“What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter – a soothing, calming influence on the mind, rather like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue.”
[ED. NOTE: This post has been updated with additional analysis.]
Every time I watch Dallas and San Antonio play, I feel that they were made to do this. The Spurs’ mission statement may be to win championships and the Mavs’ destiny may lead them toward continued yet flawed excellence, but how can you witness another incredible game between these two and not feel that their purpose on this planet and in this league is simply to out-do one another for our own amusement? Basketball fans are treated to a gladiatorial game in which both competitors occasionally lay defeated, but neither ever die. Two elite teams — both alike in dignity — forced by fate, and chance, and playoff seedings to play each other over and over for their playoff lives, and the fruit that competition bears is brilliant, even if the basketball is not.
Neither the Mavs nor Spurs were particularly proficient in their execution. The pair combined for 32 turnovers, and even some of the successful possessions were busted plays, second-chance points, or lucky bounces. That didn’t stop San Antonio from matching Dallas almost step-for-step until the fourth quarter, where Dirk Nowitzki (35 points on an insane 12-of-14 FG, seven rebounds, one turnover) capitalized on a Spurs defense that was finally paying him the attention that he deserved.
There aren’t many nights where Nowitzki’s performances are the concerns of Mavs fans. Those problems seem to arise periodically, and they’re typically variations on the same themes: perimeter defense, contributions from the centers, reliable supplementary scoring. Little of that involves Dirk, as he’s not only the most productive Mav, but the most consistent as well.
Last night wasn’t merely a night where Dirk’s play wasn’t a concern, though; Nowitzki performed at a phenomenal level. The kind of night where a Spurs fan can’t help but shake their head, because what else is one to do when Dirk is nailing turnaround after turnaround, banking in jumpers while fouled, and brutalizing every defender placed in front of him? You can pick apart Gregg Popovich’s gameplan all you’d like, as Pop chose to do a complete 180 from his strategy in last year’s series, and played Dirk almost exclusively with a single defender. There were double teams on occasion, but for the majority of the contest Nowitzki faced up and shot over Antonio McDyess (who looked absolutely silly biting on pump fakes), Matt Bonner (who loved to send Dirk to the free throw line for extra points) and Keith Bogans (who for all of his defensive strengths, is still 6’5”).
That was clearly a mistake, as Dirk missed two shots in total out of 14 field goal attempts and 12 free throw attempts. By the time Pop finally started throwing additional pressure on Dirk when he set up at the elbow, Nowitzki displayed an incredible willingness — who gives up the ball when they’re 12-of-14? — and skill to find open teammates cutting down the lane or setting up at the three-point line. You’ll find just one assist on the stat sheet for Dirk, but the offense ran through him during winning time, and win he did.
No recap of this game would be complete without a thorough and explicit praising of Jason Kidd (13 points, 11 assists, eight rebounds, four steals, four turnovers). Kidd actually had a rough go of it at times, and stepped outside himself to make some uncharacteristically sloppy plays in the half-court offense. By the time the fourth quarter rolled around however, Kidd’s power was in full effect, and not only was he finding his teammates with greater accuracy and consistency as the game progressed, but he established a flow to the offense that ended up being the deciding factor down the stretch. You could point to a number of things that won this game for the Mavs: Dirk’s incredible play, Erick Dampier’s defense on Tim Duncan, the Mavs’ ability to chase the Spurs’ three-point shooters off of their spots, etc. None of those things had as much of a literal and obvious impact as Kidd’s fourth-quarter orchestration. Nowitzki undoubtedly deserves player of the game honors, but Kidd is a worthy asterisk and footnote.
The Mavs also fall way short without Caron Butler, who finished with 22 points. Butler wasn’t efficient (19 shots to get to 22, five turnovers) so much as he was productive, and he was the go-to offensive option for the Mavs with Dirk on the bench. He drove to the basket and milked his mid-range game, but I was most impressed with Caron’s work on the block. He posted up Manu Ginobili and Richard Jefferson for some beautiful turnaround jumpers. Pop opted not to double-team Nowitzki for most of the game, but he wasn’t shy about throwing doubles Caron’s way. That’s…odd. Maybe his thinking is that Butler is more easily flustered than Nowitzki and that unlike Dirk, Butler doesn’t have the height to see over the double teams. That’s reasonable, but it doesn’t make doubling a far more inefficient scorer the right move on a night where Dirk is going crazy from the field.
Butler’s contributions were made even more valuable by Jason Terry’s extended silence (five points, 2-9 FG, three assists), as the Spurs keyed in defensively on JET. Terry (as the ball-handler) was blitzed on many a screen-and-roll, and to his credit, he made the right play. Only a few of those shots were forced, and though he made little impact on the game as a whole, he didn’t turn the ball over once and was an essential part of the late-game offense as per usual. Terry ran two beautiful sequences late in the fourth with Dirk as the screener, in which he once found Jason Kidd for a wide open three when Tony Parker had cheated off of him and also hit Damp right under the basket to draw a foul. Then with 1:54 left in the game, the Spurs pressured Dirk to give up the ball, and he responded with a pass out to the open Jason Kidd on the perimeter. Kidd pump faked to draw the rotating Parker and then kicked it to Terry in the corner, who connect on just his second field goal make of the game. That three put the Mavs up 100-88, and they coasted to a victory.
Only talking about the offense wouldn’t be giving the Mavs the proper credit, though. Erick Dampier did a terrific job of defending Tim Duncan. TD still had 27 and eight on 60% shooting, but that’s just about the most difficult 27 points on 60% shooting that I’ve ever seen. For whatever that’s worth. Damp forced Duncan to work for every inch of positioning down low, but his night was perhaps best captured by two spectacular plays. With 7:03 left in the first quarter, Dampier flat-out stripped Duncan as Tim faced up. He just swiped the ball away from Duncan at the hip and even chased down (lumbered toward?) the loose ball to complete the play. Equally impressive was Damp’s play at the 6:18 mark of the third quarter, when he blocked Tim Duncan’s jump hook at its apex. Duncan still got his throughout the night, but Dampier did plenty.
Just as impressive was the Mavs’ ability to cover three-point shooters. San Antonio averaged 18.9 three-pointers per game, including 4.7 per game from Manu Ginobili. That means that on average, the Spurs’ designated shooters (Bonner, Bogans, Hill, Mason, Jefferson) shot 14.2 three-pointers per game. Last night that group combined for just four three-point attempt and converted just one. Dallas was scrambling like crazy in their rotations, and the Mavs’ ability to cover every shooter on the floor was a big reason why the pick-and-roll defense was so successful. Tim Duncan and DeJuan Blair each broke free on the pick-and-roll for impressive dunks, but for the most part Dallas was able to keep San Antone’s screen game in check by showing hard on the pick, recovering quickly, and relying on lots of rotating help from Mavs on the weak side.
There are a few ways you can look at this game. On one hand, the Mavs played better than the Spurs throughout, even though the margin of victory was close. They won without much scoring help from Jason Terry, and they survived 71 combined points from San Antonio’s big three. The Mavs shot 34 free throws and grabbed 13 offensive rebounds, which helped to counter the Spurs’ 50% shooting night.
Then again, look at everything that went wrong for San Antonio, and they were still within striking distance for the entirety of the game. George Hill and DeJuan Blair, the purported x-factors of the series, combined for four points and five rebounds. They turned the ball over an uncharacteristic amount, lost the battle on the boards, and still shot 50% to nearly win this thing. Game one is in the books but this series is far from over. Just stay tuned for the next gripping installment.
- In the second half, Gregg Popovich employed the “Clamp-a-Damp” strategy (trademarked by Russ Bengtson), in which Roger Mason intentionally fouled Damp three times in a row as a way to get the ball out of Dirk’s hands. That’s certainly one way to deny Nowitzki the ball. Damp converted four of his six attempts during the stretch, and with the way Dirk was shooting (and getting to the free throw line), that was probably two points less than the Mavs would have gotten otherwise. Win?
- Rick Carlisle actually swapped out Dampier for Shawn Marion with a little more than two minutes left in the fourth quarter just to avoid Pop from employing the strategy again. Carlisle indicated that he thought Pop was calling for another intentional foul on Dampier, and quickly pulled Damp for a short period before the final two-minute “safe zone.”
- J.J. Barea did not play well, but this is hardly the time to throw Rodrigue Beaubois into the fire at point guard. Beaubois could be a bit of a wild card (in the good sense), but he’s not reliable enough running the point to warrant going away from Barea right now.
- George Hill played just eighteen minutes, because Pop “didn’t like what he saw.” Not sure whether that was regarding Hill’s ankle (which George insisted was fine) or his play (which was poor and ineffective), but either way I’d expect him to play more minutes and more effectively on Wednesday.
- Hands down the best in-arena atmosphere all season. The intensity of Mavs fans at the AAC comes and goes, but that place was rockin’ last night.
- The down side to Erick Dampier’s big defensive night: Brendan Haywood played just 18 minutes. He played very well in those 18 and put up 10 and six (including three offensive boards), but his limited minutes (and situational matchups) didn’t give us a good opportunity to gauge his defensive abilities against Duncan.
- Not a great night for Shawn Marion (nine points, five rebounds, three assists, two blocks), but he helped. Shawn’s effectiveness will ultimately be determined by how efficiently Ginobili is scoring, as that’s Marion’s primary focus. On the bright side is that Manu only took 17 shot attempts when he could have done much more damage, and though Marion (and Jason Kidd, who played excellent defense on Manu in the fourth) couldn’t stop Ginobili from shooting a good percentage from the field, he was influential in causing some of Manu’s five turnovers.