Survival of the Fittest

Posted by Rob Mahoney on March 23, 2010 under Commentary | 3 Comments to Read

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NBA teams are valued based on their strength. That strength is evaluated through “power” rankings, through their brute force, and through their ability to execute a game plan without compromise. In the same way that we value unwavering opinion (after all, anything less makes an individual a weak flip-flopper), we praise teams that impose their will on others rather than adapting to circumstance. What the Trailblazers did pre-Camby was impressive, sure, but that storyline was a mere footnote on the NBA landscape while the powerful wills (or temporary lack thereof) of the Lakers and the Cavs stole headlines.

Power matters. It really does. Talent drives the game, the league, and the teams. But even more important is knowing the best ways to optimize the talent that you have, and that involves an incredible amount of flexibility. After all, why hammer a square peg into a round hole with a big rock when you can just swap for a round, well-fitting peg?

That responsibility starts with the players, and having an willingness to try new things. But the primary burden falls on the shoulders of the coaches. It’s the responsibility of any coaching staff to do more than execute a plan of attack; that plan should be adjusted, tinkered with, and even radically altered as the situation dictates. It’s not a concession to switch up match-ups or alter one’s rotation, but a sign of sound decision-making. Survival on the NBA is predicated on the ability to adapt and evolve, and luckily for the Mavs, that’s Rick Carlisle’s specialty.

Case in point: the Mavs use of Dirk Nowitzki on the offensive end against the Celtics on Saturday. In spite of their drop-off this season, Boston is still tied for tops in the league in defensive efficiency. That’s no accident, and even though Kevin Garnett is nowhere near his MVP production levels, he’s still a huge part of that. So while the Mavs-Celtics match-up is interesting for a variety of reasons, chief among them is likely the battle between a world-class offensive and defensive player at the same position. Take a look at this clips and watch how well Garnett contests Dirk in isolation. He prevents Nowitzki from gaining position, plays his favorite sides for spins, crowds him, and gets a hand up.

Of course, Garnett has help. The reason the Celtics’ boast such an impressive defense is because of their ability to rotate and contest. The system strengthens the inferior individual defenders, hiding their weaknesses and exploiting their strengths defensively. On this play, we see Rasheed Wallace (Dirk’s primary defender), Glen Davis, and Paul Pierce all play a hand in defending Nowitzki. ‘Sheed does most of the work as he traps Dirk on the wing, but Davis stepping up to protect the basket and Pierce getting a hand in Dirk’s face on the jumper cannot be ignored. Those are two areas of the floor from which Dirk is incredibly comfortable, and yet he has no room to operate against Wallace and gets a tough look against Pierce.

Then there’s the two-man game. This example comes from late in the fourth quarter, so perhaps it betrays my point a bit. But the Celtics excel at taking away what Nowitzki does best. Every pick-and-roll/pick-and-pop opportunity for Dirk was smothered, he was defended well in the high post and the low post, and it was clear that Boston knew exactly where the ball was going when Dirk set up shop.

The Mavs still worked the ball around to Nowitzki, but the important thing is that the Celtics could anticipate what Dirk was going to do when he caught it. Garnett and Wallace knew to anticipate the spins, and to crowd him. The Mavs best player was still making some tough shots on occasion, but for the most part he was having the most effective parts of his game (or really, his most effective areas on the floor) taken away from him by a terrific defense.

So the Mavs had a few options. They could:

  • Keep doing what they were doing, and rely on Dirk’s offensive prowess to trump KG’s defensive talents.
  • Work the ball through other players, and rely on the offense of Caron Butler and Jason Terry to win the day.
  • Keep going through Dirk, but alter the approach.

Rick Carlisle and Nowitzki opted for a combination of the latter, though Butler hardly carried his weight and Terry was good but well short of supernatural. The key to getting Dirk to 28 points on just 18 shots (with 57.8% shooting) was to take him out of his comfort zones intentionally by switching up the Mavs’ usual sets. That way, Dirk sees the change coming through prescribed play calls, but the Celtics were still operating under the assumption that the Mavs’ offensive scheme would proceed as usual.

Needless to say, it didn’t. Dirk was mindful of openings to score in different ways (he was much quicker on the trigger to fire on an offensive rebound, for example), and the sets were drawn up using a bit of misdirection.

  1. Getting it right.

    The scouting report on Dirk Nowitzki will tell you that he always goes to his left. It was part of his basketball development and helped to keep defenders off-balance early in his career. Now it’s a known fact, and you know Dirk is switching things up when he not only drives to his right, but finishes without pulling up for a short bank shot (as he’s been ought to do this year) or going reverse. He still goes to the left hand to finish at the front of the cup, but I think we can live with that.

  2. A subtle variation of an old theme.

    When the Mavs run the two-man game, it’s typically slow and methodical. Jason Terry works around a Dirk screen, is patient to see if Dirk is more open than he is, and if nothing is there on first or second glance, he explodes toward the hoop or an open spot on the floor for a jumper. In this case, J.J. Barea and Dirk run the two-man game in a completely different capacity (apparently by design). When Barea draws the attention of both defenders, he knows exactly where Dirk will be and dishes it to him with a ball counter. We’ve seen Dirk and JET do this on occasion, but in this case it seems far more deliberate.

  3. The weak side is the strong side.

    Here, Dirk takes advantage of a two-man game setup that doesn’t involve him. Terry and Eddie Najera go to work on the right side, while Dirk works to get open on the left. When Rasheed Wallace is forced to rotate to cover the cutting Najera, Nowitzki is left wide open from three. It was just Dirk’s 33rd made three this season.

  4. Sharing is caring.

    The easiest way to capitalize on an overly aggressive defense is to either put them in a position to commit fouls frequently (A.K.A. driving to the basket) or to exploit help defenders with smart passing. That’s what Nowitzki does here, as he finds an open Kidd on the perimeter after spinning into a Rasheed Wallace/Marquis Daniels double.

  5. Sleight of hand.

    On these sequences, the Mavs run the Dirk-Terry two-man game as a decoy. The play is not only obvious but so effective that teams have to pay attention to it, giving Terry the perfect opportunity to find open teammates on the perimeter. The Celtics were aggressive in pursuing the pick man at almost every instance; Haywood was smothered on each roll to the basket, Sheed stepped up to trail Najera, and Dirk was almost always covered. That left Terry with enough room and enough time to find the weakness in the Celtics’ rotation and exploit it. These possessions didn’t end with points, but they’re still well-conceived.

  6. Inside, outside, USA.

    Wait, you mean having a back-to-the-basket threat alongside Dirk yields tangible benefits? You don’t say. The opportunity to block a Brendan Haywood turnaround jumper is a bit too enticing for KG, which leaves a driving lane open for Nowitzki. Perkins does a nice job of contesting Dirk at the rim, but Nowitzki finishes by creating space with the off-arm. Slightly illegal, maybe, but highly effective.

  7. Do everything you normally do, only different.

    Dirk is so effective at running the pick-and-pop, that’s it’s a bit shocking when he changes things up and rolls to the basket. The real credit here goes to Barea though, who runs this particular sequence to perfection.

  8. So predictable it’s unpredictable.

    Mavs fans should be painfully familiar with this set. Whenever the Mavs want to set up Dirk along the baseline, they’ll run him from one side of the lane to the other utilizing a pick from either Haywood/Dampier or one of the wings. That allows the entry pass to go into Nowitzki easily in most cases, which is important considering that Dirk doesn’t really have the backside to protect the feed. This has really been a post-2007 development; Stephen Jackson and co. were so good at stealing and doubling the feed into Dirk that the Mavs need a counter in their playbook. So they run him off of a baseline screen, and the pass usually goes into Nowitzki without incident.Garnett knows this. But in this particular case, Dirk fakes his usual route and then makes a quick cut to the top of the key.

It might be hard to find solace in something like this after back-to-back losses, but these things matter. Knowing that your team’s star and head coach can adjust to serious defensive pressure is about as important as it gets. The Mavs may not face a power forward or team defense on-par with KG/Boston at all in the post-season, but if they can adjust to allow Dirk to get his against that type of opponent, what’s going to stop them from doing the same against L.A. or Denver?

  • finzent

    As good as Boston’s defense was, I think Dirk was also a bit hesitant early in the game and turned down pretty good shots. One example is in the second clip after his one dribble against Rasheed. Take it, Dirkster!

  • harry

    wonderfully done, perfect to the T – as good as (better?) than moving pictures. The striking thing, for me, is how many ways a coach can adjust when he has a player like Dirk at his disposal. Rick can really make any adjustment he likes and Dirk can execute it. Its remarkable. Maybe one of the better player/coach dynamics.
    I really hope we see more nbaplaybook stuff like this!

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