“Wait until the next big rain, you will see the trees fall down.”
Teams become the things they do. So it shouldn’t surprise you that after an entire season of climbing out of substantial holes, the Mavs were going to make a run at some point. After giving up plenty of ground in the second and third quarters, Dallas’ deficit hit rock bottom at 20, was whittled down to 10 in three minutes, and was brought within five points in the fourth. It just wasn’t enough. The Mavs have had so many comeback victories this season that it’s easy to forget about the nights where they came up a little bit short, and this game serves as a bit of a heartbreaking reminder. All of those regular season games counted, just like this one did, and all of the habits and tendencies formed during those games invariably resurface at some point. Though Dallas is certainly improved, they can’t escape who they are or who they’ve been, and unfortunately that’s a team that’s given up leads to their opponents before attempting to claw back.
It almost worked, but the Mavs’ defense was too accommodating early, the shooting was too bad for too long, and Tim Duncan clubbed Dallas’ comeback hopes repeatedly with improbable shot (floating baseline hook while leaning out of bounds) after improbable shot (deflected hook shot that ended up back in his hands, allowing Tim to train a push shot from close range just before the shot clock expired).
Dallas finished the game shooting 36.5% from the field, which makes the fact that they were within five points of San Antonio in the fourth quarter all the more impressive. Some of that is shot selection: the Mavs are still a jump-shooting team, and Dirk Nowitzki, Caron Butler, and Jason Terry missed their fair share of jumpers. That doesn’t even come close to telling the full story, though, as Dallas had a lot of good looks that simply couldn’t find the bottom of the net. This was an absolutely frigid shooting night for the Mavs, who were only able to stay competitive thanks to their 19 makes on 20 free throw attempts and a huge night from Terry (27 points, 9-of-19 FG, 3-of-7 3FG, three assists).
Aside from Terry, the Maverick offense was stagnant and ineffective. Solid ball movement still created plenty of open looks, but there wasn’t enough in the way of player movement. There were far too many isolation plays even for Dallas’ iso-heavy offense (I’m looking at you, Caron), far too many passes caught while standing still. Guys like Butler, Marion, and Terry are good enough to make plays in those situations, but they really shouldn’t have to. Not to the magnitude they were asked to do so on Wednesday night, and that’s a big reason why Dallas finished the evening with just 88 points (104.4 offensive efficiency). The Spurs defense was solid, but not suffocating. The worry isn’t that San Antonio is going to lock down the Mavs, even if they were far more successful on Dirk in Game 2 than they were in Game 1. The worry is that Dallas will freeze up offensively like they did last night, and that when the shots stop falling the defense won’t be able to hold ground.
The defense really didn’t. Dallas finally increased their defensive intensity over the game’s final 15 minutes, but it wasn’t enough to make up for plays like this one:
Or this one, that happened just moments later:
That’s pretty much exactly what happened in Game 2. The Mavs made their own mini-runs in the first and second quarters, but flurries of offensive success could only barely cover up for how dismally Dallas performed the majority of the time. The Spurs’ lead had already hit double-digits going into halftime, and the Mavs were really struggling to put points on the board with Dirk Nowitzki (24 points on 24 shots, 10 rebounds, four assists) suddenly mortal.
There were a number of differences between Game 1 and Game 2, but the most notable was the play of Richard Jefferson. If I didn’t know better, I’d think he’s an NBA player. After putting up a four-point (on 1-of-4 shots), two-turnover stinker on Sunday night, RJ finished with the same two turnovers, but a far more palatable 19 points (7-of-12 FG) and seven rebounds. Throw in another nice performance from each of the Spurs’ three stars (a combined 64 points), and that’s a tough game to win…especially when the Mavs are only making 36.5% of their shots. The first question that should come to mind over Jefferson’s performance is a valid one: can it be replicated? Based on RJ’s inconsistency this season, it’s hardly a given. I wish this was an area in which I could offer insight, but how could anyone say with any certainty what Jefferson will do in Game 3?
Jefferson will justly get his due as the game’s difference-maker, but San Antonio doesn’t pull out this victory without their breadwinner. Tim Duncan (25 points, 11-of-19 FG, 17 rebounds) was fantastic, and even though Brendan Haywood made Duncan’s looks as difficult as possible in the fourth, sometimes that’s not good enough. Tim is, at absolute worst, the second most effective “traditional” offensive post player in the league, and one of the best of all-time. There are going to be nights where he’s blocked by Erick Dampier (especially as Duncan gets older and older), but there are certainly going to be nights where he wins games outright with his ability to score down low. Erick Dampier and Brendan Haywood worked hard defensively, Duncan was just on another level last night.
Dallas just didn’t play very well on either end. The Mavs couldn’t stop Duncan, gave Jefferson too many opportunities to get to the rim, and allowed Parker and Ginobili to make an even bigger impact than their already impressive box score contributions suggest. On offense, Dallas just couldn’t connect on their open looks, played sub-par (but not irredeemable) defense, and were completely Duncanized in the middle of their crucial fourth-quarter surge. A bit more could have gone wrong for the Mavs, but so, so much more should have gone right. Chin up, Mavs fans; Dallas displayed flukey, Stormtrooper-like accuracy, JET is alive and kicking, and all the Mavs have to do is win a best-of-five series starting on Friday. It’s not going to be easy, but you shouldn’t have expected it to be.
- San Antonio’s spot-up shooters are quite important. In Game 1, Matt Bonner, Richard Jefferson, George Hill, Keith Bogans, and Roger Mason combined for nine points and made just one three-pointer between them. In Game 2? Bogans received a DNP-CD and Mason went scoreless in six minutes, but Bonner, Jefferson, and Hill combined for 31 points (12-of-25 FG) and four made three-pointers. That’s a huge difference in role player production, and in truth, it could have been much worse. Dallas wasn’t contesting San Antonio’s three-pointers particularly well at all, and dodged a few bullets on completely uncontested Spur threes that just didn’t go down. On the occasions that Dallas did contest, they were pretty successful. For comparison’s sake, take a look at this first clip, in which George Hill gets a wide open look at a corner three:
And this one, in which Jason Terry scrambles to deter Hill from taking the shot. George ends up settling for a tough, two-point leaner, which is a micro win for the Mavs’ defense:
- Dirk shot 4-of-7 from within six feet of the basket, but once he stepped outside that six-foot radius, he was 5-for-17. Ouch.
- I’ve read in several places that Popovich’s defensive strategy entailed maintaining one-on-one coverage on Dirk, but I’m not sure that’s entirely accurate. San Antonio also seemed to be doubling Nowitzki when he put the ball on the floor, just like Dirk saw in the 2007 series against Golden State. Video on that to come later.
- J.J. Barea isn’t doing to well defensively, but his five points and three assists in 10 minutes of play weren’t too shabby. The Mavs’ net production with him on the floor was +1, which tells us what we already know: Barea is a decent stop-gap point, and his marginal offensive contributions can help to balance his defensive lapses. Related: another DNP-CD for Rodrigue Beaubois.
- Brendan Haywood looked pretty bad on pick-and-rolls, though a more thorough analysis should be made before giving a declaration one way or another. Whereas most of the other Mavs were still showing strongly on screen-and-rolls, Haywood simply hung back to cover a potential roll man. I’m not sure whether that was a Duncan-specific assignment or Haywood botching the game plan, but either way it opened up opportunities for Tony Parker to penetrate into the lane and for Manu Ginobili to hit the dagger three. Otherwise, his help defense was excellent in halting penetration, and his D on Duncan, while ultimately unsuccessful, was still solid.
- A rough shooting night for Jason Kidd, who went 1-of-4 from three and 1-of-7 overall. A few of those threes go down, and we’re looking at an entirely different game.
- DeJuan Blair had another empty night with four rebounds and no points in 11 minutes. Spurs fans should be thankful that Antonio McDyess (four points, but nine big rebounds) has been playing some effective minutes at center.
- Caron Butler is a hard guy to criticize sometimes, because he plays extremely hard. From his first game as a Maverick, effort has never been a question. The downside is that he often is so focused on trying to score on his man that he puts blinders on. It’s something we saw often from Josh Howard, as well. Sometimes Butler’s focus ends up with him hitting a tough step-back jumper or getting to the rim for a layup, but often he ends up hoisting up a tough, contested jumper when he should have passed to the open man.
- Not only was Jason Terry shooting the ball much more efficiently last night, but he was much more aggressive. Freeing up JET was clearly a Carlisle point of emphasis between Game 1 and Game 2, and you could tell from early in the first quarter that Terry was looking to attack the San Antonio defense: