“Don’t wait for extraordinary opportunities. Seize common occasions and make them great. Weak men wait for opportunities; strong men make them.“
-Orison Swett Marden
The debate over the importance of point differential is essentially a debate over the the value of winning close games. On one extreme is the camp that operates under the assumption that close victories are games of skill; better teams execute at a higher level than others, and ultimately it’s a combination of that execution and overall talent that decides who wins games, no matter the margin. The group firmly entrenched on the other side of the dividing line insists that close games are a product of chance; there are so many variables from opening tip to the final buzzer that a slim margin of victory proves little more than which way the ball tended to bounce.
Somewhere in the middle lies the truth, and we saw both the power of skill and the power of chance at work in the Mavs’ improbable victory over the Grizzlies on Wednesday.
Dirk Nowitzki (28 points, 9-23 FG, five rebounds, six assists) made just three of his first 15 shots, a big reason why Dallas trailed for a majority of last night’s game. It wasn’t to last, though. Dirk is one of the best clutch performers in the game, and when he smelled blood in the water in the fourth quarter, his instincts kicked in. He chipped in 19 points in the fourth quarter and overtime on 6-of-8 shooting, digging himself and the Mavs out of a slump just in time to save the day and grab the win. The 50th win, which as you may have heard, is kind of a big deal.
Dirk doesn’t get a chance to play hero without being given that opportunity, though. If Mike Conley doesn’t leave three points at the free throw line, maybe Memphis never has an opportunity to completely botch their final play of regulation. If Zach Randolph doesn’t come up just short on one of his trips in the lane, we’re looking at a verdict in just 48 minutes. If Marc Gasol doesn’t leave the game early with a shoulder injury, I’m probably writing a much more solemn piece this morning.
Likewise, if the Mavs don’t hit the offensive boards hard in the first quarter while firing blanks, maybe they never have a shot at pulling a win out of nowhere. Part of those rebounds is chance, but just as important is the Mavs’ consistent effort on the glass. Memphis actually leads the league in rebounding rate, but Dallas outpaced them on the boards until late in the game. If we’re preaching the “every play counts” mantra, the Mavs’ performance on the boards — even if they ended up a few shy of the Grizzlies’ total — certainly qualifies as a game-altering play.
Brendan Haywood gets called for a questionable foul call, Dirk hits an incredible fadeaway jumper from the baseline. The ball goes through Erick Dampier’s hands, Jason Terry connects on an impressive pull-up jumper. DeMarre Carroll goes 0-for-2 at the free throw line, Jason Kidd hounds O.J. Mayo into an impossible shot attempt. A team can do so much to help its cause in games such as this, but even the fine works of hardwood greats need the added benefit of a little luck. Sometimes it’s the baseline referee seeing (or not seeing) enough contact to make a call, and sometimes it’s a Rudy Gay three-pointer being off by a matter of centimeters.
For that reason, winning like this on a regular season Wednesday night doesn’t mean all that much. Winning like this on a regular season Wednesday night after proving all season long that late-game execution is a Maverick trademark means a great deal. It’s still troubling that Dallas isn’t capable of dismissing inferior opponents in more dominating fashion. That would be nice to see, but the success the Mavs have had in rallying back from deficits late in games this season has evolved beyond mere happenstance. This isn’t a quaint trend, but the way this team operates. When it comes down to winning time, the Mavs get it done. Some of their success is derived from luck, and it would be foolish to debate that, but I refuse to accept the idea that the late-game execution we’ve seen from the Mavs this season is anything less than a basketball truth.
It obviously doesn’t come into effect every night, and on numerous occasions this season the Mavs have surrendered insurmountable leads to their opponents, likely by keeping their own impressive comeback track record in mind. There’s no problem with Dallas having the ability to come from behind, but knowing that they have that ability…aye, there’s the rub. Dallas will surrender early leads to opponents (not that they did in this one) knowing that they’ve lived through similar circumstances before. Sometimes they come back just like they probably think they will, and other times it bites them in the ass.
This time it didn’t, and bringing up that scenario at all isn’t exactly fair. The Mavs were working on defense and working to get good shots offensively, it just wasn’t their day. Dirk was ice cold, Shawn Marion (one points, 0-6 FG, four rebounds, two turnovers) couldn’t hit anything, the entire team had their fingers sufficiently buttered (18 turnovers for the night, 13 in the first half), and the only reason the Mavs were able to hang in this game at all was due to a series of well-timed runs to keep themselves within striking distance.
Most of the credit for those runs goes to Jason Terry (29 points, six assists, four steals, three turnovers), also known as The Only Maverick Who Could Score For the First Three Quarters. I know JET is known around these parts as a great fourth quarter performer, and he is. Last night, he had just two points on 0-for-5 shooting in the fourth (with an additional four points in overtime to be fair). I don’t say this to point and laugh at Terry or even to point out some flaw, but to indicate just how important his 29 points were or more specifically, the 23 of them that came in the game’s first three quarters.
Most of the credit for those three quarters goes to O.J. Mayo (27 points, 10-16 FG, five rebounds), Zach Randolph (24 points, 8-21 FG, 12 rebounds), and Mike Conley (25 points, six rebounds, five assists, no turnovers). Mayo’s shooting stroke looked damn good, and he was a one-man offense in the third (in terms of his production, not any implied selfishness) when the rest of the Grizz started cooling off a bit. No performance should impress more than Conley’s though, who looked surprisingly dominant against the Mavs guards and actually made layups. If you’ve watched much of Memphis this season, you know how much of a minor miracle that is. Randolph simply did what he does, although Brendan Haywood did a nice job of making Zach’s life difficult. Not every jumper was heavily contested and not every shot from deep in the paint completely smothered, but Haywood did a decent job on a tough cover.
And even though Shawn Marion didn’t have one of his better offensive nights (did he have an offensive night at all?), he did force Rudy Gay (11 points, 5-18 FG, eight rebounds, four turnovers) into some difficult looks. That said, it wasn’t all Shawn; Rudy had plenty of opportunities to hit open jumpers but just couldn’t convert, which you can chalk up to Marion “knocking him off his game” or Gay just having a rough night. Anyone’s guess is as good as mine. All we know is that Gay had plenty of chances to hit but didn’t, and some of that is because of Marion.
That’s really the story of the night. The Grizzlies had plenty of chances to win this game but didn’t, and some of that is because of the Mavericks. Some of that is solid fundamental defense, good rotations, and solid rebounding. Some of it is Memphis giving the Mavs the opportunity to come back, which is both an indictment of their finishing ability and some bad breaks. Having success in the playoffs is going to take a similar mix of skill and luck, and though the latter is as frustrating as it is uncontrollable, the former happens to be a Maverick strength.
Closing thoughts to come.