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Old 05-07-06, 11:30 AM
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MySA: Spurs host rested, determined Mavs

Err, sorry I'm late

Spurs host rested, determined Mavs
Web Posted: 05/07/2006 12:16 AM CDT
Johnny Ludden
Express-News Staff Writer

After seven months, 131 victories and nearly 300 miles of interstate, the Spurs and Dallas Mavericks have arrived here, together, as expected.

They will share the floor this afternoon at the AT&T Center for the start of a Western Conference semifinals series that, seemingly, has been in the planning since early October, if not longer.

"They've wanted us year in and year out," Tim Duncan said. "We've got the better of them in years past and I know when we were in that situation and the Lakers were beating us, we wanted to get them. They're in the same situation.

"They want to go through us. They want to take it from us."

The "it" to which Duncan refers would be the NBA championship the Spurs won last season, and feel fortunate to still be holding after a taxing first-round playoff series against Sacramento.

While the Mavericks have been waiting for their next opponent since whisking the Memphis Grizzlies from the playoffs on Monday, the Spurs didn't complete their six-game series with the Kings until early Saturday morning. By the time the Spurs touched down at San Antonio International Airport around 3 p.m. Saturday, Dallas already had been in town for almost five hours.

"We are rested, but I don't know how ready we are," Mavericks coach Avery Johnson said. "In some ways I'd rather be in their situation. You can use it to your advantage and say you're in game shape."

The Spurs hope the 36-hour turnaround between series — which coach Gregg Popovich called "awful" — gives Tony Parker enough time to merely get in playing shape. Already playing with a deep right thigh bruise he suffered Tuesday, Parker strained his right hip in Friday's third quarter. In the locker room afterward, he was barely visible under the mound of ice resting atop him.

Following a short get-together at the team's practice facility late Saturday afternoon, Popovich said Parker will play today. Parker also was optimistic the "magic hands" of trainer (and unofficial massage therapist) Will Sevening will reduce much of his pain.

"It's going to be tough," Parker said, "but we're not going to complain."

Parker's health concerns the Spurs for good reason. Not only was he their most consistent performer in the regular season — averaging 21.8 points in four games against the Mavericks — he thoroughly outplayed Kings point guard Mike Bibby in the first round, capping the performance with a playoff career-best 31 points on Friday.

Parker was so effective that Duncan jokingly questioned the severity of his injuries.

"He's attempting to overtake Eva (Longoria) as the best actor in the family," Duncan said. "Seriously, he's a trooper. He's a tough one. We needed him and he showed he had it."

After laboring on a sore right foot for much of the season, Duncan used the first round to show he also remains a fairly imposing force. It's safe, however, to also say he's not looking forward to today's noon tipoff. Throughout his career, regardless of his health, Duncan has often struggled with matinee starts.

"I can't stand early games," he said. "I hate early games."

The Spurs and Mavericks both think their meeting comes one round too soon. Though they finished with the West's two best records — with the Spurs winning 63 games to Dallas' 60 — they can't face each other in the conference finals because of a playoff system that league officials finally, though grudgingly, admit is flawed.

NBA commissioner David Stern has pledged to address the situation before the start of next season, presumably after he first rids the league of tights. In the interim, the Spurs have taken a what-doesn't-kill-you-only-makes-you-stronger approach. At least, that's what they hope their grueling series with the Kings does for them.

"You never know what's going to take place in the playoffs, but I'll take something like this where it really makes us grind it out and makes us have the bunker mentality," Bruce Bowen said. "When you sweep somebody it's good for you, but you didn't have any adversity to deal with. We had adversity."

They figure to have a lot of more of it, too, in this series. The Mavericks looked as dominant as ever in steamrolling Memphis, and Josh Howard and Devin Harris, both of whom have given the Spurs trouble this season, seem to have regained their health. Dirk Nowitzki did nothing to discourage those who supported his MVP candidacy by averaging 31.3 points against the Grizzlies.

"You want the best and we feel they're one of the top teams in the league this year," Nick Van Exel said of the Mavericks, who split four regular-season games with the Spurs. "It's going to be tough."

Making the Spurs' challenge all the more difficult is the man sitting at the head of Dallas' bench. Johnson, who mentored under Popovich as the Spurs' longtime point guard, has worked to mold the Mavericks' defense in the form of his former team.

Few people understand the tendencies of Popovich — and Duncan — better than Johnson. Last summer, Johnson also added Joe Prunty, who previously prepared the Spurs' scouting reports, to his coaching staff.

"They know us probably better than we know them," Duncan said.

The Mavericks also will see a couple of familiar faces when they look across the court today. Van Exel and Michael Finley both played for Dallas when it was eliminated by the Spurs in the 2003 conference finals.

Finley, who was waived by the Mavericks last summer, frequently looked up at the Spurs during his time in Dallas. The Spurs also eliminated Dallas from the second round in 2001.

"It was sort of the big-brother mentality," Finley said. "We sort of felt we could never beat them. We knew we had to come out and play one of our better games ... and sometimes even when we played our better games it wasn't good enough.

"It's just good to be on the other side."

Dallas will do its best to make Finley feel otherwise. Though the Mavericks didn't embrace the notion they have been clamoring to play their I-35 rivals, they admitted this much: The Spurs have something they want.

"Ultimately, if you want to be a champion, you have to beat the best," Nowitzki said. "We'll see if we're ready to beat them."

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