On paper, this looks like a really close series. I would be surprised if it didn't go six or seven games. There are a few key areas, matchups, and players that I think will swing the series one way or the other. They are:
1. Who stops Dirk? The Spurs no longer have Bruce Bowen or Robert Horry or David Robinson--no shut down defender and no athletic big alongside Duncan. Dirk should have his way with the Spurs in this series. Duncan won't guard Dirk much--he can't chase Dirk all over the place. Matt Bonner will probably see some time guarding Dirk, as will Richard Jefferson and Antonio McDyess. The only one of those who can cause any problems for Dirk would be Jefferson, but he's been such a bust this year in San Antonio, I wouldn't expect much out of him in the postseason. Gregg Popovich does not like to double team, so I'm guessing that he plays Dirk straight up with one of those three guys--and because of that, Dirk should have a very high-scoring series. In the playoffs, you go as far as your star carries you--and Dirk should be able to carry Dallas against the Spurs.
2. Kidd vs Parker. Which point guard imposes his will on the series? Parker always lights up Dallas, and Kidd has been playing great basketball since the big Wiz trade went down. Offensively, Kidd can punish Parker by backing him down, but Parker can return the favor by blowing by Kidd on the other end. Parker's play has been good, not great, this year--and I still don't think he's found his stride since returning from the injury. Kidd seems to be very motivated. Advantage: Kidd.
3. Manu vs Matrix. Ginobili has been playing out of his mind for the last month and a half. If he keeps it up, he could be enough to tilt the series to the Spurs. I'm guessing we will see a lot of Marion on Manu. Marion has been great at shutting down big scorers (think Durant). Whoever wins this battle might just see his team win the war.
4. Small Ball? There is a thought that the Spurs will go small: Parker, Hill, Manu, Jefferson, and Duncan. Jefferson plays Dirk, and the Spurs try to out-quick and out-athlete the Mavs. It could work. Or, they could get killed on the boards. Could also make for a VERY entertaining series.
5. Benches. Both teams have good benches. If Jason Terry is hot, the Mavs have a great chance. If Terry lays bricks, it will be a tough series for Dallas. If the Spurs get consistent three-balls from Mason and Bonner, and get dirty work on the glass from Blair, they have a good chance. Will Roddy B. get to play? I don't think so--not much more than a couple of minutes a half. Put it this way--if he plays a lot, things may not be going well for Dallas. In the last five games of the regular season, when the push for the number two seed was on, Roddy didn't play much at all. I think that tells us what Carlisle thinks about having him on the floor when it matters.
In the end, I'm taking Dallas in seven. I've watched each team very closely this year--I bet I've seen 75% of both team's games. The Spurs have been very good lately, beating the Lakers, Celts, Magic, Cavs, Suns, and Thunder. That's huge. But Duncan has lost a step, Parker doesn't look right, Jefferson still looks lost, and--most importantly--they don't play defense like they used to. The Spurs have the experience and moxie and head coach to win a series like this, but I think Dallas is the more complete team--and they have the home court. This is the best Dallas team I've seen (at least on paper) since the late 80's, and I don't expect them to lose in the first round.