A Brand New Day

Posted by Rob Mahoney on April 27, 2010 under Commentary | 9 Comments to Read

Tonight could very well be the end of the Mavericks’ season, but I wouldn’t dare eulogize Dallas before they’re dead and buried. Certainly not in a series that has been so close and so competitive, regardless of how dismal things look from the 1-3 abyss.

With the last three games decided by such a slim number of possessions, it’s not impossible to imagine a world in which the Mavs are 2-2 or even 3-1. Dallas has had chances to seize the day and the series, but consistently seemed to bump into an invisible wall of their own creation. They settle for a jumper when they should drive, they sag off defensively when they should pressure, and they box out everyone but the offensive rebounder who will break their spirits. These are the types of mistakes that happen all the time in basketball games, even games involving truly elite NBA teams. The Mavs just don’t have the same room for error that the Cavs or the Magic have. After all, stumbling against the Bulls isn’t quite the same as stumbling against the Spurs.

Of course at this point, there are no more do-overs. There is little time, even less opportunity, and no excuses. The Mavs need to win three straight games to advance to the second round of the playoffs, and avoid their third first-round exit in four years. It’s really not as impossible as one might think, but it’s certainly an uphill battle against a team playing exquisitely at present. The Spurs have won three in a row by way of will and breaks alone; they forced their way into the paint, hit shots when they needed to (Parker hit three consecutive long two-pointers — the most inefficient shot in basketball — to win Game 3), and were perpetually rotating and contesting. I know it’s one thing to spell out how a team won and another to deny them from doing the same yet again, but in this case it really is that simple.

The Spurs have played pretty excellent defense in this series, and every Mav but Dirk has struggled offensively. The results? 50-50 games at the end, and the coin flip came up tails three times in a row. In Game 2, the Mavs had to battle back just to have a chance, but came up just short in the fourth. In Game 3, tired legs and a worn approach gave way to Manu Ginobili upon his return. In Game 4, Dallas surrendered their first-half lead and for all of their defensive success against the Big Three, had no answer for George Hill and DeJuan Blair. Those are three games in which the Mavericks fought even if they did not win, three losses in which they competed even if they did not finish.

There are countless factors that could have altered the result between opening tip and final buzzer in each of those games, even if the Mavs’ usual shortcomings seemed to be featured prominently; shot selection, predictability, stopping penetration, and interior defense have been the hot topics of the past week, and rightfully so. Those failings don’t change just how close the Mavs were to winning the last three games, though.

Expecting Caron Butler to radically change his shot selection, Erick Dampier or Brendan Haywood to score consistently while posting up Tim Duncan, or Dallas’ man-to-man defense to drastically improve is a bit ridiculous at this point. The Mavs are who they are at this point in the season. There are no switches to be flipped or magic buttons to be pressed, but there is still a team that can pose some problems for San Antonio if they can work out a few kinks. Whether those problems will be enough to win Game 5 (much less Game 7) is incredibly hazy, but this tale could potentially be far from over.

Or it could end tonight. Who knows? My point is that we thought coming into this series that Dallas was good enough to beat San Antonio, and they still are. The only problem is that they probably won’t. Too much has gone wrong too quickly, and though anyone without a close eye to the series will think that the Spurs dismissed the Mavs easily in five/six/seven games, that hasn’t been the case. That won’t be the case even if Dallas drops the game tonight.

The Spurs have played better basketball than the Mavericks over the course of this series, and I suppose that makes them the “better team.” If we’re really looking at these games, though, as a way to evaluate the differences between Dallas and San Antonio, I still have a hard time understanding how anyone can form any kind of conclusive thought one way or another. It’s not as if the Spurs have blown the Mavs out of the water on any particular occasion.

An immense amount of credit should go to San Antonio for winning three out of the first four games, and doing it with such gusto. Honestly, it’s impressive. Not because the Spurs are head and shoulders above the Mavs, but because I still see these teams as being on relatively equal terms. This series reinforced things that we already knew: that Dallas really isn’t a championship-caliber team and that San Antonio is closer to the top of the Western Conference playoff squads than they are to the bottom. Other than that, the only surprises are that the games have played out as they have, consistently going the way of the Spur, and that this terrific series could be finished tonight.

  • Reese

    Good stuff Rob. Despite 2mangame being completely biased and unbalanced, this piece offers a better perspective than anything I have read at DMN, ESPN or any other site. It’s refreshing.

  • NBA Fan

    I expecte Dirk to drop 40 on us tonight. The refs are going to allow a little more “home cooking” for the team down 3-1. Hopefully not 20 FTs worth :)
    The Spurs are not going to deviate much from the series so far. I expect 42-47% shooting, 25-40% on threes and about 20 FTs. To win, the Mavs need a good game by Dirk and Terry (25-40, 60+ pts) AND two other players to step up. Butler, Marion, Berrea, Haywood? If the Mavs are mentally into the game, I expect a comfortable win for them.

  • harry

    http://www.basketball-reference.com/blog/?p=5605

    Thats a link to what basketball reference thinks the top 100 elimination performances were. You may be relieved to know that Dirk represents 8 of those 100. Good odds for a great game from Dirk, right?

  • KG

    Rob,

    Great write-up. I’ve enjoyed reading your work on this blog the last couple seasons a lot. I especially enjoyed your coin flip analogy, as I used the same thing on the phone with my brother last night. Let’s hope these two teams are the best in the West right now, and were just unfortunate to draw each other in the first round.

    The real reason I’m posting though, is to compliment you on how much material you give Mavs fans and opposing fans (like myself) to kill time at work. 48minutesofhell is a great blog, but judging by the disparity in the comments sections, this blog does not get the readership it deserves. I wish the 48minutesofhell guys would post the post-game pressers and the “heard it through the grapevine” type stuff more often. I hope the Suns/Blazers blogs can give me as much good info from the other side as you did!

  • Sizzle

    The difference between the teams:

    Spurs success is predicated on good defense.

    Mavs success is predicated on good offense.

    Defense wins championships.

  • Shaun

    You write as if the Spurs have played a perfect series.

    While this series has indeed been closer than 3-1 suggests, you can’t just keep ascribing a margin of error the the Mavs’ output while holding the Spurs’ constant. Sure the Mavs could have improved this or that in any one game, but so could the Spurs shoot better from the three in game one, or the big three shown up for game four, Bogans and Bonner produced at all close to thier regular season stats, etc etc.

    The deviation is in the point differential itself, not just your team’s positive differential. Over a seven game series these kinds of abberations/missed opportunites/whatever tend to even out over both teams, leading to roughly the same Win/Loss columns. You can’t have it both ways. I used to find myself in similar logical traps when LA was outclassing the Spurs in the early aughts. If this, this, this would’ve happened… well whose to say LA wouldn’t just answer by playing better themselves?

  • Kirk Henderson

    “Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan Press On! has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.” -Calvin Coolidge

    Of course, saying/hoping Butler will change his shot selection flies in the face of 5 years worth of statistics, but we can dream. I think we pull out game 5 strong, eek out game 6, then drop in game seven. But hey, here’s to a game not marred by referee unbalance…

  • bduran

    Good article, except that you say 3 close games instead of two. If you want to go there, the Mavs only won by 6 in the first game, but I think we all know that they were in control of that game. Just like in game 2 the Spurs let the Mavs back in it for a bit, but then pulled away again and won by 14. That game was never in doubt and the Spurs were in the lead the entire game. In games 3 and 4 the Spurs only played a little better. So I do think you’re correct in saying that this isn’t exactly a blow out series like a 3-1 record could suggest. It feels more like 2.5-1.5 or something along those lines. As likely to be 2-2 as 3-1.

    I hope the Spurs win tonight, but I have a feeling there’s going to be a game six.

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