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NBA Sunday: The West Gets Wilder

The Western Conference playoffs continue to offer last-minute thrills … An old familiar face is an X-Factor for Dallas … Gregg Popovich holds court with the media

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San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich talks about his team’s series against the Dallas Mavericks, the controversy surrounding L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling and more.

The West Gets Wilder

The Eastern Conference playoffs are going about as expected. The Miami HEAT are manhandling the Charlotte Bobcats, the Indiana Pacers’ struggles have continued and the middle brackets have been very competitive. In the Western Conference, however, things have been hot, heavy and strongly contested across the board. Overtime is almost expected when two West teams take the court, and most games have been decided either by an extra period or by key plays down the stretch. Saturday’s games were no different, as late-game heroics were the order of the day.

The biggest shot of the day came from none other than Vince Carter, who is little more than a footnote in Dallas these days. He brings it every night, but the stars of the team are Dirk Nowitzki and Monta Ellis, meaning Carter does most of his work without much fanfare. But that certainly wasn’t the case on Saturday, as he drained a three-pointer as time expired to give the Mavericks a 109-108 win and a 2-1 series lead over the visiting San Antonio Spurs.

“Without looking into the details of all of our plays, it was an option,” Mavs head coach Rick Carlisle said of the play. “It was going to have to be a quick shot. Any pump fake was going to have to be quick.  It was a great catch and Jose [Calderon] did a great job of getting [Vince] the ball because [Manu] Ginobili was denying it. The execution of the shot was great, obviously. Vince really deserves it. He’s been so good for us and he’s been about so many of the right things. You always hope that a guy like this can have a moment like this in a big playoff game. So, I’m really happy for him and we survived it. It was not looking good with two minutes to go down five, but the guys hung in and we got the ball in the basket a couple of times and made a big play at the end.”

“I don’t mind the pressure shots, taking the game-winning shots,” Carter said after the game. “I don’t mind missing them and dealing with it. I think that mentality helps me. I can go out there and take the shot with confidence. Sometimes you’re going to miss them and live with it. Sometimes you’ll miss a big shot – 2001 – and you hold on to it until you get the opportunity again.”

Carter’s reference to 2001 goes back to his time as a Toronto Raptor, when he missed a buzzer-beater in Game 7 of the second round against the Philadelphia 76ers and his team failed to advance as a result. This time around, he was ready and had already gotten a pretty good indication from Carlisle that he would get that last shot, despite not being the first option on the play.

“He said, ‘Be ready, it’s going to be there, and you’re going to make your shot,'” said Carter. “We took a lot of time trying to figure out how they were going to guard Monta. We figured it might not be there. He said, ‘You’re going to knock it down.’ I said, ‘OK, no problem.’”

Carter knocked down his shot and sent the frenzied American Airlines Center crowd home happy, but the excitement was just beginning for the Western Conference. The nightcap saw the Oklahoma City Thunder playing Game 4 of their series against the Memphis Grizzlies. Already characterized by crazy last-second heroics, unlikely four-point plays and multiple overtime periods, this one would not disappoint.

The Thunder’s offensive woes continued to start the game, as they managed just 15 points in the first quarter, but Oklahoma City soon got it going. In fact, for a moment it looked like they might steal home court advantage back as the fourth quarter wound down, but as has happened in every game of this series, the lead slipped away. When Marc Gasol dropped in a jumper with 1:20 left, giving Memphis an 80-75 lead, it looked like the Grizzlies might just take a 3-1 lead. But then Reggie Jackson scored five quick points for the Thunder to force overtime.

On a night when Kevin Durant was suffering through one of this worst shooting performances of the season and Russell Westbrook seemed intent on ignoring open teammates and forcing bizarre, ill-advised shots, it was Jackson who would prove to be the hero for the Thunder. He dropped in a pair of free throws with three seconds left in overtime that iced the 92-89 win for OKC. Jackson’s 32 points were a career-high, and especially impressive considering he was averaging five points per game in the first three games of the series.

Welcome to the Western Conference, where three of the postseason series are as exciting as a showdown between John Wayne and Clint Eastwood in the Wild, Wild West of old. The Eastern Conference playoffs might be a little on the boring side, but the West is more than making up for it.

An X-Factor for Dallas

When the Dallas Mavericks inked free agent point guard Devin Harris for the 2013-14 season, it didn’t exactly grab headlines. After all, Harris is several years removed from his best basketball and he wasn’t expected to be much of an impact player for the Mavericks. The Mavs, however, had a long-term plan for Harris. They helped him rehab and get his body right, and when he was ready to resume basketball duties he quickly carved out a role for himself in helping Dallas take a 2-1 lead over the San Antonio Spurs in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs.

“I think it’s more of our spacing of the floor,” Harris told Basketball Insiders of the key to their success against the Spurs. “We keep the floor spaced with shooters and guys are making good decisions with the ball; wherever the mistake may be we’re finding the right guys to take the right shots.”

Harris was originally drafted by the Mavericks, and has had plenty of experience playing against the rival Spurs. He was the starting point guard for the Mavericks team that made it all the way to the NBA Finals in 2006, taking out the Spurs along the way.

“I’ve had a few games against them and kind of understand what they like to do,” said Harris. “Like I said, it’s our spacing the floor that really creates problems. We’ve got shooters surrounded and they’ve got to make a decision on who to take away and so far I’ve been a guy who has benefited the most from it.”

Harris admits that having all the time and assistance he needed for a Mavs team that was thinking long-term helped him get healthy and to a point where he can contribute once again.

“Yeah, it was going back and forth and just trying to get my legs underneath me, missing so many games,” Harris explained. “Just going through the games and getting the timing, it feels like it’s all pulling  together right now.”

Most of the team that Harris helped lead to the Finals in 2006 is gone, but Dirk Nowitzki continues to impress Harris with his leadership on and off the court.

“Yeah, he’s incredible that way,” said Harris. “He’s got good genes and he’s a competitor. He’s the leader of our team and he’s done a great job just leading by example and you know setting guys up to go out there and play well.”

The Mavericks lead the series with San Antonio 2-1, but Harris knows well that the Spurs are not to be underestimated.

“We’ve had our struggles against this team, losing 10 straight, but we came in with a new focus in the playoffs,” Harris said. “Guys have been really focused and obviously we stole home court, but obviously we’ve got a long way to go throughout the series.”

Game 4 of the I-35 rivalry will take place on Monday night, when the Mavs will try to turn their home court advantage into a devastating 3-1 lead heading back to San Antonio.

Bill Ingram is a Senior NBA Analyst for Basketball Insiders and has covered the NBA since 1998.

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