“Surprise is the greatest gift which life can grant us.”
The fires of the fourth quarter may forge championship mettle, but the finale was hardly the most important frame in Saturday’s Spurs-Mavs showdown. What Dallas was able to do in the fourth is remarkable and noteworthy in its own right, but we’d be looking at a very different outcome if not for a fantastic display of Maverick resiliency to finish the first half.
With almost nine minutes remaining in the second quarter, Dirk Nowitzki picked up his third foul, and immediately subbed out. The Mavs trailed by nine, and things were going from bad to worse. But a decidedly Dirk-less lineup didn’t seem to mind; Brandon Bass, Josh Howard, Erick Dampier, and Jason Terry managed to not only jack up Dallas’ defensive intensity, but actually trim the lead against the likes of Tim Duncan and Tony Parker. The Mavericks forcibly removed the Spurs’ boot from their throats, rose to their feet, and started swinging. Every punch didn’t connect, but the fact that the Mavs sans Dirk were able to stand their ground and then some against a clicking San Antonio squad is very indicative of how this Maverick team has evolved. A few months ago, maybe the Mavs folded in that second quarter. Maybe the sight of their own shots clanging off the rim would discourage them from bringing the appropriate defensive focus, and the Spurs would go hog wild on a team crippled by the loss of its star due to foul trouble. That nine minute stretch would be the kiss of death.
Yet here we are, and here the Mavs are, standing tall on their 1-0 series lead. That second quarter (and, in turn, what it represents) doesn’t mean everything, but it certainly means something.
It’s way too early to judge what will work and what won’t work over the course of this series, but there is one thing I feel very comfortably saying: J.J. Barea defends Tony Parker (24 points, 9-22 FG, 8 assists) more competently than I ever could have imagined. We know that Barea has the quicks. The man runs around like his shorts are on fire. On offense, that typically translates into creative drives and open looks, and on defense, that typically translates into…well, not all that much. Barea has been a bit of an irritant as a defender, but I don’t know that we’ve seen him truly inhibit a legitimate scoring threat in a meaningful way. After last night, I can say that no more; Barea didn’t lock down Tony Parker as much as he got under his skin, staying with him step for step, getting all up in his business, and putting those amateur acting lessons with Carl Weathers to work by putting on a one-man show for the zebras. Does Barea flop? Oh, most definitely. He exaggerates the contact, and he does what he has to to sell the call and compensate for his height. But to angrily classify J.J. as a ‘flopper’ is to ignore the effectiveness of his defense. He’s not creating contact where there is none, he’s simply putting a flashing neon sign on his back that says “OFF ARM PUSH-OFF!” or “LOOK, A LOWERED SHOULDER!”.
On top of it all, Barea (13 points, 3 assists) came up big on the offensive end. He was so effective in fact, that he stole fourth quarter minutes away from Jason Kidd and Josh Howard. As far as I’m concerned, every second was well deserved. J.J.’s shortcomings were practically invisible, and he confidently drove to the basket at will. He finished his drives well, but those plays dwarfed in comparison to Barea’s decision making and creation for his teammates. By the time Barea was more than a blip on the Spurs’ radar, he was taking advantage of all the extra attention by setting up Antoine Wright in the corner or Brandon Bass at the free throw line. Just beautiful, beautiful basketball.
I don’t expect Barea to hinder Parker consistently, and I don’t expect his bag of tricks to always come up roses. Parker will bounce back, and with help from the tape and his coaches, he probably won’t fall into the same traps. But J.J. was able to make Tony overdribble and indecisive, and that tickles me a bit. Maybe it won’t work every night, but on a night where Dirk and JET aren’t scorching, it was exactly what the Mavs needed.
Brandon Bass (14 points, 7-9 FG, 4 rebounds) was nearly as brilliant, but succeeded without drawing too much attention. His defense and rebounding were exactly what we’ve come to expect from Bass, and his offense anchored an important stretch for the Mavs in the second quarter. He played foil to the Spurs’ Drew Gooden, and I’d say that he succeeded greatly in that regard, despite Gooden’s contributions.
Dirk (19 points, 8 rebounds) was good, but was unexpectedly limited. Some of that credit goes to the Spurs’ defensive pressure, some of it goes to Dirk’s random off half, and the remainder can be chalked up to shot selection. All kinds of Spurs lined up against #41, and Bruce Bowen and Drew Gooden each had some success. Like Parker, I wouldn’t necessarily count on Dirk being limited to these numbers again. But it’s good to know that the Mavs are no longer damsels in distress, waiting for Dirk to put on his cape and save them from the cold, cruel world.
Erick Dampier (10 points, 11 rebounds) showed exactly how valuable he can be in a series against a player of Tim Duncan’s skill set. Duncan’s line was far from shabby (27 points, 13-24 FG, 9 rebounds), but Damp bothered Duncan just enough to cause a few of those misses, and his aggressive board-work earned him more than a few buckets and earned his team a few possessions. On some nights it’s hard to appreciate Dampier, and on others he is completely infuriating. But he usually shows up to play against the biggest of the big, and though the box score may not agree, Dampier was very effective against Duncan and co. last night.
I’ll end it with one more player note: Josh Howard (25 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists) has officially found himself. Some of his shots were hunted and a few jumpers were clearly forced. Still, Josh took over the third quarter (in case you didn’t get the memo, the third quarter is the new first quarter) offensively and displayed his wonderfully high activity level on defense. The “X-Factor” was exquisite, and Josh’s ankle troubles seemed a distant memory. Just to make sure, Josh took an early seat on the bench, sitting for the entire fourth quarter.
More to come later today on the surprising (Barea’s defense) and disturbing (Spurs’ three pointers) trends from Game 1.
- Michael Finley was unbelievable. He finished with 19 points on 5-5 shooting from three, and several of those attempts were from well beyond the line. Fortunately for the Mavs, Fin seems destined to fall back down to Earth. It’s just the way he is. But, it’s more symptomatic of the real problem: the Mavs simply were not sticking to the Spurs’ shooters. That could be a problem.
- Jason Terry turned in a subpar night with just 12 points. I think it’s safe to say that he has Gregg Popovich’s attention, because all kinds of Spurs were playing denial D on Terry all night long.
- One game down, and still no sign of George Hill, the Spur who has the best chance of limiting Barea. If Pop continues his hard stance on not playing Hill and the Spurs lose the series, he could be facing a summer of annoying, repetitive questions.
GOLD STAR OF THE NIGHT: The Gold Star of the Night goes to…come on, man, it’s J.J. He was a stud in the fourth quarter, and was actually the most effective point guard on the offensive end. That’s right, better than Kidd. Barea’s willingness to set up his teammates made the game easy, and his ability to finish in the lane with fakes and floaters kept the defense on their toes. Keeping my fingers crossed that this is only the beginning.