove him from the playing rotation entirely. On Friday, Carlisle could hardly afford to take Blair off the floor. The pulsing energy in his performance became not just infectious, but essential.
The big challenge for Dallas will be slowing down the Spurs offense. Even though Carlisle's squad pulled Game 6 out, it still gave up 111 points. It allowed the Spurs far too many looks in the paint and came dangerously close to giving Game 6 away.
On the offensive end, Dallas will look to get to the paint early and often. That gave San Antonio headaches in Game 6 and could be the key to the series. Whoever wins the battle of the paint will likely win Game 7.
The Spurs more or less know what they'll get out of their Big Three. The question is who steps up among the supporting cast.
Tiago Splitter would make a strong case as San Antonio's X-factor, but he's been among the most consistent Spurs so far this postseason. We can pretty much count on him getting a double-double and getting to the line.
The Spurs' real X-factor is Kawhi Leonard. He had 12 points in Game 6 but attempted just nine shots. Leonard is San Antonio's most athletic presence and best two-way player, the kind of guy who can impact a game on both ends of the floor, a true difference-maker.
But he hasn't attempted more than 11 shots in a game this series, and the Spurs will need him to be aggressive in Game 7. If Leonard has a big game, that puts substantial pressure on the Mavericks' usually stout defense.
Dallas has two players to keep an eye on: Jose Calderon and Devin Harris. The two point guards combined for 23 points in Game 6 and have given the Spurs varying degrees of trouble throughout the series.
Calderon's range has proven deadly. He's making 52 percent of his three-pointers in the series and averaging 11.3 points per contest.
He'll have to keep his form with a broken nose on Sunday.
Harris has had his moments, too, particularly in Games 1 and 2 when he scored a combined 37 points. One of the two point guard will have to put together another big game on Sunday.
Key Matchup: Manu Ginobili vs. Vince Carter
How often Ginobili and Carter actually guard each other will depend on rotations and matchups, but they're mirror images of one another in at least one important sense. They both serve as their respective teams' spark plug off the bench. They're both versatile scorers and veteran ones at that.
Carter scored 28 points in a Game 5 losing effort and has been lethal from downtown throughout the series. Ginobili is averaging 17.3 points and 4.5 assists in the series but had a terrible shooting night in Game 6, making just 1-of-8 field-goal attempts and scoring six points.
"I just had a bad game. ... I just couldn't get it going," Ginobili said after Game 6, according to the San Antonio Express-News' Buck Harvey.
It would be surprising to see Ginobili have another ineffective game, but the Spurs are in trouble if his slump continues.
Both teams will need huge efforts from their sixth men.
Much as their three-point shooting could be decisive, both Ginobili and Carter are more than capable of slashing to the basket and either finishing or getting fouled. Their dynamic scoring abilities will be pivotal in a game that could be decided by the narrowest of margins.
Given how close this series has been, you could probably flip a coin in guessing who will win the all-important Game 7. The Spurs have the edge both because they'll be at home and because they always seem to have a way of bouncing back from losses.
Expect Ginobili to return to form and look for Duncan and Co. to do a much better job of controlling the glass. San Antonio's effort should be better in general with the crowd's energy in their favor—and with the desperation associated with a must-win game.
The Mavericks will keep this one close, though, almost certainly close enough to win. Nowitzki looks like a man on a mission, and Monta Ellis has been virtually unstoppable.
The Mavs also have the edge in Game 7s historically.
It's a small sample size, but something to consider nonetheless.
Prediction: Spurs defeat Mavericks, 98-94
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