Block Life

Posted by Rob Mahoney on November 5, 2010 under Commentary | 7 Comments to Read

Screen shot 2010-11-05 at 7.07.40 AM

The elusive regular season home-and-home series is perhaps the best way to artificially generate a playoff-like atmosphere. The two games may lack in post-season gravity, but by pitting two competitive teams against one another in consecutive contests, players are allowed to slide into their narrative roles while coaches make more detailed game plan adjustments than usual. It’s another regular season game in the grand scheme of things, but it’s hardly an independent entity; perhaps we could view the second game as vaguely episodic, but each outing only makes thematic sense when evaluated within the context of a two-part series.

The Mavericks are in the middle of such a series at this very moment, as they’ll take on the Nuggets this Saturday albeit on more familiar turf. I’ve already harped enough on the relevance of the Mavs’ defensive performance in Wednesday’s game, so naturally that’s a point of interest in the follow-up. However, just as important will be the sustainability of the Mavs’ offensive execution, and more specifically, the Nuggets’ response to a dominant performance by Dirk Nowitzki.

With Denver’s primary bigs sidelined, Nowitzki was free to score at will from the low block. In Dallas’ first concentrated effort to isolate Dirk in the post, Shawn Marion freed him up with a baseline screen that ultimately proved to be counterproductive; the 6’5” Arron Afflalo had previously been assigned to defend Nowitzki, but Afflalo switched with the more sizable Carmelo Anthony on the screen. Dirk was still able to draw a foul while battling for post position, but the play setup made Dirk’s post-up far more complicated than it had to be.

Dallas then ran a nearly identical set with one caveat: rather than having Marion set the baseline screen (and have Anthony switch onto Nowitzki as a result), the Mavs used Dominique Jones. Rather than having to wrestle with Melo to allow the entry pass, Dirk was free to catch and finish easily over venerable statesman J.R. Smith.

Next trip down, the Mavs executed the exact same play with the exact same result. Smith decided to chase the entry pass, but Nowitzki finished with the same easy two.

Following a timeout, Denver tries something a bit different. Anthony is designated to follow Nowitzki, and the Nuggets ditch their plan to switch on low screens. It didn’t matter much. Although Nowitzki would obviously have preferred going to work against Chauncey Billups rather than Carmelo Anthony, he faces up, his teammates clear out, and Dirk rains a jumper over Anthony, who can’t even make much of a play on the ball.

Which defender Denver opted to use was irrelevant to Dirk. He scored over and around everyone placed in front of him, and in the few instances when the Nuggets were caught doubling? Dallas’ shooters were ready and waiting on the weak side. In this sequence, a fast break matches Nowitzki against Billups, which urges Smith to cheat off of Marion. Dirk finds Shawn in the corner, who swings it to Terry, and the ball moves back to the strong side to J.J. Barea for a wide open three. He doesn’t convert, but that’s a quality shot created by moving the ball out of the mismatch.

Later, a side screen sets up Nowitzki with prime post position, and his subsequent back down draws three Nuggets defenders. Dirk kicks the ball out to Jason Kidd, who is relatively open at the three-point line, but the ball doesn’t stop there. Kidd swings the ball to an open Jason Terry — who actually triggered the initial screen action — in the corner. Boom, as they say, goes the dynamite.

I’m not sure there’s a proper counter for Denver. Nowitzki can abuse any one-on-one matchup the Nuggets throw his way, and he’s also smart enough to find the open man in the case of a double/triple-team. Terry, Kidd, and Caron Butler have been hitting their looks from outside, which means that the Nuggets merely have their choice of execution. It’s not a flawless offense (all it takes is an off-day from Dirk and the whole scheme dissolves), but considering the Mavs’ clear positional advantage, there’s no excuse for Dallas to have anything but sterling offensive efficiency come Saturday.

  • Phil

    Great read Rob (including the pic and the video footage)! Would be interesting to compare those situations with the Golden State series, where he was confronted with those aggressive double teams.

    However, I dont really get why some teams use good perimeter defenders (the likes of Sefolosha, Dahntay Jones or Afflalo) on Dirk so often….

    • Rob Mahoney

      I think the temptation to use smaller, quicker defenders comes from the success of guys like Jackson on Dirk, but a lot of teams reject the full chaos of the 2007 Warriors' defensive scheme. The double-teams came from all over the place and at random times during that series, but for some reason coaches appear convinced that they can achieve similar success even with a compromised approach.

      Then again, there's also a measure of futility involved; it might be best to throw an Afflalo or Sefolosha or Dahntay Jones on Dirk (even with the knowledge that they're likely to be torched), keep our more important offensive players out of foul trouble, and your bigs protecting the basket and hitting the glass.

  • Shawn

    In the GS series Dirk / Mavs were not consistent about dropping Dirk down the the block & punish Stephen Jackson. This was due in part to Dirk getting thrown off his game by the aggressive defense played by SJ. Dirk has since adjusted & learned how to take advantage of overly aggressive defense — see clip 1 (CA foul), clip 3 (catch the ball & slip the defender for the easy lay-in).

    That was also an Avery / Harris lead team, which managed to prove bullheadedness doesn't always work out.

    • Rob Mahoney

      I couldn't agree more on Dirk. I might try to track down some of that game tape to show just how much he's improved.

  • Josh Bowe

    This is why Dirk's lower 3PT attempts don't bother me as much. His game is so efficient from the low-block now, this is where he's most effective. If Dirk keeps posting up with this regularity, I don't mind the three point attempts being the occasionally spot up in transition.

    National commentators just look at the box score and assume Dirk is taking more two point jump shots instead of three's. It always bugs me when they urge Dirk to take more three pointers. His game has evolved.

  • Jusbono

    If the Nugs bigs are out, it might be a good idea to test some low post plays for the Mavs own bigs Haywood and Chandler. The Nugs front court won't have the length to match up against either of these two. This game should be a perfect opportunity to run and establish such simple plays (which may come in handy in some situations against many teams in the league). Also, a high and low game would be good to see.

    Defensively, I don't think I want to see any zone defense for the time being. Let's man up and tough up against the Nugs.

    But more importantly, I'd like to see the Mavs current bench come in with the needed energy to pull off a home win and avoid going under .500 at home. I'd like to see some DoJo, some Mahinmi or Ajinca, and some Brian Cardinal come in with some spark and prevent the Mavs from delivering another uninspired game leading to a home loss.

  • Janglesjr

    What is “reverse cowboy” and why does Dirk enjoy it so much? Better yet, why is he getting homo-erotic horsey rides from Mark Cuban?