Mavs forward Dirk Nowitzki, No. 41, takes a shot against Tim Duncan of the Spurs on Nov. 18, 2009, at American Airlines Center.
With the Spurs and Mavericks meeting again in the playoffs, it's easy to be lulled into thinking this is the same old, same old -- two in-state rivals who know each other so well that the winner will simply be whichever team makes the most of its opportunities.
That's not totally the case.
The Mavericks reinvented themselves in mid-February, swapping four guys for three. In March, the Spurs were forced to shake things up when Tony Parker broke a bone in his right hand. George Hill became the starting point guard and the team played so well that Parker came off the bench all six games after he returned.
Since these overhauls, the teams have only met once, a season finale Wednesday night that was kind of a joke. Knowing this first-round matchup was coming, both teams held things back; San Antonio even held out Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili.
So, strange as it may seem, there's an air of mystery going into Game 1 Sunday night.
"We don't know them, they don't know us," Mavs center Brendan Haywood said. "We'll get to know each other starting this weekend."
OK, that may be overstating it. Then again, Haywood is among Dallas' newcomers, so he's in need of a history lesson.
The quick version is that both teams have won 50 games each of the past 10 years, but San Antonio has won four championships and the best the Mavs have done is reach the finals once. The Spurs took out Dallas in the 2003 conference finals and the Mavs returned the favor in a classic second-round series in '06. Dallas also eliminated San Antonio in the first round last season.
"They're our big brothers," Mavericks guard Jason Terry said Saturday. "Until we get those rings, they're always a team that we're gunning for. ... I don't know what their organization does, but they continue to keep good players, good people around."
There used to be a lot of cross-pollination: Spurs coach Gregg Popovich worked for former Dallas coach Don Nelson; Nelson's successor Avery Johnson was Popovich's protege. There's also been some bad blood, from former San Antonio forward Bruce Bowen's tough defense ("tripping people," Dirk Nowitzki still calls it) to Mavericks owner Mark Cuban talking about the dirty water in San Antonio's famous River Walk. Having about 4½ hours of Interstate 35 between the cities adds to the intensity.
"Outside of Texas, I don't think people really appreciate the rivalry as much as we do," Cuban said. "It should be a great national rivalry because every game with the Spurs, even preseason games, people take personally."
While some faces have changed, there are still many constants.
The Spurs are going to run a lot of pick-and-rolls with Parker and Ginobili either driving the lane or passing to 3-point shooters. They'll also get the ball to Duncan for bank shots and all sorts of nifty moves around the rim.
Jason Kidd will run the Dallas offense, always looking to start fast breaks. He'll pass to Nowitzki inside or out, or to Terry on the perimeter. In last season's playoff series, the Spurs did a great job on Nowitzki and Terry but that freed up Josh Howard, and he made them pay. He's no longer around, but Caron Butler and Shawn Marion are, prompting Nowitzki to call this the deepest team in his 12 seasons.
"They have a ton of players and everybody can play, but they play mainly the same way," Ginobili said. "You can change. But not that much."
The Mavericks went 23-7 after adding Butler, Haywood and DeShawn Stevenson. They closed the regular season winning eight of 10 and five in a row.
The Spurs played well down the stretch, too, going 5-1 against playoff teams, not counting the throwaway finale. Hill was a big part of that surge, as was Manu Ginobili, all with Parker either a non-factor or a bit player.
"When Tony went down, too, I found myself with the ball in my hands for long times," Ginobili said. "I knew I was going to close out games with the possibility of making most decisions, and that really helped."
Ginobili is healthy, too, which wasn't the case the past two postseasons. He hasn't been this ready to chase a title since 2007 -- which also was the last time the Spurs won it all.
The Hill-Parker situation bears watching, especially since Hill aggravated a strained tendon in his right ankle Wednesday night and didn't return. He went through some of practice Friday and Popovich said he'd be a game-time decision.
Parker is expecting Hill to play and probably start. Of course, Popovich might want Parker, a former NBA finals MVP, back in charge of the offense. Or he could be saving that wrinkle until he needs it.
The X factor could be Duncan.
He averaged 17.9 points and 10.1 rebounds this season, both the lowest of his career. Does that mean that after 13 seasons he's wearing down? Or has he been saving his strength for the playoffs? The fact he had only two games since Feb. 28 with both 20 points and 10 rebounds supports both arguments.
Duncan is confident everything will work out, even with the Spurs seeded seventh and only team seeded as low as No. 6 (the 1995 Houston Rockets) having won the championship.
"We feel if we have all our guns going in the air we feel like we can give everybody in this league a run," Duncan said. "Manu being healthy. I believe I'm a bit more healthy than I was last year, too. Those two factors I think help us tremendously without even a game played."