To be a true sports rivalry - more than just a plethora of games between teams in close proximity (see Chicago Cubs vs. St. Louis Cardinals) - the meetings between opponents must:
*Take place at an advanced level, with championships on the line.
*Feature sustained excellence by both teams over a period of time.
*Include some form of contentiousness, be it physical alternations or trash-talking taunts.
*Prompt you to watch, even if you're a fan of neither team.
What do you know, Dallas Mavericks-San Antonio Spurs meets - and exceeds - each criteria. In fact, when the Mavs and Spurs battle tonight just four hours south on I-35 it will resume one of the best - yet most underrated and overlooked - rivalries in not just the NBA, but all of sports.
You want history? The Spurs were born as the ABA's Dallas Chaparrals.
You want trash-talking? Mavs owner Mark Cuban has repeatedly criticized Spurs fans and called San Antonio's famed Riverwalk "dirty."
You want familiarity? Former Spur Avery Johnson coached the Mavs; Former Mav Michael Finley plays for the Spurs.
You want conflict? Dirk Nowitzkti had his two front teeth knocked out in an '01 playoff game against San Antonio; Jason Terry punched Finley in the family jewels in an infamous '06 scrum.
Most importantly, you want superior play at an elite level? As I noted last week, the Spurs (504) and Mavs (480) have by far the NBA's most regular-season victories since 2000. They are the league's only two teams to have won 50+ games the last eight seasons. And they've saved their best for last. The winner of the teams' three playoff meetings this millenium has advanced to the NBA Finals, with the Mavericks beating the Spurs in a seven-game series en route to their only appearance in 2006 and with the San Antonio ousting Dallas in competitive series on their way to NBA Championships in 2001 and 2003.
So, exactly where does Mavs-Spurs fit in the landscape of current sports rivalries?
10. Los Angeles Lakers vs. Boston Celtics - Memories of Bird vs. Magic and "Beat L.A.!" were rekindled with last summer's Kobe vs. Garnett-Pierce-Allen NBA Finals. With the league's best records this year, they're seemingly again on a collision course.
8. Tiger Woods vs. The Field - Golf's all-time best player has won 14 of the 51 majors he's entered and 30 percent of his career PGA starts against the best of the rest in the world. Still, someone other than Woods wins 70 percent of the time.
7. North Carolina vs. Duke - Not only have they won two college basketball championships this decade, the Tar Heels and Devils are seperated by only eight miles and boast a history filled with Dean Smith, Mike Krzyzewski, Michael Jordan, Grant Hill and two of the sport's all-time winningest records.
6. New England Patriots vs. Indianapolis Colts - This matchup features Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning and has combined to place a team in five of the last eight Super Bowls. Take that, Cowboys-Redskins.
5. Texas vs. Oklahoma - The annual Red River Rivalry not only fills the Cotton Bowl, but the Sooners and Longhorns have combined to win two college football national championships since 2000 and make five title-game appearances.
4. Boston Red Sox vs. New York Yankees - Their genuine, mutal disdain goes back to 1919 and the sale of Babe Ruth and their current domination includes combining for five of the last 11 World Series.
3. Dallas Mavericks vs. San Antonio Spurs - The NBA's two best teams this millenium produce monumental playoff series as contentious neighbors. Imagine the hype is this was Nets-Knicks?
2. Baseball vs. The Truth - For years players lied their way to unprecedented records and resurgent popularity, but - just ask Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, et al - their enemy is staging a furious rally.
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1. Rafael Nadal vs. Roger Federer - They have been ranked No. 1-2 since July 2005 and have won an astounding 15 of the last 16 Grand Slams, most in dramatic, five-set theater.