Back when John Hollinger wrote for ESPN, he was tasked with ranking the greatest playoff series in NBA history. I am working on a similar project right now, so I know how big of an undertaking it is. Through Hollinger’s research, he determined that the third greatest playoff series of all-time was the 2006 western conference semifinals between the San Antonio Spurs and Dallas Mavericks. I was lucky enough to attend three games of that series and I recently re-watched game 7. The game was so good that I felt like I had to write about it.
It is strange to watch a game that you attended because you never consider the broadcast when you are in the arena, but it is obviously very present to everyone watching on TV. For this game we got the best crew of the 21st century in my opinion, with Marv Albert and Steve Kerr calling the contest for TNT. My dad’s company had excellent season tickets at this time and we were sitting in one of the corners, just a couple rows away from the visitor’s bench. Ok, now that the scene is set, let’s get to the game.
Dirk Nowitzki opened the game with a baseline drive and dunk that was a very positive sign for Dallas. Josh Howard also had an excellent start, scoring five quick points and forcing Gregg Popovich to take an early timeout. The version of the game I watched was edited, so I didn’t get to see a chunk of the first quarter from 9:00-2:50. Dallas was on fire in the opening period, though, and led 37-27 on a ridiculous 15-18 from the field.
The Mavs were just as assertive in the early part of the second quarter, pushing their lead up to 18 points after an Erik Dampier layup, while holding the Spurs scoreless for more than four minutes. Bruce Bowen finally hit a shot for the Spurs and his eight early points really helped keep them afloat. The Mavs later took a 20-point lead on a Dirk and-one after he blew by Tim Duncan in the mid-post. After a furious final three minutes of the half, Dallas led 64-50 behind better than 70% shooting.
The Spurs were clearly trying to get to the rim more often to start the third, and were switching ball screens a lot more on defense. Duncan also got more involved as the Spurs cut the lead to 10, but he didn’t grab his first rebound until four minutes into the 3rd quarter. San Antonio did a great job of getting to the line in the third quarter. In fact, at the midway point of the period they had shot 27 free throws to Dallas’ nine. Manu Ginobili scored five quick points to cut the lead to seven but then Dallas responded to a 10-2 Spurs run with a run of their own, including two Keith Van Horn left corner threes to put them back up by 10. The Spurs fought back though and Dallas only led by six after three quarters.
I remember the arena being unbelievably loud during the fourth quarter. It felt like everyone stood for the whole period and watching it again, that was pretty much the case. That period was obviously a great time to be a Spurs fan. In hindsight, this season was sandwiched between two title teams, but at the time the city was hungry for back-to-back titles and this was a phenomenal opportunity with the Phoenix Suns losing Amare Stoudemire earlier in the season and no true dominant force in the east. My point is, this felt like game 7 of the NBA Finals, not the second round.
A couple of minutes into the fourth quarter, Josh Howard picked up his fifth foul, but more on him later. A few plays later Dirk hit an incredibly tough shot to give the Mavs a nine-point lead, and then Manu immediately answered with a three. This is starting to get fun. Dallas goes small down the stretch with Dirk as the lone big man and Howard, Devin Harris, Jason Terry and Jerry Stackhouse with him. Duncan had a put back to cut the lead to three, and then a textbook post spin move on Dirk to cut the lead to two just a couple plays later. Dallas led 101-97 but then former Maverick, Michael Finley, buried a three to make it a one-point game. The next Spurs possession saw Duncan draw Dampier’s sixth foul, disqualifying the big man. Duncan made one of two and the game was tied.
On the Mavs next possession they went to Dirk, whose jumper fell short and into the hands of Tony Parker. The Spurs went down and got the ball into Duncan, who forced a double-team and kicked it out to Ginobili who buried a three with 32.4 seconds to go as the crowd goes bonkers. My high school basketball coach was at this game and he, like myself, has been to hundreds of Spurs games. He thinks the place has never been louder than after that Ginobili three. Anyway, back on the other end Dallas got the ball to Dirk and he bullied Bowen to the rim and scored as Ginobili fouled him with 21.4 left. It was a remarkable finish from Dirk and a really dumb foul by Ginobili. The Spurs went isolation with Ginobili for the final possession. He went left and left his runner short but Duncan grabbed the rebound but couldn’t get a shot off through the thicket of arms; overtime.
Personally, this was such a fun game to rewatch. From the building being called SBC Center instead of AT&T Center, like it is now known, to the “little help!” call that PA announcer Stan Kelly used to bellow, it brought back a lot of memories. I attended this game with my dad and I can’t thank him enough for taking me to so many games. This is one of the three or four best I ever witnessed live. Oh and one last note, as the Mavs joyously ran off the court Josh Howard launched his headband into the sky, and it came down into a group of spectators; guess who caught it?