The 2007 Mavericks were dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that.
Yet now that those Mavs aren’t the only top-seeded team downed improbably by their eighth-seeded opponents in a seven-game series, the retrospective view of Dallas’ failure should be a bit different. Only it isn’t — the San Antonio Spurs, upon their premature dismissal from the postseason, have largely been met with knowing nods and tips of hats. That’s not an inappropriate response given the franchise in question, but it’s certainly a startlingly different response than the one the Mavericks faced in ’07.
In both cases, superior teams were defeated due to the pesky complications of specific matchup problems. Lost amidst all the “better team won” cliché of the San Antonio-Memphis series is the fact that the Spurs lost the series despite their objective superiority. According to Basketball-Reference.com’s series preview, the four most probable results of the series — based on the regular season exploits of both teams — were as follows:
- Spurs in 5 (25.4%)
- Spurs in 7 (19.7%)
- Spurs in 6 (13.3%)
- Spurs in 4 (12.9%)
Granted, the series projections based on the post-deadline data alone paint a different picture. But if we view San Antonio’s 82-game season as their total body of work, there was no reason to expect that they might lose in the first round. A 75.7% chance of taking the series is a fairly dominant mark, and yet one that made sense considering the statistical profiles of both clubs. All signs pointed to the Spurs being the better team, just as they pointed to the Mavs being the better team in 2007. The two teams are more kindred in spirit than the response to this latest upset would suggest. The decidedly rosier reaction to the Spurs’ first round flub a bit confusing, to be honest.
San Antonio didn’t lose to a better team, merely one that — when playing within the context of this particular series – looked like the better team. Yet their first round demise has inspired more mourning than mocking, more admiring lament than schadenfreude. Again, these responses are not inappropriate so much as incongruent; I have no qualms with the respectful reaction to the fall of San Antonio in itself, merely with the fact that another damn impressive franchise wasn’t given the same benefit back in 2007.
The Spurs and the Mavs are, sadly, two franchises defined by their echoes. It doesn’t have to be that way, but sports fans make it so with every time they mock the ringless or fetishize the exploits of a former champion. San Antonio has won four titles in the Tim Duncan era, and as such, is generally considered immune to all criticism. They’ve somehow achieved the ends that justify all means and erase all flaws — past, present, and future. Dallas, needless to say, has not been as fortunate. But what separates these two franchises isn’t an ocean. It’s 58 pounds of hardware. It’s memories of seasons four years ago at most recent, 12 years ago at most distant. The Spurs that were eliminated from the playoffs on Friday weren’t champs at all, but the bare remnants of a team that has, throughout its lifetime, accomplished great things.
Over the years, San Antonio has garnered universal respect through the consistent rebuking of public doubt. Every time a new season or playoff series began, the Spurs had to prove themselves all over again. They were too old. They didn’t have the depth. They were too limited on offense. Some of those points were valid, but over the years that hardly mattered; the Spurs answered their critics with great regular season marks and long playoff runs, even though they were often presumed to be defeated before they even had a chance to compete. As odd as it was, we were all waiting for the day the Spurs would finally fall, and their refusal to abide by the limits of mortal teams only fueled the legend of their excellence.
Only this time, basketball fans have relented. They’ve abandoned the adversarial framework that built up San Antonio’s mythical empire in the first place, and though that concession may benefit the Spurs’ public image, such a shift is of no good to the general discourse.
We know that the Mavs’ 2007 loss to the ‘We Believe’ Warriors is viewed as chokery. Dallas has the unfortunate characterization of being a “regular season team,” as a decade’s worth of work has not resulted in a single championship ring.
I’m also quite certain that had this year’s Lakers — the reigning back-to-back NBA champs, mind you — lost in 6 games to the Hornets in the first round, it would be universally regarded as an embarrassing and derisible failure. They would be considered “soft,” and everyone from Pau Gasol to Kobe Bryant to Phil Jackson would be questioned.
The team that “hasn’t won anything,” was mocked for continuing their ringless trajectory, and the team that has won everything (including those affirming championship rings) would be ripped to pieces for their inability to make it out of the first round. So where, exactly, does that put the Spurs? They’re somehow given the full respect of a champion but without any of the baggage, perhaps the only No. 1 seed in the modern era capable of losing a first-round series with minimal heckling. Many readers and writers of the narrative seem to have things jumbled; highly successful regular season teams are otherwise taunted for the playoff shortcomings regardless of a championship pedigree, yet San Antonio remains untarnished.
To reiterate one final time: as an organization, a team, and a basketball concept, the Spurs deserve respect. I just see no compelling reason why their failures exist on a different plane from those of all other teams, or why the context of this loss is so unique as to be treated with reverence. Sports fans have nothing if not the selective enforcement of their own personal rules, but all I ask for is the slightest bit of logical consistency.
Kevin Pelton, Basketball Prospectus: “That said, I’m open to the criticism that I’ve spent too much time talking about the Blazers’ offense in this series and not enough on their defense. Scroll back up and check out the offensive ratings in this game, both well over 120. That should be more than good enough for Portland to win at home. Why wasn’t it? In addition to the hot shooting of Nowitzki and Terry, the two key factors were the Mavericks’ offensive rebounding (12 second chances in 38 attempts) and their excellent turnover rate (nine in the game, but just three during the first three quarters). Both Zach Lowe of the Point Forward and Benjamin Golliver of Eye on Sports have noted recently that the Blazers were unable to force turnovers in this series the same way they did during the regular season, especially after dealing for Wallace. Not only did that mean fewer empty trips for Dallas, it kept Portland from getting easy opportunities in transition.”
Ben Golliver, Eye on Basketball: “His team was favored heading into the series so Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle isn’t likely to be showered in praise. He should be, though, as his team made all the necessary adjustments as this series unfolded. The Mavericks eliminated easys buckets for LaMarcus Aldridge, forced the Blazers to hit three-pointers, limited their turnovers and remembered to run their offense late. He threw wrinkles at the Blazers by mixing up his defensive assignments and was able to get production from his bench even though J.J. Barea had a forgettable series and Terry was a bit up and down. Most of all, he kept things together after a giant momentum swing following Portland’s dramatic come-from-behind Game 4 win. A much bigger test awaits in Los Angeles, but he aced this one.”
Dave, Blazersedge: “The reality of this series was that Portland always occupied the back seat while Dallas drove. The Blazers came in as a 6th seed with 48 wins. They played like a 6th seed with 48 wins. If there’s a critique to be offered it’s that, aside from 13 magical minutes in one of the most improbable finishes in league history, they couldn’t rise above themselves. Portland lost on the road against good teams during the regular season. They did in the playoffs too. Portland went through offensive dry spells in the regular season. Ditto here. Portland had trouble handling the pick and roll during the regular season, also in the playoffs. If anything, Portland appeared to play much of the last two weeks as if the games were a series of regular season matchups. Dallas, on the other hand, brought intensity, fire, timing, and extra guts to go along with their skill. The result? Portland’s normal advantages barely applied whereas Dallas excelled at theirs.”
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Box Score — Play-by-Play — Shot Chart — GameFlow
You know the drill. The Difference is a reflection on the game that was, with one bullet for every point in the final margin.
- It’s hard to be too shocked over the Mavs’ Game 6 victory given the way they’ve performed in this series, but relief certainly seems apt at this point. Kindly disregard the “playoff demons” pseudo story; that relief has nothing to do with 2006 or 2007, doesn’t feature the word “finally,” and honestly has nothing to do with anything save for this year’s Mavericks and this year’s Blazers. Brandon Roy’s emergence as a factor in this series was rather unlikely to begin with, but his supernatural effectiveness on his home court did introduce some reason for uncertainty. Dallas’ general reluctance to work through Shawn Marion as much as they should have (particularly when Gerald Wallace was off the floor or matched up with someone else) had the potential to create problems if Jasons Kidd and Terry had coinciding poor performances. Dirk Nowitzki’s slightly low shooting percentages in the majority this series weren’t a problem, per se, but could have been. I saw all of these things — along with an evaporating lead, stints of fantastic team defense followed by lackluster stretches, LaMarcus Aldridge facing up and attacking Brendan Haywood, Gerald Wallace being, frankly, dominant in Game 6 — and wondered if Dallas and Portland weren’t due for a Game 7. Apparently they weren’t. The Mavs got the stops they needed (though they essentially played chicken with Wesley Matthews’ three-point stroke to do so – it’s not a strategy I’d necessarily recommend), and got huge buckets from Kidd, Terry, Marion, and naturally, Dirk. The stars didn’t align to extend the series, the better team did what was necessary and took the ball out of the hands of Portland’s most capable scorers as much as they could, and things unfolded in the manner the first five games of the series predicted they would. It’s great to be wrong.
- Nowitzki’s point total had the benefit of some late-game padding, but he was sensationally effective in the first half, and…oddly unneeded for most of the second. Nowitzki didn’t score a single point during the Mavs’ third quarter run, as Kidd played a masterful 12 minutes (four points, 2-3 FG, four assists), Terry scored eight points in just over six minutes, Marion cleaned up where he could, and Chandler finished inside. The franchise centerpiece functioned as an effective decoy, as the Mavs managed to build a 17-point lead without Dirk having to lift a finger on offense. There was some good semi-transition action to facilitate Dallas’ flow, but even their halfcourt play during the third quarter gives reason for optimism in the second round; the Mavs need those multiple points of attack if they’re going to hang with the Lakers.
- The zone is still looking strong. It didn’t “stop” the Blazers’ offense, but it did generate empty possessions. Portland had a lot of trouble hitting any of their jumpers against the zone, and though Dallas naturally went back to their man-to-man coverage, Portland never could find their rhythm against the zone. The shift to man defense came of the Mavs’ own volition, a fact which shouldn’t be overlooked; Dallas was able to control the game with their choice of defensive strategy.
- Tyson Chandler (nine points, seven rebounds, one block) and Brendan Haywood (zero points, three offensive boards, four total rebounds) again defended LaMarcus Aldridge effectively in the post. Aldridge eventually established a good offensive rhythm by facing up against the Maverick bigs on the wing, but those jumpers and drives are shots Dallas could — and did — live with. Obviously one would prefer that Chandler and Haywood contest those attempts as best they could, but the fact that Dallas almost completely removed Aldridge from the game as a post-threat was, and is, pretty significant.
- Gerald Wallace (32 points, 10-17 FG, 12 rebounds, one turnover) played a tremendous game, and I’m curious how Dallas would have fared had Wallace been available in the second quarter. Wallace’s back seized up after his initial run, and he retired to the locker room for the duration of the second frame. He returned, naturally (I’ve never known mortal injury to even deter Wallace), but not before the Mavs had outscored his Blazers 33-16 in the second. Wallace had 16 points and six rebounds in the first quarter, seven points and four rebounds in the third, and 12 points and two rebounds in the fourth. Considering how poorly Nicolas Batum and Rudy Fernandez played and have played in this series, Wallace’s 12-minute unavailability could be seen as a back-breaking moment for Portland. Dallas fully recovered from their early deficit during that crucial second quarter, and established the momentum they carried through the third. Playoff “what ifs” are a futile exercise to a degree, but Wallace’s absence was conspicuous, and his production (not to mention his defense) sorely missed.
- If you’re of the opinion that J.J. Barea may have played a bit too much, I’d encourage you to reconsider. He did introduce some defensive difficulties at times (the Mavs were forced to double down when Barea was being attacked in the post, for example) but he had productive stints in the second and fourth quarters. Seven points, four rebounds, and four assists without a turnover is pretty solid production in a game of this pace, and the quality of looks he generated — particularly in the second quarter — was impressive. Regardless, I’m sure his minutes will dip a bit as Rodrigue Beaubois is reintegrated into the rotation.
- Pour one out for Portland — the Blazers are a fine team, a well-run organization, and an opponent worthy of respect. They didn’t quite have the depth nor the defense (What on earth happened to the Blazers’ turnover-inducing ways?) to extend the series, but this was a hell of a way to kick off the playoffs, regardless of the outcome. LaMarcus Aldridge is a legitimate star, and taps into the basic basketball desire for a do-it-all big man. Brandon Roy provided the postseason’s best individual narrative blip, and turned in as dominant of a fourth quarter showing as I’ve seen. Gerald Wallace and Wesley Matthews are the kinds of entertaining, effective, and relentless players that any team would be lucky to have. Andre Miller and Marcus Camby are somehow still criminally underrated, and managed to fly under the radar in this series despite making a genuine impact. It’s been another long, trying season for Portland, but for us basketball fans enjoying from afar, it’s been a treat to watch the franchise-wide resilience. Keep on keepin’ on, BlazerNation.
Box Score — Play-by-Play — Shot Chart — GameFlow
You know the drill. The Difference is a reflection on the game that was, with one bullet for every point in the final margin.
- Let this game be known henceforth as the “Oh, the Mavs have Tyson Chandler” Game. TC has been a crucial part of this team all season, and his heralded work on the defensive only constitutes part of his success. This was the full Chandler experience, something unfelt and unseen in the first four games of this series due to foul trouble, a lack of emphasis on establishing Chandler as an offensive option, and TC’s own offensive complacency. Rick Carlisle and the Mavs coaching staff clearly identified that problem and sought to correct it, as Dallas consciously made an effort to get the ball to Chandler early and often. From there, Chandler built on his touches with one of the finest offensive rebounding performances I’ve ever seen, and the most prolific in Maverick playoff history. He was single-handedly responsible for Dallas’ monstrous 41.7 offensive rebounding rate, and demonstrated a complete mastery of the tap-out; every board that Chandler couldn’t claim outright was tipped, pushed, or swatted in the direction of a teammate. On Monday night he was able to secure the board or redirect it to a teammate 13 times in an 83-possession game, which sounds impossible but apparently isn’t. Just insanely effective board work from Chandler on top of great scoring (14 points on four shots) and fantastic post defense.
- About that defense: Chandler and Brendan Haywood both did a tremendous job of limiting LaMarcus Aldridge in the post, marking the third game in a row that the tandem was able to hold Aldridge to under 43 percent shooting from the field. Aldridge’s point totals have dropped in each game of the series so far: from 27 to 24 to 20 to 18 to most recently, just 12. I wouldn’t expect Aldridge’s scoring production to get any lower than his Game 5 total, but the Mavs’ defensive improvement in that matchup has been remarkable, particularly when considering just how prolific Aldridge was in the first two games of this series and against Dallas in the regular season. Halting Aldridge isn’t always enough, but it’s a valuable foundation for building up the team defense on the whole.
- Aside from Andre Miller’s mind-boggling drives to the rim and Gerald Wallace’s uncontested opportunities in transition, the Blazers really didn’t have much offensive success at all. Aldridge was, as noted above, limited by terrific defense. Brandon Roy wasn’t given the same free rein to drive and kick that he was in Game 4. Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, and Rudy Fernandez had their opportunities limited against both the Mavs’ oppressive zone and swarming man-to-man configurations. There was little rhythm to anything Portland did on the offensive end, and Dallas refused to bail them out with purposeless fouls and free trips to the free throw line. 98.8 points per 100 possessions is a fantastic defensive mark, and the Mavs rightfully earned it with their effort and execution. This is the kind of performance that renews faith — not only in the fact that Dallas can win another game in this series and advance to the second round, but that they’re capable of competing beyond the ending of this series.
- Jason Kidd scored four points, but as is usually the case, it didn’t matter. His 14 assists and seven rebounds more than made up for any perceived scoring deficit, and made those three-point-heavy outings to start the series seem like a thing of the past. I’m sure the Mavs are pleased that the offense need not rely so heavily on Kidd for scoring; team-wide scoring balance is just more fun, and having so many players producing efficiently gives Dallas much greater operational latitude. Plus, while those scoring outbursts from Kidd were quite helpful in the Mavs’ early-series cause, Kidd also had a tendency to chase shots. Even veterans are vulnerable to heat checks, and Kidd was attempting two or three rushed attempts a game in an attempt to hold on to whatever jumpshooting magic had enchanted him. Those heat checks are gone — as are most of Kidd’s shots — because the Maverick offense has returned to a more natural state, and is functioning as efficiently as ever.
- Dirk Nowitzki didn’t allow Portland to double team him. He was incredibly decisive, and on the catch, almost immediately committed to a full-on drive towards the rim or a pull up jumper. There’s a certain elegance to Nowitzki’s slow-motion game; the way he measures up defenders, ball fakes into open space, spins, and counters is an artful dance. Yet when Nowitzki takes this more direct, aggressive approach, he sacrifices a bit of the artfulness in his game in order to maximize production. It’s a shame, but a necessary shame; Dallas needs wins and they need Nowitzki to be highly effective, and attacking the defense before it has a chance to double is a terrific way to achieve both ends.
- I’m still shocked at how little of an impact the size of the Blazer guards has had on the series overall. Those matchups have been problematic for moments, but they’re clearly not go-to options; as much as Miller, Roy, Matthews, and Batum would love to pick on J.J. Barea in the post, Portland just hasn’t gone to that strategy with any frequency. Part of the reason is that Jason Terry has done a fantastic job of fronting, contesting the entry pass, and even bothering shots in the post. He’s been a passable post defender, which is all Dallas really needs him to be; with JET removed as a defensive liability down low and Beaubois still having yet to play a game in this series, Barea is the only clear matchup disadvantage in post-up guard play. Throw in the time that Barea spends guarding Rudy Fernandez (who doesn’t have the frame nor the proficiency to operate from the block), and it’s a bit more difficult for the Blazer guards to post up the Mavs than many — including myself — anticipated.
- I still don’t understand why the Blazers have been so willing to switch and muddle their matchups. Dallas — particularly due to Jason Kidd’s patience — works diligently to exploit mismatches, and Dirk Nowitzki’s versatility makes those efforts especially worthwhile. Those switches don’t appear to be by design, but it’s certainly curious that they happen so frequently.
- A really smart, effective game from JET. His three-point stroke was a bit errant (1-of-5 from that range), but he scored 20 points on 18 shots, made smart passes, found open space, and played defense. This wasn’t Terry as Fourth Quarter Hero, but simply Terry doing exactly what his team need him to do in an efficient manner. Jumpers from the short corner don’t make the highlight reel, but you have to appreciate these kinds of performances from JET.
- Dallas didn’t solve their turnover problems, but they did eliminate Portland’s marginal (a word used as literally as possible) advantage. The offense “improved” by virtue of the defense; the Blazers and Mavs posted identical 14.5 turnover rates, negating any disadvantage that Dallas’ giveaways once held.
- J.J. Barea had one of his better games of the series, despite scoring just four points on 2-of-6 shooting and picking up a single assist and a turnover to match. It’s just been that kind of series for Barea.
- Much ado has already been made of a hard screen that Brian Cardinal set on Patty Mills in the closing moments of the game, with the verdict already set in stone. It’s a non-issue, honestly. Cardinal appears to have gotten in a bit of a cheap shot, sure, but Mills was also guilty of that same zeal in his full-court press. Plus, as is usually the case with the biggest hits on screens, the problem is largely one of communication; Mills wasn’t hit so much as blindsided, and the fact that Cardinal put a little more into it than was necessary is really secondary to the fact that no one told Mills he was about to get creamed. Cardinal’s pick was hardly out of line in the grand scheme of things, even though that fact matters little; the Blazers were already frustrated, and it’s understandable that they (and their fans) are looking for a rallying cry after a loss like this one. Now they have it. Remember the hard pick that no one bothered to tell Patty Mills about! Never forget the injustice of a halfcourt screen!
Box Score — Play-by-Play — Shot Chart — GameFlow
You know the drill. The Difference is a reflection on the game that was, with one bullet for every point in the final margin.
- This was just a pristine performance by the Mavericks. Dallas performed well in virtually every area — they drained their shots, curbed their early defensive troubles, kept their turnovers way down for the second straight game, kept a scoring balance that allowed for some fantastic offensive synergy, hit the glass, and got to the line frequently. It’s hard for such a holistically excellent performance to inspire anything but optimism; most of the worries that survived the Mavs’ Game 1 win were surely vanquished in their Game 2 explosion. So much still depends on the accuracy of Dallas’ perimeter shooters, but let that be a concern for another day. On Tuesday, the Mavs feasted, and for the moment that’s all that matters.
- LaMarcus Aldridge is playing Dirk Nowitzki (33 points, 9-22 FG, seven rebounds, four assists) well on the defensive end, and it hasn’t meant a damn thing. He stays grounded, contests shots, and generally tries not to commit on any of Nowitzki’s fakes. Yet Dirk was able to attack both Aldridge and a slew of other defenders by spinning into the lane and setting up on the low right block, both of which paid off in free throw attempts and close-range looks. At this stage, I’m not even sure how Aldridge could possibly defend Nowitzki more effectively — the effort is there, and his D is fundamentally sound, though perhaps too aggressive in spots. If the Blazers are less physical with Dirk, they’ll concede more easy jumpers. If they throw more double teams at him, he’ll simply find Jason Kidd, Peja Stojakovic, or Jason Terry spotting up on the perimeter. Aldridge is doing his best to make Nowitzki’s looks as difficult as possible, and yet Dirk still finished Game 2 with 33 points on 22 shots while only recording a single turnover. There are some forces in this world which are just not meant to be stopped or deterred.
- Jason Kidd (18 points, 7-11 FG, 3-6 3FG, eight assists, four rebounds) reprised his role as unexpected three-point marksman, and even made a layup just for the hell of it. Again: it’s not important that Kidd, specifically, produce like this on offense every night out, but it is important that someone does. If not Kidd then Terry, and if not Terry then Shawn Marion, etc. For now, it’s simply great to see Kidd performing at an elite level in the playoffs, something he’s never done in his Maverick career. Fresh legs are only the half of it; Kidd is flat-out playing better ball than he did for large stretches of the regular season, and his scoring has added a fantastic new dimension to the Maverick offense. Expectations based on Kidd’s late-season performance, fatigue, and age be damned — Kidd has been a pillar for Dallas in the playoffs thus far.
- The Mavs’ lack of turnovers against a team as (typically) defensively active as the Blazers is a huge story. Dallas didn’t turn the ball over a single time in the second half, which is about as rare as it sounds; according to NBA.com’s StatsCube, Dallas is just the second team to pull off a no-TO second half in playoff history. For them to do so against the second best team in the NBA in opponent’s turnover percentage is flat-out ridiculous. The Mavs ball-handlers are settling into their offense really well, but Nowitzki is also doing a great job of passing out of double teams.
- Peja Stojakovic (21 points, 8-13 FG, 5-10 3FG, five rebounds) validated his acquisition with a single game, and the playoffs are just getting started. At the time of Stojakovic’s signing, I was admittedly skeptical of what he could offer; Sasha Pavlovic was converting 43.8 percent of his threes for the Mavs while riding out 10-day contracts, and his defensive pedigree made him a more appealing role player option in my mind. Yet it’s hard to imagine Pavlovic would have been able to pull off the kind of performance Stojakovic did last night, even if the Blazers are a bit slow to get their hands in the faces of perimeter shooters; the former simply isn’t as proficient in coming off of curls for catch-and-shoot opportunities, nor was Pavlovic well-suited to fire under duress on those occasions that Portland did close out hard on the three-point shot. Not that the comparison between the two players even matters at this point — the important thing is that Stojakovic is earning his keep and his playing time, and on Tuesday his shooting gave Dallas a huge lift.
- Those who had incredulously discussed (read: mocked, doubted) Gerald Wallace’s status as a series x-factor after Game 1 can kindly bite their tongues. Wallace was a demon in the open court, which should be no surprise; the man has turned the fast break leak-out into an art form over the course of his career, while somehow maintaining solid defensive rebounding numbers. Don’t be fooled into thinking that Wallace’s only utility came in the open court, though. Crash also established his hard-cutting style in the Blazers’ half-court offense, and found his teammates for easy scores. Obviously Wallace wasn’t the difference-maker in Game 2, but he certainly made a difference. If Portland is going to rebound at home in Games 3 and 4, he’ll likely be a critical part of their formula.
- The odd thing for the Blazers: none of their players had an especially poor game. Aldridge was dominant for stretches and less so for some, but still efficient. Andre Miller hit a few jumpers and got to the rim off the dribble while running the offense effectively. Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews hit their shots. Wallace chipped in with his dynamic slashing. Yet none of it was enough; Portland was relatively efficient in its shooting, but surrendered modest advantages to Dallas on the offensive glass and in the turnover margin without gaining any offensive ground. With the way the Mavs were scoring, those kinds of extra opportunities were enough to create a substantial buffer between the two teams, a painful threshold constructed by the combination of minor differences. It can be hard for some to understand why their teams lose in occasions like these, and the result is typically some recycled sound bite about toughness or closing games. The Blazers lost because across the board they just weren’t as good as the Mavs. The difference in performance between the two teams wasn’t huge, but it was significant.
- J.J. Barea: 2-of-7 shooting, two turnovers, but several critical drives to the hoop in the fourth quarter. Barea correctly identified the Blazer overplays on the Nowitzki pick-and-roll, and attacked the rim fearlessly against a stilted defense. Great recognition, and an excellent job of finishing the play or drawing a foul. Plus, Barea — and the Maverick guards on the whole — defended the post well. The Blazer guards’ post-up play was a non-story in Game 2, even after that element of Portland’s offense had found some success in limited Game 1 application. Kudos to J.J. for his work on both ends.
- Jason Terry still hasn’t made much of an impact on this series, but he’s also not acting as a detriment. For the second game in a row, Terry contributed 10 points without using too many possessions, didn’t turn the ball over, and offered some offensive spacing. Considering the lack of scoring Dallas is getting from Shawn Marion and Tyson Chandler, those 10 points are a tremendous help. It’s not an issue of shot selection, either; JET took good attempts on Tuesday, but his looks just couldn’t find the net. It’s just a matter of time.
- Nate McMillan made the mistake of overplaying Brandon Roy down the stretch in Game 1, but perhaps the pendulum swung a bit too far the other way in Game 2. Roy logged just eight minutes of playing time as a deep reserve, and went scoreless in his time on the court. Patty Mills even managed to log four minutes of playing time, at least some of which could have gone to Roy. It’s an odd, depressing situation to say the least; Roy is battling his own physical limitations and trying to deal mentally with the transition from star to role player, and neither fight seems to be going particularly well. Regardless, Roy remains painfully oblivious to his shortcomings, and that doesn’t bode well for his status with the team nor his future as a productive player. I haven’t the faintest idea of what the rest of Roy’s career holds, but here’s to hoping he finds balance going forward, even if all of us in Dallas wouldn’t mind him remaining a non-factor for the remainder of the series.
- Credit to the Maverick bigs for their work on the offensive glass: Tyson Chandler and Brendan Haywood combined for eight offensive rebounds, which was more than the Blazers had as an entire team. If not for those offensive boards, Chandler’s impact on that end would be negligible, though his presence is certainly more accommodating to the offense than Haywood’s. To Chandler’s credit, he did defend Aldridge in the post relatively successfully, particularly in the fourth quarter. Those defensive stands on the block were huge, and if Chandler can provide a similar defensive front against Aldridge in the games going forward, Dallas should have no problem dealing with whatever else Portland throws their way.
Danny Crawford has refereed 18 Maverick playoff games since 2001, and yes, Dallas has registered a ridiculous 2-16 record in those contests. That’s not only statistically significant, but adorned with flashing lights and warning signs; as much as we’d like to sweep all of this under the rug, the numbers are glaring, particularly in contrast to the Mavs’ otherwise solid playoff performance. Something could very well be up with Crawford, to a degree that impacts his ability to officiate a Maverick game fairly.
We just don’t know. That record (in addition to any foul differential, free throw differential, or other miscellaneous refereeing measure you can conjure) tells us to be on the lookout, but not to indict.
I offer this with absolute certainty: there is no more dreadful playoff narrative than one involving officiating. Referees are the supposedly impartial mediators of any athletic contest, and once their credibility — for reasons of bias, not necessarily ineptitude — comes into question, the entire discourse falls further and further into the abyss.
So tonight, watch the game carefully, and keep an eye on Crawford. Be skeptical if you will, but don’t go hunting for evidence of a conspiracy. The sheer improbability of the Mavs’ performance in Crawford’s games unfortunately demands that fans of the Mavs and the league at large be alert, but not that anyone subscribe to paranoia, madness, or defeatism. Fans of a team wronged can sometimes engage in the type of tribalism that isn’t healthy for anyone involved, so please, please, stay reasonable. We’re going to see how things play out, in a crucial Game 2 between the Mavs and Blazers, with the Crawford subplot running in the background.
Hopefully this is the closest it ever gets to center stage.
Dallas’ playoff opponent is finally set in stone. Thanks to a Maverick win and Kobe Bryant’s ongoing crusade to burn the city of Sacramento to the ground, the Mavs will face off with the formidable Portland Trailblazers in the first found of the postseason. Rejoice, and be worried; this matchup is terrific for basketball fans but should be uncomfortable to the Maverick faithful, a conflict of identities for those who appreciate both the game and this particular team. We’re in for a fantastic series, but a hell of an opponent stands between Dallas and the second round.
The Mavericks are a better team than the Blazers by virtually every objective measure; win percentage, efficiency differential, point differential, Pythagorean win percentage, and the simple rating system all favor Dallas. In terms of their season-long numbers, the Mavs have outperformed the Blazers on both ends of the court, and enjoy all of the statistical trimmings that come with that superior level of performance. However, the fact that Dallas is a better team only matters tangentially. Playoff series’ are so much more dependent on the ways in which teams succeed than just how successful those teams are, a fact surely not lost on Mavs fans. This outcome of this series won’t be determined by determining the better team, but merely the more effective one given this specific matchup.
Dallas and Portland faced off four times during the regular season, but reading too much into the outcome of those four contests can be a bit misleading; the Blazers thoroughly dominated their latest game against the Mavs, for example, but Tyson Chandler’s absence hardly makes it a representative sample. The same can be said of the exclusion of Dirk Nowitzki and Brandon Roy in previous games, the mid-season acquisition of Gerald Wallace, and the unavailability of Caron Butler — we have four games’ worth of competition between the two teams, but little to speak of in the way of legitimate macro-level assessment.
So instead, the most prudent way to predict the performance of both teams is to look at smaller factors which could potentially turn the series. In my eyes, Portland creates particular problems for Dallas through their combination of versatile forwards and sizable guards. LaMarcus Aldridge — who averaged 27.8 points on 51% shooting against Dallas this season — is a huge part of the problem, and acts as a catalyst of sorts for the Blazers to exploit the Mavs on a number of levels. Regardless of whether Marcus Camby is on the floor, Rick Carlisle has largely opted to defend Aldridge with either Tyson Chandler or Brendan Haywood. Carlisle’s decision is understandable; putting Dirk Nowitzki on Aldridge wouldn’t present any kind of advantage (and needlessly puts Dirk at risk for foul trouble), and Shawn Marion doesn’t have the size to contend with Aldridge in the post. That leaves Chandler and Haywood as the most logical defensive options, as both are long enough to contest Aldridge’s shot and strong enough to fight him for position down low. Neither has been tremendously successful in stopping Aldridge in the post thus far this season, but they provide the best theoretical counters considering the Mavs’ lack of alternatives.
If that potential mismatch in Portland’s favor isn’t enough, more problems start to arise when we weigh Aldridge’s other abilities. Not only is Portland’s new frontman skilled in operating from either block, but he’s a credible mid-range shooter and a constant threat to slip toward the basket for a lob. Aldridge’s combination of size, range, and mobility makes him an incredibly difficult cover, and with Dallas’ assumed defensive configuration, his ability to put up points is only the first of several concerns introduced by his very presence. Defensive rebounding is also a legitimate issue, as Aldridge is able to pull one of the Mavs’ strongest rebounders away from the basket by stepping out to the perimeter. That not only limits the rebounding impact of Chandler and Haywood while Aldridge is on the court, but opens up more opportunities for the Blazers — one of the strongest offensive rebounding teams in the league — to attack the glass. Dallas is normally strong on the defensive glass, but it’s no coincidence that some of their worst rebounding performances of the season have come against Portland (the Blazers grabbed more than 27.9 percent of available offensive boards in three of the four games, with the only outlier being the quasi-blowout in the most recent game).
Even more problematic is what that same range does for Dallas’ defensive spacing. Every successful defensive scheme relies on bigs who are able to rotate from across the court and contest shots around the rim, but Aldridge’s ability to knock down an open 18-footer makes it far more difficult for Chandler or Haywood to leave him and rotate into the paint. Without consistent help on the back line (Nowitzki tries, but Dirks will be Dirks), the Mavs’ perimeter defenders are in trouble; one misstep could lead to an uncontested layup or a trip to the free throw line, and Jason Terry, J.J. Barea, and Rodrigue Beaubois certainly commit their share of defensive blunders. Plus, Aldridge’s ability to space the floor opens up the opportunity for the Blazer guards to set up against their undersized opponents on the block. Brandon Roy and Andre Miller are skilled post-up threats capable of both scoring and making plays, and together with Wesley Matthews and Rudy Fernandez, the Blazer guard corps towers over the Mavs’ backcourt.
Portland not only has that specific size advantage, but has shown in their last two games against Dallas that they fully intend to exploit it. Ultimately, the Mavs are put in a position in which fielding any of their crucial but diminutive guards — the aforementioned Terry, Barea, and Beaubois — invites an easy post-up opportunity for either Roy or Miller. The three-guard lineup is even more vulnerable, further limiting Carlisle’s rotational options. Terry and Barea will play, but we could be left pondering ways to keep them off the floor, particularly if either player fails to produce on offense.
Carlisle may adjust by redistributing minutes, but Corey Brewer and DeShawn Stevenson seem to be his only alternatives, and I’m not sure either is likely to actually play significant minutes. In a way, this is all an extension from last year’s playoffs: Terry is almost certain to be an on-court mainstay, and even more certain to be on the court to close games — even when his replacement makes intuitive sense. Last year, it was Beaubois, who ripped up the court in Game 6 against the Spurs before grabbing a seat prematurely, who could have replaced JET. This season, if Terry isn’t on his offensive game, it may make more sense for him to sit for defensive reasons. He isn’t uniquely responsible for Dallas’ potential defensive troubles, but he’s the undersized guard most likely to log the most playing time. The decision to slash the minutes of a player like JET is an immensely difficult one, and it may not even be the correct one. But those guard matchups could end up doing a lot of damage, and one can only hope that Carlisle has some counter — either in scheme or personnel — up his sleeve.
For their part, the Mavs don’t have a unique matchup advantage other than the fact that they employ Dirk Nowitzki, and that as a team they have the ability to hit shots of all kinds with consistency. That last fact should be especially evident against Portland’s relatively poor shooting defense; for all their defensive versatility and long-armed wings, the Blazers rank 22nd in effective field goal percentage allowed. Dirk Nowitzki will have his work cut out for him grappling with Gerald Wallace and Nicolas Batum (among others), but I nonetheless anticipate him having an MVP-type series. There’s only so much a defender can do. Wallace and Batum are sure to put in good work on D, but Nowitzki is that efficient, that prolific, that deadly. Expect consistently excellent work from the block, the wing, and the elbow, as Dirk turns in more typically stellar postseason numbers.
Dallas’ perimeter shooters should also be in for a field day. According to Synergy Sports Technology, the Blazers rank 25th in the league in their defense of spot-up jumpers on a per possession basis, while the Maverick shooters rank sixth in their points scored per spot-up possession. This is where being a “jumpshooting team” comes in handy; spot-up jumpshots are a substantial part — 22.7 percent — of the Dallas offense, and happen to be one of Portland’s greatest defensive weaknesses. Let there be a turkey in every pot and a kick-out for every shooter — it’s gonna be a feast from the outside.
To hone in a bit: Portland ranks in the bottom 10 in three-point shooting defense — a big reason why both their points per spot up possession allowed and their opponents’ effective field goal percentage are so high. The Mavs have four consistent perimeter marksmen (Terry, Stevenson, Brian Cardinal, Peja Stojakovic) outside of Nowitzki, and any who sees the floor should find open looks with some regularity. The problem is how many of those shooters will actually see notable time; Stevenson could end up starting, but he’d been out of the rotation for a while before his unearthing on Wednesday. His role is uncertain, to say the least. Cardinal could be left off the playoff roster altogether if Rick Carlisle elects to bring Brewer along for the postseason, and even if Cardinal does make the playoff roster, Dallas rarely plays him and Nowitzki at the same time, which would limit his potential application.
Regardless, Terry, Stojakovic, Jason Kidd, and J.J. Barea should have room to fire from outside. They may not always convert (particularly in the case of the latter two), but those openings are nonetheless an important part of Dallas’ advantage. The opportunities will be there, so it’s on the usually efficient Mavs to hit their shots.
Dallas shouldn’t have too much of a problem scoring, but they may have some issues in setting up a fluid offense. As counter-intuitive as that sounds, consider this: the Blazers are as good as any team in the league at creating turnovers, but as noted above, they don’t contest shots well at all. One shouldn’t expect some freewheeling Maverick attack, but once the ball gets to Nowitzki or Marion in the post (where they can either score or execute a basic kick-out), to a shooter off a curl via a Kidd assist, or to Terry or Barea to run the pick-and-roll, all should be right with the world. The problem is in the intermediary, those moments between the first and second options in a set where Kidd tries to thread an overly ambitious pass, Terry attempts to create off the dribble in vain, or a non-ball-handler ends up uncomfortably holding the rock as the shot clock dwindles. If the Mavs establish their play actions and work through them without trying to do too much, they shouldn’t have much of a problem on the offensive end at all. If they panic or rush rather than work through their options patiently, then Wallace, Miller, Matthews, and Fernandez will furiously swarm the ball like leather-eating piranhas.
With that in mind, this series feels like a shootout. Portland isn’t a particularly sound defensive team, and Dallas’ defense doesn’t seem poised to be particularly effective based on the matchup and their recent performance. The point totals may not soar due to neither team being a true fast-breaking outfit, but this is a series of offensive prowess unless the Mavs can prove otherwise. One defensive scheme isn’t enough, either; Nate McMillan is a smart, flexible coach, and he’ll have his players adapt to any single counter the Mavs utilize. Dallas will need multiple responses to both Aldridge and the Blazer guards, and somehow not neglect Wallace and Batum in the process. It’s doable, but difficult.
Which is why I regretfully predict that the Blazers will win in seven games. It’s not an easy call; these Mavs are skilled and can theoretically execute on both ends. I just think Portland’s mismatches will prove a bit too problematic. I think Jason Kidd won’t be quite as effective as the Mavs need him to be. I think Dirk Nowitzki and LaMarcus Aldridge will both be tremendous, and the rest of both teams will be left to tip the balance. I think the Blazers can hide Brandon Roy too easily on defense, which lets him stay on the court long enough to cause a problem. I think Wallace and Batum may only hinder Nowitzki, but they’re capable of significantly limiting Marion. I think that there is a distinct possibility that the Mavs win this series, but there are just too many concerns to consider it the most likely outcome.
The Mavs are the better team in this series. Sometimes that just isn’t enough.
Here’s to hoping I’m wrong.