“The key to change…is to let go of fear.”
I’m not sure I’ll ever tire of hard-fought, Mavs-Spurs nail biters, but there’s nothing quite like a refreshing change of pace. For a moment, we can all breathe a deep sigh of relief, and find some comfort in knowing that when the Mavs’ options were limited to winning or facing a long, long summer, they fought to secure the former. There really is hope for this team yet, and though winning the next two games poses a significantly greater challenge than Game 5 did, winning the series remains a distinct possibility. It’s hardly probable, mind you, and would require more than a bit of luck, but after putting together the most dominant game by either team in this series, the Mavs’ chances seem decidedly better than they were just a few hours ago.
Rick Carlisle tweaked his rotation from opening tip, opting to start Brendan Haywood (eight points, eight rebounds, four blocks) over Erick Dampier (who received a DNP-CD). Haywood responded wonderfully, and though he failed to reach double-digits in points, his impact was profound. Brendan emerged from series invisibility to grab six offensive boards in 30 minutes, and went to the free throw line 12 times as a result. The Mavs fed Haywood down low early, and his focus and intensity never lagged. He was a force defensively, and held Tim Duncan to 3-of-9 shooting and just 11 points. He also made a tremendous difference as a weak side defender, and Haywood looks to be an entirely different pick-and-roll defender than he was when the series began. In Game 5, Haywood defended like a player who not only knew the team’s defensive game plan, but was completely comfortable in executing every aspect of it. Interior shots were challenged, screens were hedged, and four poor, unfortunate attempts were never the same again.
Caron Butler (35 points on 24 shots, 11 rebounds, three steals, zero turnovers) who famously rode the pine in the second half of Game 3, was the hero on offense. I wrote earlier in the day that “expecting Caron Butler to radically change his shot selection…is a bit ridiculous at this point,” but that’s precisely what he did. Caron shifted from his late Josh Howardian isolation step-back jumper-heavy style to an aggressive all-out assault. He still took plenty of jumpers, but many of those looks were on open spot-up attempts rather than attempts to run a one-man offense. Plus, Butler’s nine free throw attempts were no fluke; Caron attacked the rim both in the half-court and in transition, and that approach was rewarded with several trips to the free throw line. Butler’s career playoff high couldn’t have come at a better time, and should his suddenly renewed interest in getting to the rim last through the end of the weekend, it could go a long way in pushing the Mavs to an improbable series win.
However, the most promising development wasn’t simply Butler seeing the light, but the improved flow of the offense on the whole. For the first time since Game 1, Jason Kidd (10 points, seven rebounds, seven assists, two steals) looked like a game-changing player, and it’s hardly a coincidence that Dallas’ ball and player movement improved accordingly. There was no settling and no stopping the ball, as the once smothering Spurs defense looked quite mortal when faced with the challenge of containing a multifaceted Maverick offense. Dallas moved to strike quickly and efficiently, and San Antonio had absolutely no answer.
Dirk’s offensive rhythm is almost a given at this point, but even his shot attempts were markedly more open than they were in the first four games of the series. Once the game opens up for Butler, Haywood, Jason Terry (12 points on eight shots, four rebounds, two steals), J.J. Barea (eight points, four rebounds, four assists, five turnovers), and Shawn Marion (10 points, four rebounds), a Dirk-centered defense seems to miss the point.
The Mavs defended as well as they had all series, and with Tony Parker (18 points, 6-of-15 shooting, six assists) as the lone scorer on a Spurs team that was giving up plenty, the Spurs had little chance to mount a serious comeback. Manu Ginobili struggled from the field for the third game in a row (.333 in Game 3, .250 in Game 4, .286 in Game 5) thanks primarily to the defense of Shawn Marion and Jason Kidd, though defending a player of Manu’s caliber is always a team effort. George Hill, who was very nearly cast as a statue outside the AT&T Center following his performance in Game 4, finished with a mortal 12 points. Half of those game late in the third quarter after the game had already been decided, which officially qualifies him as a non-factor. The open shots that Hill feasted on were gone due to the Mavs’ quicker rotations, and without the benefit of wide open shots, George shifted to a rather limited form.
There’s no way of knowing whether anything from Game 5 will carryover into Thursday’s game, but there’s no reason to think that it can’t. Everything that the Mavericks did to dominate the Spurs is very sustainable, Caron Butler won’t necessarily be dropping 35 again, but the ball movement, the pick-and-roll defense, the balance — all reasonable goals for Game 6. It’s just a matter of execution, and with all of the Mavs’ big hitters getting plenty of rest, there’s no reason to expect Dallas to fail.
A few closing thoughts:
- Dallas looked to get into transition at every opportunity (23 fast break points to San Antonio’s eight), which ended up playing a huge part in the rebounding battle. San Antonio’s focus on transition defense is logical and effective, but in this case pulled the Spurs’ bigs back to protect their own basket rather than hitting the offensive glass. Dallas had five more offensive rebounds and 11 more total rebounds as a result.
- DeShawn Stevenson shaved his beard for the first time in 18 months. The Mavs have gone undefeated since.
- Game 6 will be at 7 PM (central time) on TNT.
- Eduardo Najera was called for another flagrant foul for catching Tony Parker’s head on a downward swipe, though this time he was assessed a flagrant one rather than a flagrant two. If Eddie picks up another flagrant foul, he’ll face (at least) a one game suspension. That could end up being pretty influential, as Najera played all of the backup center minutes in Dampier’s stead.
- On that note: no word on why exactly Damp received a DNP-CD. Rick Carlisle sat Haywood for an extended stretch in Game 3 and has generally limited Brendan’s minutes throughout the series, but went back to him in Game 5 and it paid off.