“This is how we do it.”
Congratulations to your Dallas Mavericks, ladies and gents, who have posted a 50 win season in every year this decade. Maybe 50 is just an arbitrary marker, another number in a game of numbers, but it does represent a prolonged greatness that can be matched by just one other current team. That other team just so happens to be the Mavs’ first round playoff opponent, the San Antonio Spurs.
For the Mavs, this game was as much about climbing as high as possible in the standings as it was about beating a pretty damn good team in a meaningful game. Both squads had plenty to play for, but it was the Mavericks, largely considered the inferior team, who came up with the right mix, the right sets, and the right strategies. Rick Adelman is a Coach of the Year candidate in his own right and I’m actually very fond of this bunch of Rockets. But last night, Rick Carlisle taught Adelman a thing or two about in-game adjustments, and the Mavs held a hands-on workshop in crunch time execution.
The Mavs’ big names showed up. Dirk (30 points, 13-23 FG, 15 rebounds) was fantastic, and balanced a fantastic first quarter with a superb second half. Jason Kidd (11 points, 10 rebounds, 12 assists, 3-3 3FG) had another day at the office, and notched a triple double. Every rebound and assist was impactful, and Kidd’s three-pointers were heartbreakers for the Rox. The JET took the torch in the fourth quarter, overcoming a trying first half to finish with 23 points on 10-17 shooting. As a team, the Mavs outscored the Rockets 30-14 in the fourth, a success fueled by Terry’s heroics and aggressive, physical team defense.
Yao Ming (23 points, 9 rebounds, 4 turnovers) gave Erick Dampier fits once again. Oddly enough, the real defensive success came when Ryan Hollins and Brandon Bass did their best to make Yao’s life hell. Hollins initially had some trouble, but eventually used his length to front Yao and limit his attempts. Brandon Bass used every ounce of his strength to make Yao uncomfortable. Holding, pushing, pulling, and generally ensuring that whatever Yao did was difficult. As a result, the Rockets’ best player on the floor managed just one shot attempt. Erick Dampier can do a lot of good against a lot of centers in this league; Yao Ming is not one of them. I’m glad to see that at least one Mav can have success against him, even if that success doesn’t come with a wow-worthy statistical line. Bass and Hollins only turned things around with the help of some very aggressive double-teams, and that’s a credit to the Mavs’ entire defensive scheme and Rick Carlisle. It made too much sense for Yao to pass the ball out and hope for a re-post, and often the interior feed didn’t come. Single coverage wasn’t working for Dampier or the zone, but the added pressure was enough to significantly limit Yao’s attempts in the fourth.
Aaron Brooks wasn’t the killer he was last time out against Dallas, but Kyle Lowry (15 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists, 6-7 FT) didn’t mind stepping in to assume the role. Lowry pulled out every trick in the book on J.J. Barea and Jason Terry, and the Mavs simply didn’t have an answer for his penetration. The double teams left the defense in a constant state of rotation, and as a result the lane was wide open for dribble-drives. Lowry took full advantage of that, but simply failed to capitalize on that penetration aside from drawing a few fouls.
But where was Josh Howard? He was virtually invisible in the first half, and though he managed to chip in 15 points on 4-13 shooting, his offensive contributions were nonexistent outside of a third quarter parade to the line. 8 free throw attempts in a quarter is impressive, but where was he otherwise? I know he faced two hellish defenders in Ron Artest and Shane Battier, but Josh uncharacteristically failed to get off to a high-scoring start. But this tells you just how important Josh Howard is to this team: he had a sub-par game and didn’t shoot effectively…and yet he keyed an 11-0 third quarter run that essentially kept the Mavs in the game. He’s going to have bad games, but if his bad games can come with the silver lining of a one-quarter blitz, the Mavs will be pretty tough to stop. Dirk in the first, Josh in the third, and JET in the fourth: that’s one hell of a relay. On top of that, Josh came up limping after hitting the floor hard in the fourth quarter. Even if you didn’t cherish his in-game exploits, you’ve gotta appreciate the fact that he continued to play on that sore ankle and didn’t say one word about it. Plenty have questioned the head on Howard’s shoulders, but he doesn’t seem mixed up or confused in the slightest: he’s here to play, and he’s here to help the Mavs win. Josh, you didn’t have a great game, but I’m still tipping my hat to you.
The Rockets’ offense disappeared when their 7’6” center did. Say what you will, but it’s not an easy task to cloak a guy like that. He doesn’t quite fit in the closet. Part of that was the ridiculous number of close-range shots that simply refused to find the net. Some people call that an inability to finish and others may call it a series of unlucky bounces, but for last night’s game I call it the difference between a win and a loss. The fourth quarter was, for the most part, a dog fight, and if you factor in the impact of the half dozen rim-outs the Rockets blew within five feet of the basket, you’re looking at an entirely different ballgame. Maybe the Mavs did just enough to bother a few of those shots, maybe the Rockets shorted them, or maybe the now deceased brother of a Maverick haunts the arena, altering the game in unexplainable ways. I just don’t know. What I do know is that those misses were awfully costly.
Dallas has won five of six. They overcame a 14-point deficit and beat a Western favorite. The Mavs have confidence and momentum in spades, but it’s up to them to harness that into something tangible against San Antonio.
GOLD STAR OF THE NIGHT: The Gold Star of the Night goes to Brandon Bass, who played the entire fourth quarter and held Yao Ming to just one attempt over an eight minute stint. He didn’t have the line, but he had all the impact, especially in comparison to Erick Dampier. Damp’s heart was in the right place, but he racked up the fouls while Yao racked up the points. Bass used every weapon he had against Yao in the post, the most effective of which were those two massive guns on his arms. Maybe there were some fouls in there, but when any player is able to limit an elite center the way that Bass did, help defense or not, it deserves some props.