“Have the courage to live. Anyone can die.”
Brick by brick, the Mavs built the foundation for a victory. They survived 1st quarter adversity to remain within striking distance. The bench stepped up as Josh Howard went down. They clawed their way into a game that they really had no business being in. And yet, when a Jason Terry three finally pushed the Mavs ahead 74-72, I couldn’t shake the unmistakable feeling that it would all come crashing down.
Boy, did it, in a way that may seem eerily familiar.
After hanging, and hanging, and hanging with a Nuggets team playing better basketball than them on both sides of the floor, the Mavs blew a perfect opportunity by scoring just 2 points in the first 6 minutes of the fourth quarter. There were rim-outs, there were horrible turnovers, and there were blocked shots, all of which seemed to end in free buckets for Denver on the break. The offensive magic that pulled the Mavs through the third quarter unscathed was left gasping the thin Denver air, and the Nuggets danced on the grave of the Mavs’ dead and buried transition defense. The team that wanted to turn this series into a marathon was run out of the gym, and I can’t decide whether ‘leak out’ better describes the nemesis of the Mavs’ defense or the insufferable feeling of their playoff hopes dripping away. Each drop brings us a bit closer to another playoff loss puddled on the floor, and another step towards the team staring itself down in the puddle’s reflection.
For three quarters, this was a game. You can thank Dirk Nowitzki (35 points on 20 shots, 9 rebounds, 4 assists) for that. Dirk’s impact was anything but the silent assassinations we’re used to; each fall-away and maneuver in the post was deafening. He served as a constant reminder that no Nugget can guard him (don’t worry, I’ll get to the TNT crew later), and also that the Mavs’ offense can’t function without him. That’s where Denver’s defense really excels. They can’t stop Dirk, and they don’t even do a very good job of limiting him. But the second that the offense stops going through Dirk or the second that he sits on the bench, the Mavs look bewildered. Our possessions begin with a lot of dribbling on the perimeter by Jason Kidd or Jason Terry, and usually end with a turnover or a forced jumper at the shot clock buzzer. They haven’t taken away our best player, but they may have taken away much more.
The number of open dunks and layups the Nuggets had was humiliating. Erick Dampier, Ryan Hollins, and James Singleton finally started stopping the freebies with a steady supply of fouls, but the attempts the Nuggets were able to get on the whole were entirely too easy. The Mavs would grind and pick and squeeze two points out of a jumper, and the Nuggets would respond in a matter of seconds by hitting a wide open Nene for a dunk. It’s impossible to say exactly how much Dampier’s ankle is limiting him, but for his sake I hope it feels like a ball and chain. Otherwise, Nene has basically ripped Damp’s heart out of his chest, demoralizing and emasculating him on national television with rolls to the basket, thunderous dunks, and sly work in the post. Nene finished with 25 and 8, but it seemed like his highlight reel would last for days.
The Mavs’ bench does deserve the appropriate credit for their offensive exploits, but the defense was bad enough that no Mav should leave this recap unmarred. Jason Terry finally looked like Jason Terry again, registering 21 points and 6 assists off the bench. Ryan Hollins was the Mavs’ most effective center, and he somehow corralled his speed and athleticism into a few buckets. J.J. Barea and Brandon Bass vaguely resemble the contributors we saw against San Antonio, but even their mild success was balanced with a steady diet of defensive failure.
On his return, JET ran headfirst into his foil, J.R. Smith (21 points on 6-10 shooting). Smith showed his full range by making alert, intelligent passes to open teammates, and pulling up early for an errant 26-footer at the end of the second quarter that allowed Kidd to run the length of the court and hit a bomb of his own to pull the Mavs within three going into the half. He was every bit the Maverick irritant, coming away with a few steals and hitting big shots to stop the Mavs’ momentum dead in its tracks. I’m sure George Karl will fall asleep smiling.
Carlisle made frequent use of the zone defense, and personally, I’m not sure what to think about it. It seemed to limit the number of successful slashes, but the Mavs gave up entirely too many offensive rebounds to Denver’s bigs, and surrendered a few baskets to backdoor cuts. It’s hard to tell exactly how effective it was without some in-depth analysis, but to be honest it seemed like a wash.
Carmelo Anthony (25 points, 5 rebounds, 5 assists) was again brilliant in the fourth quarter, capping an otherwise quiet game with a 15-point explosion to put the game out of reach. Whether foul trouble or stomach pains have kept Melo mortal, his close-out performances have been stellar. He’s hitting tough jumpers without forgetting to attack the basket, and essentially using a style that is quintessentially Melo to improve on his perceived shortcomings. There’s no doubt that he has evolved as a player, and when that fully-evolved form is on display it is to be both feared and respected.
- I can’t think of anything that makes me angrier than Jason Kidd penetrating all the way to the rim, and declining a layup for a chance to whip the ball around to a shooter. Truly infuriating basketball.
- The TNT crew (and by that I mean Kenny, Charles, and C-Webb) really grilled Dirk for describing Denver’s defenders with positive attributes. Apparently in saying that Nene and Martin are strong and Andersen can challenge shots, Dirk was ceding some gravely important psychological edge. Oh, but then he kind of dropped 35 on them. A big thanks to Ernie Johnson and P.J. Carlesimo for being voices of reason and actually listening to Dirk’s soundbite before they frolick off into exaggeration land.
- Denver’s first quarter parade to the free throw line was brutal. They entered the bonus with about 6 minutes remaining, and shot 14 free throw attempts in the first quarter alone.
- Jason Kidd’s performance was much easier to swallow, but with all the free three-pointers he blew, his performance still hurt. On top of that, Chauncey Billups (18 points, 8 assists, 4-9 3FG) finally emerged from whatever cave he was hiding in, so not only was Kidd sub-par, he was outclassed.
- For those who don’t know, Josh Howard missed three of the four quarters with some swelling and soreness in his ankle.
GOLD STAR OF THE NIGHT: The Gold Star of the Night goes to Dirk. Let’s just leave it at that, because even though Dirk had a wonderful night offensively, this team doesn’t deserve a superlative right now.