“Yeah. That went well.”
-Captain Malcolm Reynolds
As much as we’d like for the Mavs to down the Magic on a night like this, it’s not reasonable to expect it. For one, the Magic are far and away the superior team. Plus, it’s the second night of a back-to-back for the Mavs, and they’re coming off an overtime finish and a plane ride home, no less. I know the Mavs don’t need any excuses at this point, but the realities of the NBA regular season do influence performance from time to time, and this one was off those times.
It’s no surprise that the Mavs stuck with the Magic before slipping in the second half. I didn’t quite expect them to post an effective field goal percentage as low as 40.7%, but that’s what happens when everyone’s shooting turns a bit wild. The only Mavericks who could score were Dirk Nowitzki, who scored 24 but took 22 shots to do so, and Jason Terry, who finished with similar efficiency in scoring 16 points on 16 shots. They “carried” the offense, but only because the first half was so low-scoring that even an inefficient night from the Mavs’ two primary scorers kept them close. Decent defense from both sides DOMINATED the first 24 minutes, provided your understanding of defensive domination includes both teams missing open jumpers, committing unforced turnovers, and lacking any kind of offensive cohesion.
In the second half, members of the Magic just took turns exposing various aspects of the Mavs’ defense. Orlando utilized its numerous perimeter alternatives on the pick-and-roll, exploiting the Mavs’ tendency to double down on Howard following his strong start to hit three after three. Mickael Pietrus (24 points, 7-8 FG, 6-6 3FG) was especially dangerous in that regard, and he was absurdly effective from the corners. Jameer Nelson (14 points, seven assists, six turnovers) joined in on the fun to hedge the damage of his dismal first half, and his ability to hit from mid-range and his patience in the pick-and-roll was a big reason why the Magic’s third quarter offense was so effective. Then, Vince Carter (19 points, 8-17 FG, seven rebounds) beefed up his production in time to cushion Orlando’s lead, and Pietrus finished with nine of the Magic’s final 10 points to protect it from a late Maverick rally.
It was just a matter of time before Orlando’s defense came around. Dwight Howard (18 points, 20 rebounds, five blocks) is one of the league’s most influential defensive forces, and every block (and even goaltend) made the Mavs more and more nervous around the basket. Shawn Marion and Brendan Haywood passed up looks at the rim due to Howard’s very presence, and many more Mavs faked themselves out of a rhythm as they approached the basket. There are certain award races this season that have discussions or arguments involved. Defensive Player of the Year is not one of them. No player in the league has a more profound impact on the defensive end, and that’s just as obvious in what he does do (block shots, get mad rebounds, show aggressively on screens) as what he doesn’t (deter opponents from coming in the lane, alter shot selection).
Otherwise, there’s not much to say. The half-court offense was stymied by an elite defense, the Mavs blew plenty of their opportunities in transition, and the better team won. Dallas looked off, was forced into too many tough shots, and couldn’t convert their easy ones. That’s not exactly a winning formula on any night, much less one where the opponent is a true contender and one of the hottest teams in the league.
The closest thing Dallas had to a hero was J.J. Barea (16 points, 7-9 FG, two steals), who put on something of a one-man comeback in the fourth quarter. Barea, the very man so many Mavs fans are desperately trying to bury as an offering to Rodrigue Beaubois, scored 14 points in the fourth quarter alone, including Dallas’ last seven. As much as we’d all like to carve out minutes for Beaubois, Barea still deserves to play. He’ll have nights where he’ll struggle to keep the offense in control or where his shot is a bit errant. That’s why he’s a reserve and not a starting-caliber guard. It doesn’t mean that he doesn’t deserve to play or even rightfully deserve the back-up point guard job. It’s crucial that Rick Carlisle keeps his options open, and more important than cementing the back-up PG role is doling out minutes based on the merits of each players’ recent performance. On this night, for example, Rodrigue finished with just two points on 0-of-3 shooting and two turnovers. He may have the potential to produce in greater volume than J.J. (hello, 40-point night), but Barea was by far the more productive player against the Magic. The debate should never have been about getting more minutes for Beaubois, but rather for getting more minutes for the players that deserve them.
- Brandon Bass (eight points, two rebounds) doesn’t always crack the rotation for the Magic, but he played well in 12 minutes. His defense was a mixed bag (some things never change, right?), but offensively he was a nice boost.
- Caron Butler (three points, 0-4 FG, three rebounds, three turnovers) is really struggling right now. On the bright side, his poor shooting isn’t shifting him into chucking mode, but he really needs to establish his value on the offensive end. Otherwise, he’s probably not worth the minutes. I’m not saying Butler should frequently try to take his man one-on-one, but what is Caron providing on the floor during these stretches where only Dirk or JET is clicking on offense? Part of that is the tendency to milk the hot hand, which is fine. It’s after the hot hand cools off that the problems begin to surface, and ideally that’s where you’d like to see Caron chip in.
- Erick Dampier and Brendan Haywood combined for 10 points and 18 rebounds, which is alright, I suppose. Both were clearly upstaged by Dwight (as is to be expected), but the defensive effort was there even if neither could properly hold Howard down. The Mavs began their coverage of Howard with a variety of double-teams coming from different angles at different times, but to no avail; Dwight showed off a variety of post moves (including a beauty of a lefty running hook) and found his open teammates on the perimeter. He’s such a tough cover in this system, and that was before the Magic’s outside shooting really started clicking.
- Though the Mavs often looked a step slow, it wasn’t for lack of trying. Dallas really competed in this one, and kept fighting to trim the lead even when a comeback seemed impossible. The loss still hurts (especially in the standings), but the fight is important.
- Orlando finished 14-of-24 from beyond the arc. Ouch.