A Wolf in Street Clothes

Posted by Shay Christian Vance on December 14, 2012 under Commentary | Be the First to Comment

starry night

My last experience at the American Airlines Center had me sitting near the tunnel — almost close enough to tap Marcus Camby on the head as he left the court before halftime with a minor ankle injury. As a Dallas ex-pat, I catch nearly all the games on TV or Internet, but it’s not often that I’m able to come back to the AAC to attend in person. To stress the size of Texas to the uninformed: Google Maps tells me I could almost make it from Philly to NYC and back in the same amount of time it would take me to get from my apartment in Austin to my seats at American Airlines Center; that kind of trip just doesn’t get to be an everyday affair. So, when Dirk Nowitzki hit one final shot and the Mavs pulled out a double overtime win against a Portland team led by Dallas-area native LaMarcus Aldridge, it was solidified as a successful trip. The biting chill of the walk across the parking lot to the hotel in the frigid February wind was dulled in the blood-warming afterglow of glorious extra basketball.

I was not in attendance when the Mavericks played the Boston Celtics on Wednesday night. Boston is a slightly longer drive than Dallas. The rapturous sway of a live crowd was replaced by the periodic updating of box scores, the ceremonials of “defense” and “let’s go Celtics” mere background noise to the endless analyst exposition and the sharp chirps of luxurious kicks shifting across the miked-up court. The comfort of my apartment precluded a chill wind at the end of this contest, and the only afterglow came from my television. After a long climb to get back into the game, the Mavericks had come up short of the peak.

Neither the Boston crowd nor the Celtics players could stop the Mavericks from besting their opponent in both field goal percentage and three-point percentage, from out-rebounding the Celtics, from posting more assists or blocks on the TD Garden hardwood than the hometown team. An eight-point field goal percentage difference usually points to a rout, and 50 percent more points in the paint will most often tell you the victor. But the Mavericks were able to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory with one simple statistic; turnovers were a disaster for the Mavericks, as they had been on so many nights previous.

Against the Trail Blazers a year ago, the Mavericks were a steady, veteran team that had a plan going into any fourth quarter — a plan successful enough to name a blog after or bring a championship to Dallas. Simply enable your two players best able to create a shot for themselves to do just that, surround them with skill players and proper spacing, allow that two-man game to augment the rest of the squad. With a greatly revamped roster, Nowitzki on the sideline, and Jason Terry wearing the opponent’s jersey in-game (rather than just sleeping in their shorts the night prior), the Mavericks didn’t have that reliability — or, perhaps as important, the confidence that accompanies it.

The Mavericks gave up the ball 28 times across 58 minutes of basketball with the Celtics, allowing 16 steals in the process. Rick Carlisle has not forgotten how to coach a basketball team, but the players’ familiarity with one another and the plays they’re running feeds more directly into success in single possession situations than the free flow of a game. In a double overtime contest, the weight of each of those possessions is even greater. The expectation of a teammate’s cuts and moves, the trust in their abilities, breeds success and the Mavericks haven’t found that yet, as six turnovers in the two overtime periods illustrates.

TrueHoop’s own Henry Abbott made the case on Thursday that Rajon Rondo’s flop that resulted with Derek Fisher’s dismissal affected the outcome of the game. But the steady hand of former Maverick Jason Kidd didn’t keep Terry from turning over the ball twice in extra minutes of the aforementioned Trail Blazers game last season, and there was no assurance that Derek Fisher would have helped the Mavericks hold onto the ball this time. With the JET, it was understood that it was a high-risk, high-reward scenario. Terry’s hands turn to kindling once the game clock hits the final 3 minutes, regardless of his previous shooting foray. Sometimes the scoreboard is set ablaze, sometimes the spark just doesn’t take, no matter how many times the flint is struck.

A team can take its chances when it knows what it’s going to get out of its best players. On that February night in Dallas, Jason Terry’s shooting touch kept the Mavericks in the game while Nowitzki had an off-night before finally clinching the game for Dallas. If Terry got a step on his man on the break, a pull-up jumper in traffic was guaranteed and probably was going to cross the plane inside that metallic rim that decides wins and losses in the NBA. A high-post look from Nowitzki brought about a solid shot or a great look from a teammate as the defense collapses. This is the bread and butter that allowed Mark Cuban to hold that long desired trophy over his head.

Boston went with just such steadiness itself in the second overtime of Wednesday’s game. According to ESPN’s play-by-play recap of the game, not a single Boston player outside of Garnet, Pierce, and Rondo took a shot in the second overtime. With Terry and Kidd no longer running the show for Dallas and with O.J. Mayo still working to establish himself as a reliable closer in the NBA, Nowitzki’s return can hopefully turn this type of game into a win for the Mavericks again. Not because Dirk will be the best player in a Mavericks uniform (though he certainly will be), but because he will be the steady hand that Dallas so clearly needs.

Double overtime games are won possession by possession. In April of this year, unabashed stats guy and Houston GM Daryl Morey said the following in an interview with Jason Friedman about his starless team, prior to the acquisitions of Jeremy Lin and James Harden:

[FRIEDMAN]: We’ve talked so much over the last few years about having that star come crunch time and all the mythology behind that. This team in particular though seems to fare pretty well and execute at an above average rate in clutch situations, even without having that traditional “closer.”

[MOREY]: I think the reality is that no one is any good at crunch time. I think if you’ve got a guy who can create his own shot then you’re better off than not.

I think the biggest misnomer people have … I’ve seen a lot of things like, ‘You should run a play. You should just do your normal things.’ Well, the reason why teams go with a particular isolation play, even though that often has a low efficiency because it’s just hard to score for anybody, I don’t care how good you are, is not because teams think that’s optimal for scoring, it’s because it’s optimal for controlling the amount of time the other team has after the play. If you’re just running a set and a team jumps it or tries to disrupt it, it can really change the timing of when your shot goes off and it’s a massive, massive difference how many ticks are left when the other team gets the ball.

So a lot of what people want to criticize coaches for which is ‘Don’t they know that guy is bad in isolation; don’t they know this?’ – it’s really because they’re not, in my opinion, thinking about the big picture which is controlling the clock the other way in terms of when your opponent gets the ball back. Even three seconds with an advance of the ball is a huge difference versus only having one second. The efficiency drop based on you controlling the clock the other way is a massive difference.

In the second overtime, every Boston player knew the game plan. A structure and a familiarity long ago developed into instinct made their play look effortless in juxtaposition to the Mavericks inability to get the ball inbounds on the last play. When it mattered most, the Paul Pierce isolation play they’ve been running forever essentially closed the game for them.

There is no guarantee that having Nowitzki on the floor at the end of the Boston game would have changed an L into a W. Still, I’d love to be there for the first time Dirk has his back turned to the basket, dribbling in the high post at the end of the game as the crowd’s nervous excitement turns to a quiet anticipation as we await his turnaround jumper. With as many games as an NBA team plays, I’ve got no reason to believe those Portland players that distant, drawn-out February remember it like I do. But I can still see Dirk’s tongue-wagging, fist-pumping strut so vividly, and it seems only a matter of time before we see that familiar celebration yet again.