“I didn’t fail the test, I just found 100 ways to do it wrong.”
Road teams face an uphill battle. The Mavs perform better away from home than most teams in the league, but that doesn’t necessarily make each individual contest any easier. They face the same struggles, from the travel to the unfamiliar accommodations, to the fans and the officials. Home court matters in the NBA, which makes it all the more important for a team to bring their A game along for a road trip.
This wasn’t quite the Mavs’ A game. Probably a C+ game. The first half was plagued by flawed defensive strategy, and the finale by poor execution. The Mavs’ strength is supposedly their ability to execute in spite of their opposition, but they looked absolutely flustered under the pressure of the Blazers’ defense. The free throw differential was substantial, Dirk Nowitzki (15 points on 5-of-13 shooting, seven rebounds) had an off night, the Blazers looked to be in complete control, and the Mavs were in complete offensive disarray.
Yet with four minutes left, the Mavs found themselves trailing by just eight. Thanks to some hot shooting from the perimeter, the zone defense, and a fellow named Caron Butler (25 points, 11-19 FG, nine rebounds, two steals), Dallas was poised to make a serious run at this game with ample time to pull out a win.
They didn’t. They folded. The defense surrendered open looks to Brandon Roy (16 points, 5-7 FG, seven assists, four rebounds) and Andre Miller (19 points, 10 assists, three steals). Any hopes that the Mavs could somehow walk away with a win when they had no business doing so was shattered on the Rose Garden floor. This game might as well be the Mavs’ “Almost Got ‘Em“; they had a chance to play the bad guys before an incredibly vocal crowd, but right when Portland looked its most vulnerable, an unexpected turn put the Mavs on their backs. The problem with biding time before making a big run on the road is that it’s essentially a one shot proposition. Once the Mavs took their shot — which fell quite a bit short, given the Blazers’ ability to best them on both ends — even the illusion of drama was wiped from the game entirely.
I think we’ve officially reached the point where the Mavs have developed a Blazer complex. The natural instinct when this team sees Brandon Roy is to overcompensate, mostly in fear of what opposing guards have been able to do to the Mavs in the past. That’s why Dallas was doubling Roy off of every screen, hurling another big defender at him to take him out of the game. It worked for Houston in last year’s playoffs (or at least the idea behind it did, evne if the Rockets didn’t execute in exactly the same way), and to an extent it makes sense. But Roy was able to exploit the pressure with smart, crisp passing, a big reason why the Mavs allowed Portland, a good offensive team but a slow offensive team, to put up 32 points in the first quarter.
Not to say that LaMarcus Aldridge (20 points, 10 rebounds, five assists) didn’t play a part in that as well. Aldridge had 10 points in the first quarter on 5-of-8 shooting, coming off of turnaround jumpers, forays deep into the paint, and smart cuts. LaMarcus did more than just to play to his strengths in the first twelve minutes; he was utterly dominant.
But no one benefited more from the additional attention paid to Roy than Marcus Camby (17 points, 11 rebounds, two blocks), who helped to diversify the Blazers’ early offense with seven first quarter points. Camby is somewhat limited as an offensive threat. He has no back-to-the-basket game to speak of, and his points come almost exclusively off of offensive rebounds, assisted looks at the rim off of cuts, and mid-range jumpers. So shockingly, when the Mavs were throwing two defenders at Roy, who is one of the better playmaking 2 guards in the league, the ball wound up in the hands of an open man. That open man was often Camby, who was able to get his money’s worth early.
The Mavs were putting up points of their own, but there were early signs that the offense would struggle. Passing and play execution were major concerns in the first quarter, and it’s a slight wonder that the Mavs were able to put up 27 points in spite of those warning signs. Their struggles didn’t fully actualize until the second half, when Portland’s ability to throw a number of long, interchangeable defenders at the Mavs’ scorers was nothing short of smothering. There are certain Mavs games where every offensive possession makes you hold your breath, not because of some team-wide brilliance or a stunning individual performance, but because that single exhaled breath could push over a team resting on the edge. So many broken plays and lazy passes, and though the Blazers’ defense didn’t translate into a high number of turnovers (the Mavs finished with 11 for the game, 1.4 shy of their season average), it clearly limited the Mavs’ ability to execute.
Is it possible that after all those years of facing long, active defenders, the swarming long-armed flurry that broke the Mavs down in the 2007 playoffs is still giving Dallas problems? For this regular season game, it certainly seems so. One would only hope that a seven-game series would tell a different story.
The Mavs’ defense improved significantly in the second half, when they began to lean heavily on the zone. The catch-22 inherent to unconventional defensive schemes was painfully apparent: at some point, an opposing team’s continued exposure to a defense will enable them to beat it. Good teams will be able to solve and counter the zone in the playoffs, which is why stabilizing the Mavs’ rotations in man-to-man sets is so important. The zone can be a great addition to a team’s defensive arsenal, and it was just that for the Mavs last night. But once Aldridge starts working the high post, shooters space the floor, the offense overloads one particular side, or backdoor cutters start exposing the defense, it’s game over.
The Mavs needed to stop Andre Miller’s penetration because frankly, Kidd was a sieve. They needed a force in the paint to always defend the rim, because Aldridge and Camby were pulling the Mavs’ bigs out to the perimeter. You’ll hear no questions from me about why Carlisle opted to go zone because frankly, the results speak for themselves. The problem is that the man defense was so poor and has been so poor that Rick didn’t have much of a choice. With just ten games left before the playoffs begin, this should worry you.
This loss isn’t the end of the world for the Mavs, but it certainly hurts. Dallas hasn’t had a meaningful win since the first of the month (or perhaps longer, if you don’t respect the Bobcats), which is a product of soft scheduling and some disappointing play against stronger opponents. That needs to change, and the Mavs will have three tough opportunities (Denver, Orlando, and OKC, all at home) to get quality wins over the next eight days. These games matter, folks, and the Mavs are running out of time and excuses.
- A weird game for Brendan Haywood (eight points, eight rebounds, four blocks, three turnovers). A times, he looked completely capable of dominating the Blazer bigs. No one on Portland’s roster is a strong on-ball post defender, and Haywood has the size and skill to take advantage of that. He showed that much with a nice baseline hook and a nifty up and under dunk. But he also was a complete liability in holding the ball, as he was stripped on numerous occasions by blind side help defenders.
- On an individual level, Jason Kidd (11 points, seven rebounds, seven assists) didn’t have a terrible game. But considering that the the flow of the offense is his primary responsibility, this game was a complete failure for Kidd. The blame obviously doesn’t rest solely on his shoulders, but if Kidd’s value comes in the intangibles and having a steadying influence on the offense, this was one his poorest performances of the season.
- 9-of-22 shooting from beyond the arc? Yes please, I’ll have another. Just nine free throw attempts? Please, sir, I’d like some more.
- Is there any basketball team on the planet that couldn’t use a Nicolas Batum? Anyone know where the Mavs might be able to buy one?
- The Mavs are not going to win many games where Dirk and JET combine for 9-of-27 shooting, and the only reason Dallas was even competitive offensively was due to spot production across the board, Caron Butler, and Shawn Marion (15 points, 7-12 FG, four rebounds).