- The Washington Times - Friday, April 17, 2009

SAN ANTONIO (AP) - The Dallas Mavericks and San Antonio Spurs were so dominant three years ago that they practically forced the NBA to change how playoff teams are stacked.

Three years later, the Spurs and Mavericks have ceded that superiority.

Tim Duncan and the Spurs are the third seed, but were a Michael Finley buzzer-beater this week from dropping to fifth and starting the playoffs on the road. Dirk Nowitzki and Dallas are seeded sixth, and had to win seven of the last nine to get there.

In the Western Conference, it’s now the Los Angeles Lakers and everyone else.

“But we think we’re still up there,” said Duncan, embarking on his 12 consecutive postseason. “We still think we have a chance.”

So do the Mavericks, who renew their playoff rivalry with the Spurs starting Saturday in San Antonio. But unlike in 2006, it won’t be the same meeting of 60-win titans who played to a thrilling seven-game series in the West semifinals. The Mavs prevailed, and went on to the NBA finals before losing to Miami.

Because of that semifinals series, the NBA changed its playoff rules the next season so that the teams with the best records wouldn’t meet until the conference finals. Many felt robbed the Spurs and Mavericks, who weren’t seeded Nos. 1 and 2 because they came from the same division, had squared off so prematurely that year.

But these days, Mavericks guard Jason Terry can’t seem to turn on his TV without being reminded of the general consensus of where Dallas is now in the pecking order.

“It feels disrespectful when you watch these shows, TNT, ESPN, and they’re talking, ‘Walk through the Mavericks, that’s who you want to play,’” Terry said. “OK. We’ll see if that’s who you want to play.”

Dallas has been ousted in the first round in each of the last two seasons. The Spurs rebounded to win their fourth NBA title in 2007, then lost to the Lakers in the conference finals a year ago.

Both teams have four players remaining from their memorable 2006 showdown, most of whom are core players. The Spurs have Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Bruce Bowen. Still around in Dallas are Nowitzki, Terry, Josh Howard and Erik Dampier.

The Spurs will be without Giniboli, who will sit the playoffs with a stress fracture in his right ankle. That alone has many writing off San Antonio’s chances of preserving its streak of NBA titles in the last few odd-number years (‘03, ‘05 and ‘07).

Spurs newcomer Drew Gooden says the Spurs are being overlooked and Mavs point guard Jason Kidd says no one is talking about Dallas. But both are talking about the other like it’s 2006.

“Sometimes as you get older you can become smarter,” Kidd said of the aging Spurs. “Being smarter, with the talent they have, they can be just as dangerous as they’ve been in the past. They have four championships, they understand what it takes to win.”

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said the Mavericks were one of the NBA’s best teams down the stretch.

“They’re playing almost better than anybody in the league, if you look at their play the last couple of weeks,” Popovich said. “They really pulled it together. Besides Cleveland, and maybe L.A., they’ve been playing better than anybody.”

The Spurs held onto the No. 3 seed _ and avoided starting the playoffs on the road for the first time in 12 years _ after ending the season on a four-game winning streak that followed a bumpy stretch for San Antonio. Duncan’s ailing knee has been a source of constant worry for San Antonio, but he said Friday he’s settled into a routine of rest that’s allowed him to get his legs back.

Among the games Duncan sat out this season because of his knee was the Spurs’ blowout win against Dallas in February. San Antonio was missing Ginobili then, too, and a week later Dallas lost on the road to Oklahoma City, which led Mark Cuban to call out his underachieving team and threaten to shake up his roster.

The next game, the Mavs beat the Spurs to even the series at 2-2 in their final meeting.

“I don’t know if it’s the matchup we wanted, it’s the matchup we got by moving up and playing well over the last couple weeks,” Nowitzki said. “Our confidence is as high as it’s been all season.”

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