By Mike Monroe
DALLAS — In the three days between their worst loss of the season and Friday’s tipoff against the Mavericks, the Spurs heard little from their coach except reminders of the need to play the sort of defense that has put championship banners in the ATT Center’s rafters.
When they made a defensive mistake on Dallas’ first possession at American Airlines Center, they heard a lot more during a 20-second tirade during a timeout called by an irate Gregg Popovich.
“We were supposed to switch,” said point guard Tony Parker, “and we didn’t switch. We’d talked about defense for three days, and the first play we had our first mistake. Pop was on fire from the get-go.”
It was a valuable reiteration of the lessons hammered home during a rare, three-day hiatus, for it was defensive focus and execution in the fourth quarter that allowed the Spurs to escape Dallas with a 97-91 victory. The Spurs secured a 3-1 season series victory over their Texas rival.
Despite going scoreless in the first five minutes of the final period, the Spurs yielded only five points from the 73-66 margin they held when the quarter ?? began.
By the time guard Gary Neal nailed a 3-pointer from the left corner, the Spurs had missed 13 consecutive shots from the final 1:30 of the third period to the 6:58 mark of the fourth.
They were able to run their record to 55-13 — the NBA’s best mark and the best record in franchise history after 68 games — only because they limited the Mavericks to two baskets during the same stretch.
Neal’s 3-pointer — which followed Manu Ginobili’s slick steal from Mavericks guard Rodrigue Beaubois near the Spurs’ 3-point line — started a Spurs scoring run that left them with a 91-77 lead with 2:34 remaining, just enough cushion to emerge with the win.
“We made enough shots down the stretch, and we were fortunate to get the win,” Popovich said.
With the playoffs approaching, Friday’s victory was a throwback to the Spurs’ championship years in another manner: Their big three scoring stars — Parker, Ginobili and Tim Duncan — combined to score 80 of their 97 points. Parker led the way with 33, Ginobili scored 25 and Duncan got 22, his first game of more than 20 points since he tallied 21 in a victory over the Knicks on Jan. 21.
Aggressive from start to finish, Parker scored four shy of his season high. He got to the rim with relative ease, making nine layups, but also banked in a big 3-pointer with 4:40 remaining to stretch a four-point lead to seven.
“I felt good when it left my hands,” he said. “I’ll take it. I’ve been shooting threes well lately.”
Parker called the victory a perfect shot of confidence for a team that had returned from Miami shaken by the 110-80 loss to the Heat.
“Nobody likes to lose by 30,” he said. “It was just a big comeback win for us on the road against a very good team.”
Ginobili went so far as to say the improvement in defensive focus would have been enough, even if the Spurs had lost.
“Even before the game, it was a pretty important game for us,” he said. “We were coming from two bad losses against contenders, the Lakers and the Heat. We needed to step up and have a good game today. Not necessarily to win, but we needed to compete and play a very good game today, and we did.
“We won, so we go back home pretty satisfied.”
Duncan was satisfied with his own offensive showing, but more pleased with the team’s defensive execution of a game plan that required switching on pick-and-rolls and some full-court pressure from the guards.
Neal, the 26-year-old rookie who has made an impact from the 3-point line, got praise from the captain for his defensive work.
“Gary Neal did a great job all night of picking up full court and turning people and making people work. Just a lot better focus all around.”