“Of course life is bizarre, the more bizarre it gets, the more interesting it is. The only way to approach it is to make yourself some popcorn and enjoy the show.”
We’re 144 minutes into this series, and the Mavs have played catch-up to gut out a tough win, had their egos taken behind the barn and shot, and completely obliterated the entire Spurs roster. Three very different games, and three very different impressions that have all asserted one thing: we’ve learned nothing about this series that we didn’t know coming in.
But last night, that nothing sure was fun to watch.
It’s hard to expect the Mavs’ epic defensive performance to have any kind of staying power. The Spurs won’t be psychologically scarred by the thrashing they took last night; if anything, they’ll be as motivated as ever to control Game 4. But in a vacuum, playoff performances don’t get much more dominant than the thorough smackdown the Mavs laid down on the Spurs. Dallas held the lead throughout, and appeared focused on grooming that lead early. A five point lead wasn’t enough. An eight point lead wasn’t enough. A fifteen point lead wasn’t enough. And as the differential kept climbing and climbing, it was easy to see that Dallas’ weapon of choice wasn’t killer offensive execution, but rather a defense with fangs, claws, talons, horns, and fully automatic machine guns.
If you’d like a face for the Mavs’ exemplary defense, I’ll give you three: Jason Kidd, Josh Howard, and Erick Dampier. Tony Parker was obviously in the Mavs’ crosshairs, and they successfully held TP to 14 points on 5-14 shooting with 3 turnovers. If that surprised you, then brace yourself: that defense on Parker was keyed primarily by Jason Kidd. Kidd hardly guarded Parker exclusively, but he provided the groundwork and a point of reference for J.J. and Parker’s other defenders. He hustled to get into position, tried his damnedest to slow Parker even half a step, and used timing and hustle to irritate Tony into turnovers or misses. Essentially, Kidd succeeded in doing everything Barea had done previously, but the defense’s accomplishments were even more pronounced because of shot-blocking from the weak side. Enter Howard and Dampier. On Howard’s best nights, he’s a good on-ball defender and a great off-ball one. This was one of those nights. Howard played the passing lanes and forced his share of turnovers, but cemented the Mavs’ defensive gameplan by coming out of nowhere for huge blocks. Dampier followed suit, protecting the rim from Parker and Duncan (who finished with just 4 points and 2 rebounds while shooting 2-9 from the field) without fatally injuring anybody. Parker wasn’t knocked flat on his back, but he might as well have been. Also, Dampier was much improved in defending the screen and roll, showing strong on the screen to halt Parker’s progress and block the easy passing angle. It may not seem like much, but it means the world.
The best defensive strategy the Mavs employed all night was strictly a preventative one: run up the score as quickly and demonstratively as possible, and force Pop to start thinking about Saturday. The turnover between last night’s game and the game early on Saturday afternoon is shorter than you’d expect in the playoffs, and I’d wager Tim Duncan’s knees don’t much like the notion. As such, it seems perfectly reasonable for Gregg Poppovich to have an ear trained to the wailing of Timmy’s joints. With the game clearly out of reach, Duncan and Parker took a seat. Not only did that make their box score output look even dimmer, but it significantly curbed the risk of any San Antonio comeback. I am not afraid of Jacque Vaughn.
Maybe the point total doesn’t wow you, but Dallas’ offense was tremendous as well. J.J. Barea (13 points, 7 assists, just one turnover) got the start in place of Antoine Wright, and the Mavs reaped instant dividends with his 9 points and 2 assists in the first frame. Throwing Barea into the fire early not only helps facilitate the offense with a player who is a superior shooter and ball-handler to Wright, but also poses virtually no risk defensively with Roger Mason Jr. and Michael Finley on the floor. Barea also relieves Kidd and gives the Mavs another transition defender to pick-up Parker, a luxury that cannot be discounted. Carlisle made a big adjustment in giving Barea the start, and he deserves all the credit. One can only hope that the the adjustment’s impact mirrors Avery Johnson’s sub of Devin Harris into the starting lineup in 2006, a chess move that provided the basis for a Game 7 checkmate.
As Barea goes, apparently so too does Brandon Bass (10 points, 5 rebounds, 2 blocks). Both were instrumental in the Mavs’ victories, lending further legitimacy to the thought that this battle won’t be won in the stars, but in the trenches.
It needs to be said that the Spurs shot atrociously. Part of that was a renewed interest in defense from the Mavs, but even the best D can’t force a team into shooting 2 of 17 from three. But with the way the Spurs were shooting, it only made defending Tony Parker that much easier. Parker’s drive always come with the threat of a kick-out to the corner, but with those threats neutralized by sound defense and an off night to balance SanAn’s white hot shooting in Game 1, the Spurs best playmaker developed a bit of tunnelvision. All the easier to block, my pretty.
Dirk Nowitzki (20 points on 8-12 FG, 7 rebounds) has officially arrived at the 2009 Playoffs. Welcome aboard, buddy. His numbers are far from daunting, but Dirk put on a dominant shooting performance that gave us a taste of things to come. Don’t expect 67% shooting every night, but you can’t count on Dirk to be more of an offensive factor from here on out. Book it.
- The Spurs’ 67 points was the all-time low allowed by a Maverick playoff opponent. Booyah.
- If the bright side of the blowout for the Spurs was getting Tony Parker and Tim Duncan plenty of rest, then the Mavs have their benefits eclipsed. Not only did the Mavs put together a completely dominant two-way performance on their home court and build up their confidence, but Dirk Nowitzki, Josh Howard, and Jason Kidd all had comfy seats on the bench for the entire fourth quarter, and Jason Terry played just 24 minutes in the entire game.
- Jason Terry (10 points, 4-9 FG, 2 assists, 3 turnovers) is facing some brutal traps whenever he and Dirk start up the two man game (name drop!). It’s frustrating, but Terry’s not forcing it and is generally getting the ball to his open teammates. I’d love for Terry to get open looks, but if trapping JET means a wide open Dirk is waiting at the free throw line, I think I’ll find a way to cope.
- Josh Howard has added a great wrinkle to his game: passing to dive cutters after drawing extra attention. Old Josh pulls up and lets the shot fly, regardless of the fact that its heavily contested. But since his return, Josh has shown a willingness to dish to that wide open cutter, creating an easy as ABC bucket for Erick Dampier or Brandon Bass.
- If you watched tape of Dirk dealing with double teams in 2007 and today, you’d see two completely different players. The Spurs continued to throw doubles at Dirk from a variety of angles, and occasionally even attempt to play the angles on the swing pass to the perimeter. Dirk was having none of that, and either hoisted a clear look, found Kidd to reset the play, or bypassed the passing lane pressure to find a wide open shooter in the corner. Tremendous.
GOLD STAR OF THE NIGHT: The Gold Star of the Night goes to Rick Carlisle (0 points, 0 rebounds, 0 assists…but 0 turnovers). Moving J.J. into the starting lineup seemed like an obvious move, but only because of Rick’s willingness to adjust and compromise his previous strategy in order to meet situational needs. Carlisle is neither too proud nor too stubborn to make the big adjustment, a trait which the greatest coaches share and the tragic coaches lack. This team came out ready to roll offensively, and the defensive strategy was completely overhauled. The execution on both ends was spectacular, and there won’t be a whisper of motivational issues on Friday. That’s obviously not all Carlisle, but it certainly starts with Rick and his staff. Kudos.