“Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.”
Beating the Lakers on a Wednesday night in February doesn’t exactly equate to winning the championship, but the Mavs’ 101-96 victory should go a long way in instilling this team with confidence. Caron Butler didn’t even play (thanks to a negative reaction to a medication he was taking), but Mavericks new and old were locked in on the opportunity to defeat the defending champs. And, needless to say at this point, that they did.
In a quite impressive fashion, I might add. The game ended up more or less going down to the wire, but Dallas continues to hang with teams in the first half before taking over in the second. The first two quarters were about matching the Lakers’ offense point for point, but once that offensive rhythm had been established, the Mavs stepped up their defensive game. DeShawn Stevenson got the start in Butler’s place, and in the first half he played excellent man defense on Kobe Bryant. Defending Kobe has historically been a black eye for an otherwise successful franchise (Hey, remember that time he scored 63 points in three quarters against the Mavs? Remember that? Good times!), largely because Dallas has consistently fielded unimpressive defenders or just unimpressive players at the 2. Nellie, Avery, and now Rick Carlisle have tried almost every trick in the book to cut down Kobe’s dominance to manageable levels, but there’s no substitute for great on-ball defense and tremendous help.
That’s where Shawn Marion and Brendan Haywood come in. Stevenson may have put in the work against Kobe early, but Marion was matched up with Bryant for most of the second half. Kobe did go 6-for-12 (with two turnovers) in the second half, but holding him to just six points in the final quarter with the game on the line is an accomplishment in itself. Kobe Bryant lives for that. He’s spent his whole life practicing and preparing for those moments. When he conjures up images of a future fourth quarter in his head, it’s not of him sitting on the bench as the Lakers roll on a 30-point lead. It’s isolation at the three-point line, with Kobe staring down his defender like a predator would its prey.
Kind of like what happened when Kobe took the ball up court with the Lakers down three and just 25 seconds remaining. But when Bryant pulled up for the three-pointer that everyone knew he wanted to take, Marion was there. There was no block and no deflection, but Shawn was there. It’s impossible to say whether his presence was enough to alter Kobe’s shot even by a matter of centimeters, or if Kobe simply missed because the finally honed and prepared tools of an assassin just weren’t sharp enough on this particular night.
Either way, the Mavs’ defense put in the work early and late to make sure Kobe couldn’t put his team over the top. Every screen was met with a Kobe double team, often one that chased him back toward the half-court line with pressure. Every jumper was met with a hand in his face or on the ball, as each Maverick defender was careful to contest without fouling (Kobe shot just two free throws). Kobe’s drives to the basket were funneled to the ready and waiting Brendan Haywood (two of his five blocks were on #24). The Lakers’ best player finished with 20 points on 23 shots, as many turnovers as assists, and all of this despite being hidden on defense on the likes of Stevenson and Marion. If the victory for the Mavs wasn’t in the final margin, it was certainly in their defense on Kobe Bryant.
Oh yeah, and the offense wasn’t so bad either. Dirk Nowitzki (31 points, 10-19 FG, nine rebounds) and Jason Terry (30 points, 10-20 FG, three assists) absolutely scorched what is really a top-notch Laker defense. Terry was brutally effective spotting up along the perimeter, and off the dribble he was cognizant of the need to attack the rim (JET went 4-of-5 from deep in the paint).
The Mavs may be the most effective team in the league at shooting two-point jumpers, but that doesn’t mean they can’t put added pressure on a defense by showing some versatility, and by hopefully putting L.A.’s bigs in foul trouble. The latter wasn’t really the case last night, but the Lakers on the whole did rack up the fouls, and the Mavs were rewarded for their aggressive offense with 26 free throws. Dallas fans have always been blessed in that free throws have never been a concern. There are few players in the Mavs’ rotation that create fan anxiety when they step to the line, and giving Dallas 26 opportunities for free points is going to translate to a lot of free wins…especially when the opponent only shoots 16.
There were times where the offense fell off for minutes at a time, but Dirk and JET were there to right the ship. And then in the back-and-forth fourth, Dirk took over. I wouldn’t call the play calling imaginative per se, but it takes a certain courage for a coach to go through nearly identical sets time and time again. In principle, the plan was this: get Dirk the ball and get out of the way. It was incredibly effective, and on the night, Dirk scored 1.78 points per possession in isolation (16 points on nine isos). For comparison’s sake, Kobe scored just 0.88 points per isolation possession (14 points on 16 isos), a tick below his .98 season average. Dirk made tough shots and he made easy ones, as Dirk goaded Lamar Odom and others into a handful of shooting fouls to complement his assortment of leaners and fadeaways.
The Mavs on the whole only shot 43.8% from the field, but two superhuman performances and a parade to the free throw line were more than enough, thanks to the shackles put on the Lakers’ offense. That will, and should, be the story today. Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry are elite offensive players who can have these kinds of performances. While impressive and noteworthy considering the circumstances, it shouldn’t be completely unexpected. But the effectiveness of the Mavs’ defense against Kobe Bryant not only represents a clear evolution in the greater context of the Mavs vs. Kobe saga, but also the very attribute the Mavs hope will take them deep into the playoffs. Since the Mavs acquired Butler, Haywood, and Stevenson, they’ve played like a quality defensive team. Some of that play has even come without familiarity with the system or the team’s defensive principles. And though the things Caron Butler can do for the Mavs on offense are certainly valuable, it’s the addition of Brendan Haywood and the energy generated by making a trade of this caliber that has translated into wins.
- PG watch: Rodrigue Beaubois and J.J. Barea split minutes backup up Jason Kidd, but neither offered much in the way of help aside from a monstrous block from Roddy (video forthcoming). Barea had two points and two rebounds in five minutes, but went 1-for-5 from the field and missed some embarrassingly easy looks. Beaubois had two steals and a block, but balanced that defensive production with zero points or assists and three turnovers. Due to the play of Barea/Beaubois and the nature of the game, Kidd played 40 minutes.
- The Lakers actually shot 48.8% from the field as a team, and if you take out Kobe’s 9-for-23 night, the rest of the team shot 53.3%.
- Lamar Odom (21 points, seven rebounds, five assists, two steals) was the closest thing to a Maverick-killer, and his timely baskets were the real reason why L.A. was in the game late in the fourth quarter. He’s so hard to match up with when he’s rolling, as power forwards like Dirk are often too slow to handle Odom’s handle and driving ability, and smaller wings are vulnerable to Lamar’s post game. If he were on another, less-stacked squad, I’d say to sick Marion on him. But considering that Marion was focused on stopping Kobe, that wasn’t really an option.
- Jason Kidd. 14 points and 13 assists. 4-of-9 three-pointers. No big.
- Andrew Bynum started the game with an eight-point, 4-for-4 first quarter. But Brendan Haywood limited him over the rest of the game to just two points on 1-for-4 shooting, and only three rebounds. It’s actually not all that uncommon based on what we’ve seen of Haywood so far; opposing centers typically get some points in early, but as the game wears on, Brendan’s defense gets better and better. The fact that the Mavs have been playing better second-half defense than first-half defense is obviously not unrelated.
- I’m still not quite sure how the Mavs get away with playing a smaller lineup against the Lakers, but they did. When L.A. is fielding Fisher-Bryant-Artest-Odom-Gasol, and Dallas is using Kidd-Terry-Marion-Nowitzki-Haywood, how is there not a clear match-up advantage for the bad guys? Shawn Marion, the most natural defender for Ron Artest because of his combination of size, speed, and strength, is on Kobe. That leaves Terry and Kidd to guard Fisher and Artest, which would seem to be a pretty obvious disadvantage for Dallas…especially since it was JET on Artest a surprising amount of the time. But too often the Lakers’ sets would have Ron parked in the corner rather than down on the block, allowing the Mavs to get away with a significantly smaller guard rotation.
- 13 offensive rebounds for Dallas to just seven for Los Angeles. If you’re looking for where all of the Mavs’ extra free throw attempts came from (both teams finished with 17 turnovers and the Mavs actually attempted two more field goals than the Lakers did), I’d start there.
- I mentioned Brendan Haywood’s (11 points, nine rebounds, five blocks) defense, but didn’t get a chance to mention his offense. He did an excellent job of creating shots in the post, whereas Erick Dampier traditionally only finishes baskets spoon-fed to him by Jason Kidd. But Brendan showed some consistency and some nice range on his hook shot, and while that’s not going to be a focal point of the offense anytime soon, it’s a welcome addition to a multi-faceted Maverick attack.
- Pau Gasol (11 points, six rebounds, three assists) was pretty much a non-factor, though that’s mainly a product of the Lakers’ inability to execute than it was a spectacular defensive feat on the Mavericks’ part. Doesn’t the Dirk vs. Pau debate seem silly after a game like this:
GOLD STAR OF THE NIGHT: This one’s a toughie. So many guys played well for the Mavs, but this time around the Gold Star of the Night goes to Shawn Marion. We’ve seen Shawn play some incredible defense against all kinds of scorers this season, but last night’s showing was one of his best performances of the season. More on this to come later (hopefully in video form), but Shawn’s work in the second half was beyond impressive.