A seven-game series between two closely matched teams is one of the most fascinating spectacles in all of sports. Like in any epic tale, the plot thickens with every quarter of every game as the dynamic between the two teams shifts and the tension rises. The battle for series supremacy does not stop between games as even now, each coaching staff works furiously in a battle of wits. What plot lines did we see in Game 1 and what adjustments can we expect to see in the games to come?
Usually it’s the losing team that is most in need of strategic adjustments so we’ll start with the Spurs. Coming into the game, the biggest question faced by Spurs coach Gregg Popovich defensively was how to stop the unstoppable force known as Dirk Nowitzki. Pop only has two options. He can play ball denial and rush an extra defender to double-team Dirk every time he touches the ball or he can play Dirk straight-up with the likes of Matt Bonner or Antonio McDyess. In last season’s playoffs, Popovich went with the first option, double-teaming Dirk throughout the series, limiting him to 19 points per game. However, as the defensive attention shifted to Dirk, the supporting cast stepped up as the Mavericks rolled over the Spurs in 5 games. In Game 1 of this series, Popovich elected to cover Nowitzki with a single defender for the most part, allowing Dirk to erupt for 36 points on just 14 shots in one of the most efficient scoring performances in the history of the NBA playoffs. When a solitary Spur was left alone on an island, Dirk showed that he would bully them, steal their lunch money, and then drain the shot after for good measure. On the flip side, Popovich might be thinking that it’s unlikely that Dirk Nowitzki will continue to shoot 86% for the rest of the series, so the unanswerable question remains. In Game 2, I expect to see more double-teams mixed in, challenging the Mavericks’ supporting cast to hit open shots. Realistically, I don’t think there is a strategy in the world that can stop Dirk right now, but if there is, trust Coach Popovich to find it.
Carlisle also elected to play the Spurs straight-up, for the most part. The Spurs’ Big Three of had an impressive scoring night for a combined 71 points, but that’s something Rick Carlisle can live with when the teams other 7 players scored only 23 points on 41% shooting. While Duncan and Ginobili put up big scoring numbers, they also turned the ball over at an alarming rate with six and five turnovers, respectively. Credit goes to Jason Kidd and Caron Butler here for great anticipation in jumping into passing lanes and deflecting balls. The only adjustment I can see for the Mavericks defensively is how they play the pick-and-roll. The Mavericks, obviously concerned with containing Ginobili and Parker, showed hard on every pick and roll. While this helped stop penetration, it led to open rolls to the basket by the Spurs big men. For the most part, I expect the Mavericks to stick to their game plan: Ginobili and Duncan will get their points but they’ll have to work for them against quality defenders in Marion, Butler, Dampier, and Haywood and the rest of the Mavericks will stay at home on the Spurs supporting cast.
Offensively for the Spurs, Manu Ginobili took on the ball-handling and playmaking duties as Tony Parker took a backseat. This strategy produced mixed results as Ginobili recorded 26 points and six assists but with six turnovers. Parker had a decent scoring night with 18 points but was nowhere near the dominant offensive force he was in these teams’ previous playoff series. I expect to see Tony Parker having a larger role in dictating the offense when these teams come together for Game 2. Of the Spurs’ role players, only Antonio McDyess can be said to have played a quality game; Popovich was understandably upset and criticized his players for “playing like dogs”.
Young guard George Hill was essentially useless, perhaps because of a sprained ankle, but Pop clearly went away from him in the second half. It’ll be interesting to see what Pop does with the guard rotation. Richard Jefferson, Roger Mason Jr., and Matt Bonner continue to be Spurs fans’ favorite whipping posts as they contributed little or nothing to the Spurs’ cause. Coach Popovich is notorious for his distrust in rookies in the playoffs, and it showed with DeJuan Blair only receiving eight minutes even after his spectacular game against Dallas in the regular season finale. Still, if the other Spurs reserves (particularly Bonner) continue to “play like dogs”, expect Blair to get some extra burn in the upcoming games.
On the offensive side for the Mavericks, things went well for the most part. Carlisle has to be happy with the way his superstar dropped 36 and second banana Caron Butler took over (22 points) when Dirk needed a rest. The biggest concern is Jason Terry, who scored only five points on 2-of-9 shooting. Terry, however, came through in the fourth as usual, hitting two big shots after being held scoreless through the first three quarters. J.J. Barea was held scoreless in 15 minutes. If Barea is not effective, I (along with every other Mavericks fan in the world) would like to see Carlisle give Rodrigue Beaubois a legitimate chance. You have to believe that Beaubois will be given a chance to contribute in this series, and given the way he’s played this season, I think he earned it.
And so the story continues. With one chapter done, what should turn out to be an amazing series is underway and although we can guess at the twists and turns, unexpected heroes, and devious villains, nobody will know for sure until the final page. The only thing we do know is that it’s going to be good. Stay tuned.