The first round is in the books, and the Spurs are no more (for now). There have been a lot of micro-level observations about the Mavs’ play and their responses to the Spurs’ specific strategies, but it’s about time that we make a good, honest appraisal of where this team is.
- The Mavs have some fight in them. In the regular season, the Mavs could gut it out with contenders one night and then blow one against Milwaukee another. But we’ve seen a completely different look from the team in the last five games (well, four of the last five games). Where the old Mavs would roll over and hit the snooze button, the new Mavs leap out of bed fully energized and karate chop the alarm clock in half. They’ve been able to leap gaudy offensive efficiency numbers in a single bound, and their defense has been passable enough to secure wins. Tony Parker and Tim Duncan took their turns going on mini-runs in this series, and the Mavs built on the resilency they showed in the final games of the regular season and fought back. Call it experience, call it better offensive execution, or call it mental fortitude, but when the Mavs get hit they’re hitting back. That’s pretty huge progress from a squad that tended to fold like origami when faced with the slightest coercion a few months ago.
- The Mavs are not an elite defensive team, but they’re also not a bad one. They currently rank 8th among playoff teams in defensive efficiency at 102.9, which for comparison’s sake would have ranked 7th in the regular season. They’re notably better than Houston (104.0), one of the best defensive teams in the playoffs. The sample size is hideously small, but there is a pretty big piece of anecdotal evidence that goes in the Mavs’ favor: against the Spurs, the Mavs were able to stop the Spurs from doing what they wanted to do. Poppovich wants to use Tony Parker and Tim Duncan as a mechanism to open up three point shooters, which can kill teams from the corners. Parker and Duncan are obviously still big-time contributors, but San Antonio’s offensive strategy hinges on those shooters. I’d be lying if I said the Mavs completely took away that strategy. Parker’s deep penetration still allowed plenty of open looks. But as the series went on and the team resigned itself to the fact that Tony Parker’s going to be able to get his, the approach shifted. Kidd and Barea began playing the angles, hoping to limit Parker and funnel him into the help rather than stop him. And on the perimeter, Josh Howard, Jason Terry, and even Dirk were locked in place on the shooters, either expecting the kick-out or rotating perfectly. The defensive rotations and shot contesting in Game 5 was some of the best we’ve seen from the Mavs all season. Don’t discount that, especially when this offense only needs a little breathing room to win.
- Josh Howard is back. We all had our fingers crossed that throwback Josh wasn’t a mirage, and we lucked out. Frankly, he deserves a post all to himself, and he’s going to get one. But for now, it’s worth noting that there are four players that are legitimate stars on this team, even if the stat sheet isn’t in their favor every night.
- The bench seems deeper than ever, and the mob is ready to contribute in a big way. J.J. Barea was pegged as a potential X-factor for the Spurs series, but Brandon Bass’ and Ryan Hollins’ contributions were nearly as valuable. The ability to throw a variety of defensive looks at Tim Duncan to keep him on his toes while also having a safety net for Erick Dampier’s foul trouble was indispensible. James Singleton has been lost in the shuffle of Josh Howard’s return, but he could be a piece of the puzzle to defend Carmelo Anthony (supposing Denver guts out another win). The success of Barea and Bass make stopping the offense that much more difficult, and they’ve eased the burden on the big guns by playing smart, gutsy basketball. Plus, Antoine Wright was a non-factor in the last series, but he’ll be an important defensive piece in a series against either the Nuggets or Hornets. At various points throughout the season, I’ve worried that a bench consisting of Barea, Hollins, Bass, and Singleton was akin to loading up your pistol with peanuts when you ran out of bullets. Not only did they each prove me wrong individually, but on the whole this bench is stronger than I’ve given them credit for.
- Blocking out a star won’t stop its light from shining through. The bench was so successful in part because of all the attention Dirk and JET received. The Spurs were clearly ready to let Kidd, Josh, and the rest of the bunch decide the fate of this series, but those open shots and clear drives don’t happen unless Terry is getting trapped on the wing or Dirk is doubled at the free throw line. Both of their shot attempts were down, but their floor presence was unmistakable. Dirk showed off his much-improved passing game, and both he and Terry patiently waited out the defense. Yet even with both shooting significantly fewer shots, the Mavs’ offense looked unstoppable at times. The ball is moving to the open man, the turnover rate is as impressive as ever, and Dirk and JET are still making their mark despite their point totals. Don’t get me wrong, I’d still openly weep when Dirk goes for 50, but every time he makes a bullet pass to a cutter, an adorable little angel puppy gets its wings. Aww.