“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”
This was a game that the Mavs needed to win. This was not the way that the Mavs needed to win it. Denver provided the Dallas’ first real challenge on the schedule, and rather than prove that their defensive success in the first three games was indicative of a real and sweeping change, we’re now left wondering how many of the season’s first 144 minutes should be taken seriously at all.
Dallas was, statistically speaking, an excellent defensive team before last night. Yet when the Mavs had a chance to make a statement against a top-10 offense, they allowed an unpalatable 111 points per 100 possessions. The Mavs’ defensive performance in the first three games matters, but the value of that performance has withered under high heat. There are better offenses out there than the Denver Nuggets. There are surely better offenses out there than the Denver Nuggets sans Nene, Kenyon Martin, and Chris Andersen. And when those offense come, the Mavs may not get the lucky bounce they need to leave the floor as victors.
Dallas will have to be better. Luckily, we’re now a mere four games into the season, and the Mavs have innumerable opportunities to solidify their defense before the games stop meaning something and start meaning everything.
We shouldn’t let this win soak up too much gloom, though. Offensively, Dallas was pretty fantastic. That’s an idiomatic Maverick way of saying that Dirk Nowitzki was pretty fantastic. With almost all of Denver’s bigs sidelined, Nowitzki (35 points, 15-31 FG, 12 rebounds, three assists) went to work on a cast of undersized defenders. George Karl refused to throw any kind aggressive double teams Dirk’s way, and his team paid the price with each move on the low block, and each jumper dropped over the hand of a defender that could barely reach Nowitzki’s eye level.
Dirk dominated the game and the Maverick offense, and pushed Dallas’ offensive efficiency just far enough to overcome their deficiencies on defense and the glass. On a typical night this season, Nowitzki uses 24.7% of the Mavs’ possessions. Last night against the Nuggets, he used 47%. Forget alpha and omega, Nowitzki was the entirety of all alphabets of all times, all that had been and all that ever would be for the Mavs’ O.
Others thrived from Dirk’s resplendence. Jason Terry spotted up on the break beautifully and balanced the weak side when things slowed down. JET had 16 points and went 4-of-4 from three in the third quarter alone, keying a 14-4 run that gave Dallas the lead. Of those 14 points, Terry scored 11.
Kidd should also be credited, even if he scored just three points of his own. 83.3% of Terry’s field goals were assisted, and 100% of both Caron Butler’s (16 points, 7-14 FG, seven rebounds) and Shawn Marion’s (eight points, six rebounds, two blocks) field goals were set up by a teammate. Kidd’s 12 dimes don’t account for all of those FGs, but his execution of the offense was masterful. Kidd is just so unbelievably patient; Kidd is kind; Kidd is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. He does not insist on his own way; yada, yada, yada; He bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Nowitzki had the ball in his hands an astounding percent of the time, but it was Kidd who got it there. He was making perfect entry passes, waiting for plays to develop, and finding Dirk (and JET, and Caron…) when he leaked into open space.
When Kidd is functioning at this level, the Mavs are a rather brilliant offensive team. But when Nowitzki is left purely to his own devices to fuel the entire offense, the well-oiled machine tends to sputter. Both players are essential if Dallas is to have a top-shelf offense again, and games like these give us a glimpse — however stilted it may be in terms of usage — of the Mavs’ offensive potential with both Kidd and Nowitzki playing effectively.
- Carmelo Anthony finished with 20 points and 15 rebounds, but had a pretty frustrating night overall. He shot 42% from the field on 19 attempts, and while I’d love to attribute some of Anthony’s rougher patches to Shawn Marion and the Mavericks’ defense, Melo didn’t do himself any favors. Dallas played him well, but it was a bit of an off-night.
- A silver lining to the Mavs’ defense: Dallas utilized a match-up zone in the second and third quarters that was fantastically effective, but relied on it less and less as the game wore on. The Mavs shouldn’t want to be in a place where their defensive future hinges on the effectiveness of the zone (which, for all of its strengths, is still a bit gimmicky), but knowing that it can still be effective in spurts against rhythm offenses is valuable knowledge.
- Speaking of: Nowitzki could probably stand to not hedge quite so heavily toward the middle when playing zone with Chandler. Tyson can cover plenty of ground on his own, and considering the potency of Denver’s three-point shooters, Dirk might be better served honoring the impact of the corner three. Dirk did what he could to close out, but sometimes he was just too far out of position. I realize that threes are a realistic concession of the zone, but in this case some of those attempts (and makes) might have been preventable.
- This was not Brendan Haywood’s finest performance.
- Gary Forbes is now an NBA player. Forbes started for the Nuggets, and drew the short straw on being the first defender to face Dirk Nowitzki. He did an admirable job, and the former D-Leaguer dropped 12 points on 50% shooting to boot.
- Jason Kidd is doing a great job of giving up the ball early on the break and then spotting up as a three-point shooter. In traditional fast break situations, I’m always surprised that opponents pay so much attention to the threat of a Kidd layup. He’s not a very good finisher at all, and the thought of a pass always comes first, second, and third for him. But by giving up the ball early, Kidd turns himself into a fast-break weapon. No longer is he only looking to set up a bucket with a pass. Instead, he’s capable of completing transition opportunities of his own on both the primary and secondary break:
- J.J. Barea’s three turnovers hurt, as did his defense at times. But does anyone dare discount the impact of his nine points in a game decided by a single bucket? Barea made mistakes, but he also drew offensive fouls and got to the rim when Dallas needed offensive help.
- Arron Afflalo (known affectionately in some circles as “Spellcheck,”) is the real deal. Afflalo had a tremendous year last season with the Nuggets, but he’s become an even more versatile offensive player while continuing to groom a rather potent three-point stroke. Fans of every other NBA team are jealous.
- Again: no Kenyon Martin, no Nene, no Chris Andersen. Yet the Nuggets nearly matched the Mavericks in offensive rebounding rate. Dallas has to do better work on the defensive glass. The Mavs’ offensive rebounding on the other hand, was fine. And, might I add, clutch:
- All of this has happened before, and all of it will happen again. In games like these, it’s hard not to wonder if going small is a more viable option than Rick Carlisle and his coaching staff acknowledge. Brendan Haywood and Tyson Chandler are very good defenders, but in games like this one, they become strictly help defenders and rebounders. Taking on-ball post defense out of their job description leaves them slightly less useful, and I do wonder if running a lineup of Kidd-Terry-Butler-Marion-Nowitzki might have been more effective at times. It’s not the most intuitive way to get better defensive results, but having more natural match-ups could be a conceivable boon for the Dallas D.