Grave Tampering

Posted by Rob Mahoney on May 20, 2010 under xOther | Read the First Comment

Jared Wade’s Talking About Practice podcast is one of the best around, and I had the pleasure of joining Jared for a post-mortem episode on the Mavs. We’ll pick at some old wounds, look at where the Mavs go from here, and discuss whether this nine-player Mavs-Nets blockbuster is the funniest trade ever.

Check it out, and do yourself a favor and listen to the past episodes of Talking About Practice as well. Every installment is mandatory listening for serious NBA fans.

A Glimpse of Light From a Distant Star

Posted by Rob Mahoney on April 30, 2010 under Commentary | 21 Comments to Read

Without Rodrigue Beaubois, last night’s game would have been a disaster. The rookie jump-started the Mavs’ offense at a particularly vulnerable time in a way that no other Maverick could, or at least seemed willing to do: by getting to the basket. Driving to the hoop is not a specialty of either Jason Kidd or Jason Terry at this point in their careers, which leaves Beaubois and J.J. Barea as the lone penetrators among the Dallas guards. Barea had a pretty horrible night despite playing well in the series to that point, which made Beaubois’ ability to get to the basket all the more important.

So he drove. Over, and over, and over again. He drove past Tony Parker and George Hill, weaved through Antonio McDyess and Manu Ginobili, and finished around Tim Duncan. He was far and away the most dynamic Maverick on the floor in his 21 minutes of playing time, and it’s a damn shame that he didn’t play more. As I mentioned in the recap, not having Beaubois not playing in the fourth isn’t the reason the Mavs lost Game 6, though it could qualify as a reason. It’s hard to say, honestly, because as good as Beaubois was, it’s not like he was going to single-handedly shut down the Spurs’ pick-and-roll. Rodrigue wasn’t going to prevent George Hill from nailing open looks in the corner and he wasn’t going to protect the rim. He definitely would have given the Mavs another scoring option on the floor when they desperately needed one, and that counts for something, but his presence is not a cure-all.

However, Rick Carlisle’s decision to sit Beaubois in this series (and in the fourth quarter of Game 6, in particular) was a monumental error. Carlisle made a huge, huge mistake, and though it’s impossible to say whether or not it cost the Mavs this or that, there’s no question that having Beaubois on the floor would have put Dallas in a better position to win this series. Maybe the Spurs still would have made big plays and done the right things, because that’s kind of what the Spurs do, but I fail to see how having a scorer as productive and efficient as Beaubois on the floor would have hurt the Mavs in any significant way. He makes rookie mistakes from time to time and his defense isn’t perfect, but when the team is relying so heavily on Jason Terry to produce and he’s not producing, there doesn’t seem to be any harm in giving Beaubois some burn with the first unit.

That said, I understand Carlisle’s dilemma. Terry has proven in the past that even in terrible games, he’s able to bounce back to help in the fourth. Beaubois had yet to really prove himself in a playoff situation prior to Game 6, though through no fault of his own. JET was the easy pick, the comfortable pick, and in a bout of temporary insanity, Carlisle separated himself from the strategy he’s gone with for most of the season, and sat the player who was able to produce.

Then again, maybe that approach has never really applied to Beaubois. We saw Carlisle switch up lineups and alter the rotation as players succeeded or struggled, but the one player who seemed immune to all of it was Beaubois. No matter how well Rodrigue played, he could never carve out the consistent minutes he deserved, and only in similarly desperate times — when the Mavs faced injury or a serious match-up problem — was Beaubois considered a possible solution. It’s not easy for coaches to trust rookies, and I get that. The angle that Carlisle is coming from is fairly easy to understand. It’s just wrong, in this particular case.

Really, the problem wasn’t that Carlisle refused to play Beaubois during the fourth quarter of Game 6, but that he refused to play him for the bulk of the regular season. The reason why he didn’t trust Rodrigue during high-pressure moments in a crucial series was because he didn’t throw Beaubois into the fire enough during the initial 82. It’s not as if Beaubois would have been a complete liability; Rodrigue was third on the team in effective field goal percentage during the regular season and second in scoring per 36 minutes. Carlisle failed not because Beaubois wasn’t ready for the playoffs, but because he didn’t know just how ready Rodrigue was. The more playing time he received in the regular season, the better prepared he would have been for the added pressure (both in terms of expectation and the Spurs’ defense) of the postseason.

If Rick didn’t think Beaubois was a good pick-and-roll defender (which he’s not), he should have let him work through it in games and in practice. If he didn’t think Rodrigue could run the point effectively (which he still can’t, honestly; his best performances have been off the ball, and every second that Beaubois played in Game 6 was alongside Jason Kidd), he should have handed him the reins during a mid-season game against the Clippers.

Rick Carlisle did mishandle the appropriation of minutes in Beaubois’ case, the only problem is that it’s been going on for months. He should have been playing more the whole season, and only now has the error manifested itself in a way that secures national attention. Still, assigning blame for the Game 6 loss solely on that one substitution is ridiculous. It doesn’t fall in line with Carlisle’s claims to go with the lineups that work and perhaps Beaubois’ insertion back into the game with 2:44 remaining was too little, too late, but Dallas almost won the game regardless. The players on the floor couldn’t match the Spurs’ execution and lost the game on their own. That’s a team of proven veterans, leaders, and All-Stars just coming up a bit short. Again, it’s not that Beaubois couldn’t have helped, but that his exclusion offers a convenient excuse that disguises the team’s real problems.

Game 6: San Antonio Spurs 97, Dallas Mavericks 87

Posted by Rob Mahoney on April 29, 2010 under Recaps | 20 Comments to Read

Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images.

Box ScorePlay-By-PlayShot Chart — GameFlow

These struggling tides of life that seem
In wayward, aimless course to tend,
Are eddies of the mighty stream
That rolls to its appointed end
.”
-William Cullen Bryant, The Crowded Street

Rough loss. The recap that I don’t want to write and you don’t want to read is on its way, but for the moment I think it’s best if we all pour one out for the season that was. There should have been no delusions over this being “the Mavs’ year,” and given that, I think Dallas’ first round out to San Antonio wasn’t entirely unexpected. This Maverick team was going to lose to a quality opponent, and they did just that. That quality opponent just happened to be a seventh seed, a first round opponent, and the Mavs’ one and only true rival.

Obviously there’s more to come on the game and the season, but for the moment: sulk, reflect, ponder, sigh, and shrug. Another season is in the books: another year without a title and another campaign of enjoying Dirk Nowitzki while we still can.

———-

What a curse it is, to be blessed. I’d never envy the followers of a lesser NBA team, and I wouldn’t dare compare the failings of the Mavs to the failings of other franchises (the Clippers, the Knicks, etc.). That said, Dallas has made a habit out of tragedy, and while this loss doesn’t even remotely measure up to the playoff losses in 2006 or 2007, the sting remains.

Dirk deserves better. He played an incredible game (33 points on 21 shots), and hit so many big shots. He just didn’t quite get the help that he needed. That tale should sound familiar, and at this rate, it could be the epitaph on Dirk’s NBA headstone: Here lies Dirk Nowitzki, the unsung, underrated star of his generation who remained title-less because of teammates and circumstance. It’s not that Dirk’s career has been without fault, but just that it so rarely should lie with him. He’s a truly unique offensive weapon, and his ability to lead this team to another 50-win season and another playoff berth is impressive in itself, even if the offense wasn’t quite good enough to elevate the Mavs past a tough first round opponent.

It really wasn’t good enough. Neither was the defense. But only barely, as Dallas again had a game in its clutches, despite what could certainly qualify as the worst playoff start in franchise history.

Dallas could barely manage to walk out on the court in the first quarter before San Antonio had racked up a double-digit lead, and by the time that lead had blossomed to 22 points in the second, all hope seemed lost. The Mavs finished with just eight points in the first quarter, and their valiant effort in Game 5 seemed suddenly worthless. Dallas missed shots they normally make, their defense was fell well short of the playoff standard, and the lack of scoring aside from Caron Butler and Dirk Nowitzki would have been comical if it weren’t so depressing.

Then, Rick Carlisle turned to the one card he had been reluctant to play all series long. With the Mavs already desperate for a spark in the second quarter, Carlisle inserted Rodrigue Beaubois, and shockingly, it worked. Beaubois did what he’s done so many times this season: score quickly and efficiently by using his speed to get around defenders. The only difference is that the offense was basically run through Beaubois from the moment he was inserted into the game…as long as “the offense” can be reduced to Beaubois driving around his defender (with the help of a few handy pick-setters) and getting to the rim. It’s not exactly complex, but it was was startlingly efficient, as Rodrigue was able to finish at the basket, help defense be damned. From that point on, the Mavs scoring duo was elevated to a trio, and Nowitzki, Butler, and Beaubois finished with 74 of the Mavs’ 87 points.

That is, until Rick Carlisle opted to keep Beaubois on the bench for the first nine minutes of the fourth quarter in favor of Jason Terry. JET had a pretty horrible night, and scored just two points on seven shot attempts. He was in the game for his prior exploits and his reputation, and for a night, Carlisle betrayed his own code and sat a player who was playing incredibly well. More on that later.

It’s almost silly to dwell too much on what the Mavs did wrong, if only because they were so close to winning…again. Dallas actually managed to take the lead on a Dirk three-pointer in the third quarter, but one botched defensive assignment later, and it was San Antonio’s game again. If JET or Kidd makes one more shot, maybe this is a different game. If one more of Nowitzki’s improbable looks found the bottom of the basket, maybe we’d be talking about a Game 7. Maybe if one more Maverick showed themselves to be a reliable scoring option in this series, the day wouldn’t be quite so gloomy. And yes, maybe if Rick Carlisle had played Rodrigue Beaubois more in the fourth quarter, this series wouldn’t be over.

But it is. And blaming things solely on a coaching decision to go with one of the best fourth quarter scorers in franchise history over a rookie — a sensational one, but a rookie nonetheless — is a bit ridiculous. Beaubois was not the only thing that could have saved the Mavs. The decision to sit him was certainly not the factor that doomed them, even it its so terribly easy to paint it that way.

The pick-and-roll defense just wasn’t good enough, the Mavs had no way of stopping George Hill (21 points, six assists) who was every bit the x-factor he was proclaimed to be, and the Spurs were far, far more aggressive offensively. Dallas’ shortcomings should be completely unsurprising, as their inability to play consistent defense and reluctance to push for quality shot attempts again brought about their end. I honestly wish it was more complex, but that’s all it took. This match-up was so even that the Mavs didn’t need to give the Spurs much to run with, and once they offered San Antonio those few, small carrots, it was enough for the Spurs to close the series in six games.

There’s obviously more: Caron Butler had a fantastic offensive night, all things considered, Brendan Haywood and Erick Dampier were effective in bursts but each had drawbacks to their play, and Jason Kidd was invisible yet again. All of that matters, but at this point does it really? Dallas’ run is over, and though they fought until the very end in their season finale, so many Mavericks came up with nothing when the team desperately needed something. It didn’t have to be 20 points or 10 rebounds or 12 free throw attempts, but it had to be something. On this night against this particular opponent, that was apparently too much to ask.

A Brand New Day

Posted by Rob Mahoney on April 27, 2010 under Commentary | 9 Comments to Read

Tonight could very well be the end of the Mavericks’ season, but I wouldn’t dare eulogize Dallas before they’re dead and buried. Certainly not in a series that has been so close and so competitive, regardless of how dismal things look from the 1-3 abyss.

With the last three games decided by such a slim number of possessions, it’s not impossible to imagine a world in which the Mavs are 2-2 or even 3-1. Dallas has had chances to seize the day and the series, but consistently seemed to bump into an invisible wall of their own creation. They settle for a jumper when they should drive, they sag off defensively when they should pressure, and they box out everyone but the offensive rebounder who will break their spirits. These are the types of mistakes that happen all the time in basketball games, even games involving truly elite NBA teams. The Mavs just don’t have the same room for error that the Cavs or the Magic have. After all, stumbling against the Bulls isn’t quite the same as stumbling against the Spurs.

Of course at this point, there are no more do-overs. There is little time, even less opportunity, and no excuses. The Mavs need to win three straight games to advance to the second round of the playoffs, and avoid their third first-round exit in four years. It’s really not as impossible as one might think, but it’s certainly an uphill battle against a team playing exquisitely at present. The Spurs have won three in a row by way of will and breaks alone; they forced their way into the paint, hit shots when they needed to (Parker hit three consecutive long two-pointers — the most inefficient shot in basketball — to win Game 3), and were perpetually rotating and contesting. I know it’s one thing to spell out how a team won and another to deny them from doing the same yet again, but in this case it really is that simple.

The Spurs have played pretty excellent defense in this series, and every Mav but Dirk has struggled offensively. The results? 50-50 games at the end, and the coin flip came up tails three times in a row. In Game 2, the Mavs had to battle back just to have a chance, but came up just short in the fourth. In Game 3, tired legs and a worn approach gave way to Manu Ginobili upon his return. In Game 4, Dallas surrendered their first-half lead and for all of their defensive success against the Big Three, had no answer for George Hill and DeJuan Blair. Those are three games in which the Mavericks fought even if they did not win, three losses in which they competed even if they did not finish.

There are countless factors that could have altered the result between opening tip and final buzzer in each of those games, even if the Mavs’ usual shortcomings seemed to be featured prominently; shot selection, predictability, stopping penetration, and interior defense have been the hot topics of the past week, and rightfully so. Those failings don’t change just how close the Mavs were to winning the last three games, though.

Expecting Caron Butler to radically change his shot selection, Erick Dampier or Brendan Haywood to score consistently while posting up Tim Duncan, or Dallas’ man-to-man defense to drastically improve is a bit ridiculous at this point. The Mavs are who they are at this point in the season. There are no switches to be flipped or magic buttons to be pressed, but there is still a team that can pose some problems for San Antonio if they can work out a few kinks. Whether those problems will be enough to win Game 5 (much less Game 7) is incredibly hazy, but this tale could potentially be far from over.

Or it could end tonight. Who knows? My point is that we thought coming into this series that Dallas was good enough to beat San Antonio, and they still are. The only problem is that they probably won’t. Too much has gone wrong too quickly, and though anyone without a close eye to the series will think that the Spurs dismissed the Mavs easily in five/six/seven games, that hasn’t been the case. That won’t be the case even if Dallas drops the game tonight.

The Spurs have played better basketball than the Mavericks over the course of this series, and I suppose that makes them the “better team.” If we’re really looking at these games, though, as a way to evaluate the differences between Dallas and San Antonio, I still have a hard time understanding how anyone can form any kind of conclusive thought one way or another. It’s not as if the Spurs have blown the Mavs out of the water on any particular occasion.

An immense amount of credit should go to San Antonio for winning three out of the first four games, and doing it with such gusto. Honestly, it’s impressive. Not because the Spurs are head and shoulders above the Mavs, but because I still see these teams as being on relatively equal terms. This series reinforced things that we already knew: that Dallas really isn’t a championship-caliber team and that San Antonio is closer to the top of the Western Conference playoff squads than they are to the bottom. Other than that, the only surprises are that the games have played out as they have, consistently going the way of the Spur, and that this terrific series could be finished tonight.

San Antonio Spurs 102, Dallas Mavericks 88

Posted by Rob Mahoney on April 22, 2010 under Recaps | 6 Comments to Read

Photo by Danny Bollinger/NBAE via Getty Images.

Box ScorePlay-By-PlayShot Chart — GameFlow

Wait until the next big rain, you will see the trees fall down.
-Billy DeCosta

Teams become the things they do. So it shouldn’t surprise you that after an entire season of climbing out of substantial holes, the Mavs were going to make a run at some point. After giving up plenty of ground in the second and third quarters, Dallas’ deficit hit rock bottom at 20, was whittled down to 10 in three minutes, and was brought within five points in the fourth. It just wasn’t enough. The Mavs have had so many comeback victories this season that it’s easy to forget about the nights where they came up a little bit short, and this game serves as a bit of a heartbreaking reminder. All of those regular season games counted, just like this one did, and all of the habits and tendencies formed during those games invariably resurface at some point. Though Dallas is certainly improved, they can’t escape who they are or who they’ve been, and unfortunately that’s a team that’s given up leads to their opponents before attempting to claw back.

It almost worked, but the Mavs’ defense was too accommodating early, the shooting was too bad for too long, and Tim Duncan clubbed Dallas’ comeback hopes repeatedly with improbable shot (floating baseline hook while leaning out of bounds) after improbable shot (deflected hook shot that ended up back in his hands, allowing Tim to train a push shot from close range just before the shot clock expired).

Dallas finished the game shooting 36.5% from the field, which makes the fact that they were within five points of San Antonio in the fourth quarter all the more impressive. Some of that is shot selection: the Mavs are still a jump-shooting team, and Dirk Nowitzki, Caron Butler, and Jason Terry missed their fair share of jumpers. That doesn’t even come close to telling the full story, though, as Dallas had a lot of good looks that simply couldn’t find the bottom of the net. This was an absolutely frigid shooting night for the Mavs, who were only able to stay competitive thanks to their 19 makes on 20 free throw attempts and a huge night from Terry (27 points, 9-of-19 FG, 3-of-7 3FG, three assists).

Aside from Terry, the Maverick offense was stagnant and ineffective. Solid ball movement still created plenty of open looks, but there wasn’t enough in the way of player movement. There were far too many isolation plays even for Dallas’ iso-heavy offense (I’m looking at you, Caron), far too many passes caught while standing still. Guys like Butler, Marion, and Terry are good enough to make plays in those situations, but they really shouldn’t have to. Not to the magnitude they were asked to do so on Wednesday night, and that’s a big reason why Dallas finished the evening with just 88 points (104.4 offensive efficiency). The Spurs defense was solid, but not suffocating. The worry isn’t that San Antonio is going to lock down the Mavs, even if they were far more successful on Dirk in Game 2 than they were in Game 1. The worry is that Dallas will freeze up offensively like they did last night, and that when the shots stop falling the defense won’t be able to hold ground.

The defense really didn’t. Dallas finally increased their defensive intensity over the game’s final 15 minutes, but it wasn’t enough to make up for plays like this one:

Or this one, that happened just moments later:

That’s pretty much exactly what happened in Game 2. The Mavs made their own mini-runs in the first and second quarters, but flurries of offensive success could only barely cover up for how dismally Dallas performed the majority of the time. The Spurs’ lead had already hit double-digits going into halftime, and the Mavs were really struggling to put points on the board with Dirk Nowitzki (24 points on 24 shots, 10 rebounds, four assists) suddenly mortal.

There were a number of differences between Game 1 and Game 2, but the most notable was the play of Richard Jefferson. If I didn’t know better, I’d think he’s an NBA player. After putting up a four-point (on 1-of-4 shots), two-turnover stinker on Sunday night, RJ finished with the same two turnovers, but a far more palatable 19 points (7-of-12 FG) and seven rebounds. Throw in another nice performance from each of the Spurs’ three stars (a combined 64 points), and that’s a tough game to win…especially when the Mavs are only making 36.5% of their shots. The first question that should come to mind over Jefferson’s performance is a valid one: can it be replicated? Based on RJ’s inconsistency this season, it’s hardly a given. I wish this was an area in which I could offer insight, but how could anyone say with any certainty what Jefferson will do in Game 3?

Jefferson will justly get his due as the game’s difference-maker, but San Antonio doesn’t pull out this victory without their breadwinner. Tim Duncan (25 points, 11-of-19 FG, 17 rebounds) was fantastic, and even though Brendan Haywood made Duncan’s looks as difficult as possible in the fourth, sometimes that’s not good enough. Tim is, at absolute worst, the second most effective “traditional” offensive post player in the league, and one of the best of all-time. There are going to be nights where he’s blocked by Erick Dampier (especially as Duncan gets older and older), but there are certainly going to be nights where he wins games outright with his ability to score down low. Erick Dampier and Brendan Haywood worked hard defensively, Duncan was just on another level last night.

Dallas just didn’t play very well on either end. The Mavs couldn’t stop Duncan, gave Jefferson too many opportunities to get to the rim, and allowed Parker and Ginobili to make an even bigger impact than their already impressive box score contributions suggest. On offense, Dallas just couldn’t connect on their open looks, played sub-par (but not irredeemable) defense, and were completely Duncanized in the middle of their crucial fourth-quarter surge. A bit more could have gone wrong for the Mavs, but so, so much more should have gone right. Chin up, Mavs fans; Dallas displayed flukey, Stormtrooper-like accuracy, JET is alive and kicking, and all the Mavs have to do is win a best-of-five series starting on Friday. It’s not going to be easy, but you shouldn’t have expected it to be.

Closing thoughts:

  • San Antonio’s spot-up shooters are quite important. In Game 1, Matt Bonner, Richard Jefferson, George Hill, Keith Bogans, and Roger Mason combined for nine points and made just one three-pointer between them. In Game 2? Bogans received a DNP-CD and Mason went scoreless in six minutes, but Bonner, Jefferson, and Hill combined for 31 points (12-of-25 FG) and four made three-pointers. That’s a huge difference in role player production, and in truth, it could have been much worse. Dallas wasn’t contesting San Antonio’s three-pointers particularly well at all, and dodged a few bullets on completely uncontested Spur threes that just didn’t go down. On the occasions that Dallas did contest, they were pretty successful. For comparison’s sake, take a look at this first clip, in which George Hill gets a wide open look at a corner three:

    And this one, in which Jason Terry scrambles to deter Hill from taking the shot. George ends up settling for a tough, two-point leaner, which is a micro win for the Mavs’ defense:

  • Dirk shot 4-of-7 from within six feet of the basket, but once he stepped outside that six-foot radius, he was 5-for-17. Ouch.
  • I’ve read in several places that Popovich’s defensive strategy entailed maintaining one-on-one coverage on Dirk, but I’m not sure that’s entirely accurate. San Antonio also seemed to be doubling Nowitzki when he put the ball on the floor, just like Dirk saw in the 2007 series against Golden State. Video on that to come later.
  • J.J. Barea isn’t doing to well defensively, but his five points and three assists in 10 minutes of play weren’t too shabby. The Mavs’ net production with him on the floor was +1, which tells us what we already know: Barea is a decent stop-gap point, and his marginal offensive contributions can help to balance his defensive lapses. Related: another DNP-CD for Rodrigue Beaubois.
  • Brendan Haywood looked pretty bad on pick-and-rolls, though a more thorough analysis should be made before giving a declaration one way or another. Whereas most of the other Mavs were still showing strongly on screen-and-rolls, Haywood simply hung back to cover a potential roll man. I’m not sure whether that was a Duncan-specific assignment or Haywood botching the game plan, but either way it opened up opportunities for Tony Parker to penetrate into the lane and for Manu Ginobili to hit the dagger three. Otherwise, his help defense was excellent in halting penetration, and his D on Duncan, while ultimately unsuccessful, was still solid.
  • A rough shooting night for Jason Kidd, who went 1-of-4 from three and 1-of-7 overall. A few of those threes go down, and we’re looking at an entirely different game.
  • DeJuan Blair had another empty night with four rebounds and no points in 11 minutes. Spurs fans should be thankful that Antonio McDyess (four points, but nine big rebounds) has been playing some effective minutes at center.
  • Caron Butler is a hard guy to criticize sometimes, because he plays extremely hard. From his first game as a Maverick, effort has never been a question. The downside is that he often is so focused on trying to score on his man that he puts blinders on. It’s something we saw often from Josh Howard, as well. Sometimes Butler’s focus ends up with him hitting a tough step-back jumper or getting to the rim for a layup, but often he ends up hoisting up a tough, contested jumper when he should have passed to the open man.
  • Not only was Jason Terry shooting the ball much more efficiently last night, but he was much more aggressive. Freeing up JET was clearly a Carlisle point of emphasis between Game 1 and Game 2, and you could tell from early in the first quarter that Terry was looking to attack the San Antonio defense:

More Than a Feeling

Posted by Rob Mahoney on April 21, 2010 under xOther | 2 Comments to Read


Video via ESPN Dallas.

Moving Pictures: A LITTLE BIT OF ALL YOU’VE GOT

Posted by Rob Mahoney on April 16, 2010 under Video | 8 Comments to Read

Dallas and San Antonio will tip-off on Sunday night to begin the Mavs’ tenth straight playoff run, a remarkable accomplishment for a truly excellent franchise. In this installment of Moving Pictures, we’ll get totally pumped up.

The Official Two Man Game Official Dallas Mavericks Versus San Antonio Spurs Official Playoff Preview for the Official 2009-2010 Official Post-Season

Posted by Rob Mahoney on under Commentary, Previews | 11 Comments to Read

It’s a date: the Mavs savor the thought of playing the Spurs, and the Spurs apparently aren’t too intimidated by the Mavs. That much was certain based on how each coach chose to play the regular season’s final game, and now everyone gets what they want.

Photo by Danny Bollinger/NBAE via Getty Images.

This series is going to be excellent. I’m talking 2006 Western Conference semifinals excellent. It’s anyone’s guess as to whether or not this series is going to go the distance, but based on how Dallas and San Antonio match up, I’d honestly be shocked if there was a single blowout. We’re looking at at least six games of stellar, well-executed, well-coached, and entertaining basketball.

Let me get this out of the way early: if you’re a Mavs fan and you think this series is going to be a cakewalk, you’re sadly mistaken. Many a MFFL fancied this match-up over a series with the Thunder, (healthy) Blazers, or Suns, but a lot of that is familiarity. The Spurs are so familiar to Mavs fans because of their status in the Southwest division, their location, and their frequent playoff battles with Dallas. So in this case, I think the fans (and possibly the Mavs) prefer the devil they know…even if they don’t know him all that well.

The Spurs that we’ve saw in last season’s playoffs barely resembles this model, largely because a healthy Manu Ginobili is capable of making an MVP-level impact. He’s certainly one of the top shooting guards in the game, and not only has he been out of his element a bit over the last few seasons, but he skipped last year’s playoff series with Dallas entirely due to injury. As a result, the Mavs won in 5 and the games honestly weren’t as competitive as precedent would have predicted. Dallas’ 2006 win over San Antonio was a huge step in the evolution of the rivalry, but the 2009 series between the two teams had a completely different dynamic. Even though both series fell well short of the Spurs usual title aspirations, the 2009 playoffs brought something new to San Antonio: shame. They can excuse away the loss with Manu’s absence, but never before had the Spurs been so thoroughly embarrassed by the Mavs.

Photo by Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images.

The storylines from San Antonio are primarily concerning those two elements: Manu’s renaissance and the Spurs’ revenge. Understandably so, as Ginobili should be both feared and respected, and the same should go for this entire San Antonio team. They’re quite formidable. If the Mavs’ offensive and defensive ratings for the season are a bit misleading due to the trade and — Dallas hopes — a legitimate mini-surge to close the regular season, the the Spurs’ are even more so. Tony Parker missed 26 games this season due to injury, and while he isn’t quite up to his 2008-2009 scoring level, he looked more than capable against the Mavs in the regular season finale.

That’s significant. If Parker is as ready as he seems, he could end up causing a lot of match-up problems for the Mavs alongside Ginobili. If it’s just Manu doing considerable damage, then the Mavs are well-equipped to contain him. Shawn Marion’s perimeter defense has been superb this year, particularly against elite opponents. Ginobili certainly qualifies. Caron Butler also has shown himself to be an aggressive defensive alternative for highly productive wings as well, with perhaps his keynote performance coming just five games ago against Brandon Roy. Like Ginobili, Roy is an atypical cover; he’s not a 2 that’s reliant on incredible athleticism, and his strength lies in his ability to change speeds and confuse defenders. I wouldn’t say that Ginobili is an extremely similar player, but he and Roy are similar in their deviance from the 2-guard norm. That doesn’t prove that Butler is a great option for defending Manu, but it does at least show that Caron can defend unconventional off guards. Beyond that, Jason Kidd is terrific defender at the two, and DeShawn Stevenson has done fine defensive work over the last two weeks.

Unfortunately, it’s never quite as simple as locking in one defender on one opposing player and calling it a day. The Mavs’ general defensive strategy against teams such as the Spurs is to overload on the initiator of the offense, which in this case would be Manu. Even if Ginobili has technically been listed at the two, the team is in his hands when he shares the floor with George Hill. It’s not an issue of who plays what position but who takes on what roles, and Ginobili’s spot in the Parker-less Spurs’ offense is to initiate. He’s the one triggering plays and he’s the one making entry passes. As a response, not only does Dallas typically cover such a threat with a long-armed, athletic wing defender, but they throw all kinds of pressure at them. You’ll see the Mavs completely blitz the ball-handler on the pick-and-roll. You’ll see them trap the initiator as soon as he crosses half-court with the ball. You’ll see double teams coming from all over the place at various times, just to throw a stud like Manu off his game. The price of that is leaving Brendan Haywood or Erick Dampier to their own devices against Tim Duncan, but Rick Carlisle and the Mavs’ coaching staff have deemed that an acceptable risk.

Photo by Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images.

That strategy works pretty well, but if Tony Parker is as healthy and dominant as he’s capable of being? Trouble. Big trouble. Parker is the one player on the Spurs that the Mavs don’t have a good match-up for. Should Tony start feeling like his former self, it’s likely that Dallas would be forced to go with speed without considerable defensive skill (J.J. Barea, Rodrigue Beaubois) or size without considerable speed (Butler, Marion, Stevenson). Both could work, as J.J. showed in spots in last season’s playoffs, but if you’re Rick Carlisle, do you feel particularly great about those players trying to handcuff a fully-effective Tony Parker?

Brendan Haywood and Erick Dampier are thus far more useful than simply acting as the large bodies between Tim Duncan and the basket. Don’t get me wrong, their post defense is still important. Really important. But should Parker start revving up, Haywood and Damp’s ability to protect the rim will be fairly essential. Neither has to be Dwight Howard, but having some kind of deterrent in the middle will be Dallas’ best shot at curtailing Tony’s production.

Then again, Tony Parker hasn’t been himself this season. He isn’t playing like the player that torched the Mavs a year ago, and even if he is, Dallas is a better team than they were then. The Mavs aren’t a great team, don’t get me wrong. I still stand firmly committed to the fact that this team has, on the whole, played mediocre basketball, regardless of whether you want to look at their season-long or simply post-deadline performance. But Dallas knows and matches-up with San Antonio so well, that the only thing putting the Spurs way over the top is a suddenly resurgent Parker.

Photo by Danny Bollinger/NBAE via Getty Images.

Otherwise, we’ve pretty much got a coin flip on our hands. No one on the Spurs’ roster can really cover Dirk, and he’s not going to be flummoxed by Popovich’s defensive pressure. Tim Duncan will likely be prevented from completely dominating, though he’ll still be very productive. Jason Kidd will hit big spot-up threes and run the offense expertly, but the Spurs defense will be ready and waiting. Jason Terry and Caron Butler can combine to eclipse Manu Ginobili’s scoring, Shawn Marion can cancel out Richard Jefferson’s production, and the Mavs’ bench offers more versatility than the Spurs’. Rick Carlisle is an excellent coach, but Gregg Popovich is an all-time great coach. It’s point-counterpoint all the way up and down the rosters, and while that’s not likely to let MFFLs sleep easy over the next few weeks, it’s absolutely brilliant for this series’ entertainment value.

The only conclusive fact that anyone should have to say about this series is that it’s going to be close. If you’re resolved that either team should win outright, you’re probably wrong. Every game will be a battle, but I’ll take Dallas in seven. I’m picking the Mavs because I think Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry are in a great offensive rhythm right now, and I trust in the Mavs’ ability to contain Manu Ginobili. I think home court advantage matters, and a playoff atmosphere should remedy Dallas’ woes at home. I don’t trust Tony Parker’s ability to dominate the series like he did a year ago, but I do trust the balance of the Mavs’ offense. As good as George Hill and DeJuan Blair are, I don’t think they’re going to step out of themselves to become x-factors. This Dallas team is in a good place right now, is brimming with confidence, and knows they can beat the Spurs.

All that’s left is for them to go out and do it.

Save the Date

Posted by Rob Mahoney on April 14, 2010 under xOther | Be the First to Comment

I hope you guys aren’t tired of seeing the Spurs, because the Mavs are going to be seeing an awful lot of them over the next few weeks. Here’s the Dallas-San Antonio playoff schedule, hot off the virtual presses (all times are CST):

Game 1 – Sun April 18   San Antonio at Dallas (7:00PM, TXA21/TNT)
Game 2 – Wed April 21  San Antonio at Dallas (8:30PM, TXA21/TNT)
Game 3 – Fri April 23     Dallas at San Antonio (8:30PM, TXA21/ESPN)
Game 4 – Sun April 25   Dallas at San Antonio (6:00PM, TXA/21TNT)
Game 5 * Tue April 27    San Antonio at Dallas (TBD, TXA21/TBD)
Game 6 * Thu April 29    Dallas at San Antonio (TBD, TXA21/TBD)
Game 7 * Sat May 1      San Antonio at Dallas (TBD, TXA21/TNT)
*if needed