“The great thing in the world is not so much where we stand, as in what direction we are moving.”
-Oliver Wendell Holmes
The average Mavericks game could be rewritten as a labor of Dirk Nowitzki. Dirk has the distinction of being the franchise’s one true constant, which has burdened him with an unfortunate weight: in the past, Dallas could only go as far as Nowitzki was able to take them. Other players chipped in when they could, but none — even a certain messianic French combo guard — proved to be the steady hand by which Nowitzki and the Mavs could depend. As a result, victories often came as a function of Nowitzki’s scoring alone. If he could put up enough points to counterbalance his teammates’ struggles and the Mavs’ spotty defense, Dallas notched a win. If not, then getting out with a W became a bit tricky.
This was not an average Mavericks game, and, if the first seven contests are any indication, this may not be an average Mavericks season. There’s still entirely too much basketball to be played for any team to make any kind of statement with their play, but Dallas is proving that they may be an interesting team, even if no one should be ready to label them a contending one.
The Grizzlies are in no way a golden barometer, but the fact that the Mavs put away this game so easily should offer some reassurance. Quality of opponent is obviously important, but Dallas’ execution, regardless of who the schedule put in front of them on this particular night, is paramount. Last night, the Mavericks were without Caron Butler, and thanks to a minor ankle sprain, were temporarily without Dirk Nowitzki. Jason Terry (25 points, 11-16 FG, four assists, three steals) didn’t blink, and I’m not sure he has all season. Every curl JET made was rewarded with a perfect pass, and Terry finished almost every opportunity with a smooth jumper, for the sake of aesthetic consistency if nothing else. From start to finish the Mavs’ offensive sequences were fluid and effective. Dallas totaled 30 assists — including 12 from Jason Kidd — on 46 field goals, and little more could be asked of the Mavs’ non-Dirk offense.
Shawn Marion’s night actually looked a bit reminiscent of his pre-Nash Phoenix days. Marion worked toward the front of the rim both as a driver and slasher, and he spun his way into layups and runners galore. He doesn’t have the softest touch, but Marion (20 points, 10-15 FG, seven rebounds, two blocks) worked hard to get good looks at close range and capitalized at a fairly high rate. Marion’s movements won’t soon be listed as textbook examples of athletic fluidity, but there’s a definite flow to his game when he gets into one of these zones. Shawn’s offense can turn stagnant when he relies too heavily on that fading hook shot, but his intermediate game is strong enough to work as a regularly featured element of the offense.
There should also be little question that as of today, DeShawn Stevenson (11 points, 3-5 3FG, four rebounds) deserves to be a starter. Dominique Jones’ potential combination of scoring (or at least what should be scoring, if he can figure out how to make his layups) and playmaking is intriguing, but Stevenson offers a more immediate utility. Playing Jones major minutes would require a patience that’s not necessary with Stevenson. DeShawn has made 5-of-10 from deep in his last two games, which lifts him from the “offensive liability” category. The Mavs now have their wing defender/designated corner man, and though it’s conceivable Stevenson could be marginalized upon Rodrigue Beaubois’ return from injury, for now he’s a welcome addition to the lineup.
Dallas didn’t win the game on the strength of their offense alone, though. Tyson Chandler (11 points, eight rebounds, one block) and Brendan Haywood (six points, eight rebounds, one block) did a superb job of protecting the basket. Memphis shot just 59.1% on their attempts around the basket. The league average on such shots is 61.2%, and yet Dallas was able to best that mark despite giving up some free layups to Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. With such strength inside, the Mavs were able to defend well in both man-to-man and zone coverages. The perimeter rotations weren’t always as crisp as they could be, but overall, it was a nice defensive outing.
The zone, in particular, seemed to really bog down the Grizzlies’ movement in the second half. Memphis had a hard time exploiting any of the zone’s weaknesses, and attempted several cross-court passes that were easily deflected or picked off. The Mavs need to be confident enough in their man defense to rely on it full-time with the zone used as a complement. Dallas has been using Jason Terry and J.J. Barea on the floor a bit together in the past two games, which leaves the Mavs a bit undersized up front. It’s no coincidence that Dallas zoned up with that lineup. Terry and Barea are easily taken advantage of if asked to defend a bigger player on the way to the rim or if consistently put in pick-and-roll situations. The easiest way to counter both is to remove them as options. A combination of JET and J.J. doesn’t make for a terrifying zone front, but it could be the most practical way to hide Barea defensively.
Rick Carlisle is figuring these things out. The Mavs are getting the ball where it needs to go (in sets and otherwise), and they’re tweaking their defense to better account for their own personnel and their opponents’ production. It’s an on-going process, but you have to appreciate where the Mavs seem to be headed.
With the defense clicking, Jason Terry shooting the lights out, Jason Kidd running the offense adroitly, and Tyson Chandler making a considerable impact on both ends, the Mavericks are looking more and more like a team they were never supposed to be. There’s no point in lauding the team too much today, but Dallas’ success this far has been no fluke. These are replicable efforts, the Mavs just have to, y’know, replicate them.
- For a night, the Mavericks’ turnover woes vanished. Dallas had just a 11.1 turnover rate, which brought their TOR for the season down to 16.1. Dallas had five turnovers through three quarters, and committed the majority of their other five turnovers while coasting out the game behind a double-digit lead.
- Something a bit odd: Tyson Chandler, a career .603 free throw shooter, is currently leading the Mavs in free throw percentage (.909). He’s also third on the team in free throws attempted (22, or 3.1 per game), so there’s no foul play with the sample size.
- Dallas can in no way take complete credit for this victory. The Grizzlies played some pretty miserable defense and their inability to defend the paint was startling. Not that O.J. Mayo (four points, 1-8 FG, three assists, two turnovers), Marc Gasol (10 points, five rebounds) and company didn’t fall apart offensively, too. Not the finest showing for the Grizz.
- Dirk’s ankle sprain isn’t a cause for too much concern, but he did look a bit hesitant to go into the low post after returning in the second half. Can’t blame him.
- Brian Cardinal played, and I’m not sure why. Nowitzki’s injury opened up some available minutes at power forward, but honestly I’d rather see a game of Ian Mahinmi — who played some decent defense in his four-minute stint — than Cardinal. Mahinmi is at least a plus rebounder, but Cardinal has been ineffective for nearly every minute he’s been in a Maverick uniform.
- This was undoubtedly Brendan Haywood’s best game of the season, and yet he still put up some disappointing statistical totals. Still, his offensive activity was notable, and he was fighting hard for rebounds. Carlisle will take that, especially with Tyson Chandler playing well enough to account for the top of the center rotation.
- J.J. Barea (10 points, seven assists, five rebounds, one turnover) was vital. He was terrific. He was everything that anyone that watches or runs this team could reasonably expect him to be. Barea has nights where he tries to force his own offense or becomes a defensive liability, but in yesterday’s game he was neither. He did an excellent job of setting up the half-court offense along with Jason Terry, and he ran the break well as both a distributor and a finisher.
- The Mavs don’t typically get to the rim with such regularity, and that aspect of the game won’t necessarily carry over into Dallas’ future efforts. However, the discipline that the Mavs showed in their half-court offense was impressive nonetheless. There doesn’t need to be some kind of offensive revolution for this team to be successful. They just have to be a little better. Marion and Terry need to continue to make smart cuts. Nowitzki should keep looking for backdoor opportunities. Chandler should look for lob openings every chance he gets. A subtle offensive improvement coupled with a legitimate defensive stride could be all Dallas needs to really force their way into legitimate standing.
GOLD STAR OF THE NIGHT: Jason Terry. JET was asked to carry the offense when Nowitzki went down at the 3:31 mark of the second quarter, and he responded by scoring seven of the Mavs’ nine points in the frame. Dallas will continue to search for stability in their supplementary scoring, but I’m more and more convinced that such a search should conclude with JET being given even more offensive responsibility. Caron Butler may still be an interesting piece, but his scoring approach pales in comparison to Terry’s far more efficient style.