“These struggling tides of life that seem
In wayward, aimless course to tend,
Are eddies of the mighty stream
That rolls to its appointed end.”
-William Cullen Bryant, The Crowded Street
Rough loss. The recap that I don’t want to write and you don’t want to read is on its way, but for the moment I think it’s best if we all pour one out for the season that was. There should have been no delusions over this being “the Mavs’ year,” and given that, I think Dallas’ first round out to San Antonio wasn’t entirely unexpected. This Maverick team was going to lose to a quality opponent, and they did just that. That quality opponent just happened to be a seventh seed, a first round opponent, and the Mavs’ one and only true rival.
Obviously there’s more to come on the game and the season, but for the moment: sulk, reflect, ponder, sigh, and shrug. Another season is in the books: another year without a title and another campaign of enjoying Dirk Nowitzki while we still can.
What a curse it is, to be blessed. I’d never envy the followers of a lesser NBA team, and I wouldn’t dare compare the failings of the Mavs to the failings of other franchises (the Clippers, the Knicks, etc.). That said, Dallas has made a habit out of tragedy, and while this loss doesn’t even remotely measure up to the playoff losses in 2006 or 2007, the sting remains.
Dirk deserves better. He played an incredible game (33 points on 21 shots), and hit so many big shots. He just didn’t quite get the help that he needed. That tale should sound familiar, and at this rate, it could be the epitaph on Dirk’s NBA headstone: Here lies Dirk Nowitzki, the unsung, underrated star of his generation who remained title-less because of teammates and circumstance. It’s not that Dirk’s career has been without fault, but just that it so rarely should lie with him. He’s a truly unique offensive weapon, and his ability to lead this team to another 50-win season and another playoff berth is impressive in itself, even if the offense wasn’t quite good enough to elevate the Mavs past a tough first round opponent.
It really wasn’t good enough. Neither was the defense. But only barely, as Dallas again had a game in its clutches, despite what could certainly qualify as the worst playoff start in franchise history.
Dallas could barely manage to walk out on the court in the first quarter before San Antonio had racked up a double-digit lead, and by the time that lead had blossomed to 22 points in the second, all hope seemed lost. The Mavs finished with just eight points in the first quarter, and their valiant effort in Game 5 seemed suddenly worthless. Dallas missed shots they normally make, their defense was fell well short of the playoff standard, and the lack of scoring aside from Caron Butler and Dirk Nowitzki would have been comical if it weren’t so depressing.
Then, Rick Carlisle turned to the one card he had been reluctant to play all series long. With the Mavs already desperate for a spark in the second quarter, Carlisle inserted Rodrigue Beaubois, and shockingly, it worked. Beaubois did what he’s done so many times this season: score quickly and efficiently by using his speed to get around defenders. The only difference is that the offense was basically run through Beaubois from the moment he was inserted into the game…as long as “the offense” can be reduced to Beaubois driving around his defender (with the help of a few handy pick-setters) and getting to the rim. It’s not exactly complex, but it was was startlingly efficient, as Rodrigue was able to finish at the basket, help defense be damned. From that point on, the Mavs scoring duo was elevated to a trio, and Nowitzki, Butler, and Beaubois finished with 74 of the Mavs’ 87 points.
That is, until Rick Carlisle opted to keep Beaubois on the bench for the first nine minutes of the fourth quarter in favor of Jason Terry. JET had a pretty horrible night, and scored just two points on seven shot attempts. He was in the game for his prior exploits and his reputation, and for a night, Carlisle betrayed his own code and sat a player who was playing incredibly well. More on that later.
It’s almost silly to dwell too much on what the Mavs did wrong, if only because they were so close to winning…again. Dallas actually managed to take the lead on a Dirk three-pointer in the third quarter, but one botched defensive assignment later, and it was San Antonio’s game again. If JET or Kidd makes one more shot, maybe this is a different game. If one more of Nowitzki’s improbable looks found the bottom of the basket, maybe we’d be talking about a Game 7. Maybe if one more Maverick showed themselves to be a reliable scoring option in this series, the day wouldn’t be quite so gloomy. And yes, maybe if Rick Carlisle had played Rodrigue Beaubois more in the fourth quarter, this series wouldn’t be over.
But it is. And blaming things solely on a coaching decision to go with one of the best fourth quarter scorers in franchise history over a rookie — a sensational one, but a rookie nonetheless — is a bit ridiculous. Beaubois was not the only thing that could have saved the Mavs. The decision to sit him was certainly not the factor that doomed them, even it its so terribly easy to paint it that way.
The pick-and-roll defense just wasn’t good enough, the Mavs had no way of stopping George Hill (21 points, six assists) who was every bit the x-factor he was proclaimed to be, and the Spurs were far, far more aggressive offensively. Dallas’ shortcomings should be completely unsurprising, as their inability to play consistent defense and reluctance to push for quality shot attempts again brought about their end. I honestly wish it was more complex, but that’s all it took. This match-up was so even that the Mavs didn’t need to give the Spurs much to run with, and once they offered San Antonio those few, small carrots, it was enough for the Spurs to close the series in six games.
There’s obviously more: Caron Butler had a fantastic offensive night, all things considered, Brendan Haywood and Erick Dampier were effective in bursts but each had drawbacks to their play, and Jason Kidd was invisible yet again. All of that matters, but at this point does it really? Dallas’ run is over, and though they fought until the very end in their season finale, so many Mavericks came up with nothing when the team desperately needed something. It didn’t have to be 20 points or 10 rebounds or 12 free throw attempts, but it had to be something. On this night against this particular opponent, that was apparently too much to ask.