Denver Nuggets 109, Dallas Mavericks 95

Posted by Rob Mahoney on May 4, 2009 under Recaps | 5 Comments to Read

Photo by Louis DeLuca / DMN Photo Staff.

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Beginnings are always messy.
-John Galsworthy

Remember the good old days?  Those times when the offense took care of itself, and the Mavs’ supporting cast was never to be outdone?  Those wonderful days of yore, those wonderful days of last week?  They’ve never seemed more distant.  37 minutes of building, rallying, and battling was undone in just 5, as the normally poised, proficient Maverick offense imploded before our very eyes.

In that woeful five minutes, the Mavs were outscored 15-2.  They shot five jumpers and made just one.  They had no free throw attempts.  And, perhaps most importantly, a completely manageable two-point deficit was suddenly a fifteen point one.  Dirk Nowitzki and Josh Howard, the Mavs’ two most effective offensive players in the game, combined for just two attempts (both Dirk’s) during the game-deciding stretch.  Team basketball is cute and all, but at some point your best players need to be there to make plays, and the offense as a whole needs to put those players in a position to succeed.  The Mavs clearly failed in that regard, and my eyes are fixed squarely on Jason Kidd.

Kidd has done plenty to validate his acquisition, but the heady floor general was actin’ the fool during the most critical stretches of Game 1.  I can confidently say that I’ve never seen so many poorly timed and poorly executed bounce passes from such a talented point guard, and Kidd made it easy for Denver’s defense by bouncing the ball right into their laps.  Obviously the Dallas brass didn’t dream of Kidd double-dribbling away fast break opportunities or hurling passes out of bounds when they traded for him a year ago, but that’s exactly what he was doing with the Mavs’ most critical possessions.  I can accept Kidd’s weaknesses.  I know he won’t be an impact scorer, and I know that his defensive abilities are impacted by his age.  But I’m not prepared for Kidd’s strengths to suddenly disappear before our very eyes.

It’s a shame that the Mavs weren’t able to hang around in the fourth quarter, because the Nuggets’ offensive leaders, Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups, had been quiet until that point.  Entering the final frame, Billups and Anthony had totaled a combined 15 points (4-13 FG) and 5 turnovers.  But when Melo finally showed up and the Mavs were unable to answer, the game was essentially over.  I can’t give enough credit to Nene (24 points, 9-13 FG) and the Denver bench for keeping the Nuggets afloat and then some during the meat of the game.  Chris Andersen was every bit as nutty and active as you’d expect, and with fantastic results.  J.R. Smith used his dynamic scoring style to the team’s benefit, which is one of the factors that takes the Nuggets from “good” status to “great.”  And Anthony Carter brought a completely unexpected scoring punch off the bench by killing the Mavericks in transition.  Those three in particular accomplished everything that the Mavericks reserves could not, completely dwarfing the Mavs’ bench in scoring output, defensive impact, and influence on the pace and momentum of the game.

It’s worth noting that Erick Dampier and Josh Howard each faced a small injury crisis.  Both turned an ankle (left for Damp, right for Josh), and both returned to action.  Howard never quite returned to his first quarter form (injury or normalcy?), but his defensive effort was certainly adequate despite Carmelo’s explosion.  Dampier’s injury was even more difficult to gauge, considering Nene’s speed off of the pick-and-roll would likely kill Damp, sprain or no sprain.  Regardless of their individual performances, the Mavs on the whole seemed to fold under the convenient circumstance of the injuries.  Their assertiveness went out the window, and the defense that had held Denver to 16 first quarter points went into turnstyle mode.  Nene, Smith, and Andersen killed the Mavs’ reserves, and though the game wasn’t out of reach until that fatal fourth quarter stretch, the Mavs surendered the lead and their drive along with their clean bill of health.

Chris Andersen had some very limited success guarding Dirk, but it’s clear that if the Nuggs continue to try to guard Dirk with just one defender and/or continue to switch on screens that Nowitzki will burn them every time.  Kenyon Martin was touted as an ideal Dirk defender, but Dirk’s 4 of 5 shooting with Martin D-ing him up should put that speculation to rest.  Martin and the rest of the Nuggets were clearly ready to be physical with Dirk, but even an extra shove or two didn’t force him off his game.  The key will be getting Terry, whose shot attempts in the flow of the offense were clearly limited, involved, and rallying the bench back into action.  Oh, and hoping that Kidd doesn’t decide to channel his inner Rafer Alston.

Closing thoughts:

  • The Mavs turned to doubling Carmelo and Chauncey on the catch, and we learned two things: coming off of Dahntay Jones is okay, coming off of the Birdman is not.  KA-KAW!
  • We need to start worrying about Nene…now.  And, Dampier has no business chasing him around on the perimeter.  If Nene wants to start popping jumpers, I’ll live with that.
  • There were referees at this game, and they were truly odd souls.

GOLD STAR OF THE NIGHT: The Gold Star of the Night goes, hands-down, to Dirk, who finished with 28 points, 10 rebounds, and 4 assists.  Dirk started off a white-hot 6 for 6, and though he had undoubtedly one of the worst misses of his career on an errant jumper, it’s hard to ask more of Dirk offensively.

The Official Two Man Game Official Dallas Mavericks Versus Denver Nuggets Official Playoff Preview for the Official 2008-2009 Official Post-Season

Posted by Rob Mahoney on May 2, 2009 under Previews | 3 Comments to Read

This series is going to be a treat.  The Spurs series was an unexpected letdown in terms of competitive value, but Mavs-Nuggets will surely do more than wet your playoff palate.

Photo by Glenn James/NBAE/Getty Images.

The Mavs’ 0-4 record against the Nuggets in the regular season is well-documented, but those games couldn’t possibly mean less.  Josh Howard returning from injury (and his renaissance) are akin to a major trade: it significantly changed the way that the Mavs approach the game, the way they execute on both ends, and the way Carlisle manages the rotations.  The five games’ worth of Playoff Mavs has been shocking not only in quality of play, but also just how this team has evolved since their regular season dog days.  The regular season irrelevancy goes double for the Nuggets.  Denver was a good regular season team, good enough to secure the number 2 seed in the West.  But the way that the Nuggets completely erased Chris Paul and the Hornets at large was a remarkable feat that the regular season Nuggets just weren’t capable of.  At this point, no one can accuse either the Nuggets or the Mavs of not approaching the playoffs with the appropriate level of focus.

These teams match up exquisitely, and provide a bit of yin and yang at every matchup.  Chauncey Billups’ function is to set up his teammates as a function of his scoring, while Jason Kidd’s function is to score as a function of getting his teammates going.  Dirk Nowitzki and Kenyon Martin will face off at power forward, but couldn’t have more contrasting styles.  Josh Howard, a player who broke into the league with his defense and developed more consistent offensive skills, will do his best to stick with Carmelo Anthony, a phenom with a wide offensive range who has only recently begun to groom his defense.  And yet, despite these very glaring differences, each of these players provides functionally similar contributions (Billups’ and Kidd’s leadership, Dirk’s offensive impact and Kenyon’s defensive one, and Josh and Carmelo’s versatility).  The defensive pieces seem physically able to counter the other team’s offensive weapons, but offensive talent will undoubtedly prevail.  Essentially, you’ve got two teams doing very different things and producing the exact same results.

However, both teams have found great success by breaking down iso-heavy play into a team-oriented approach.  Finding consistency with the role players is again going to decide a series for the Mavs.  J.J. Barea, Brandon Bass, and Ryan Hollins appear to be up to the challenge, but success against the decidedly mortal Spurs may not be indicative of future success.  Unfortunately, Denver has a huge leg up with the way their reserves have been executing on defense.  The Nuggets won’t be able to enact the same strategies that worked against Chris Paul and the Hornets, but the fact that as a team the Nuggs were able to execute to near-perfection on the defensive end is a bit concerning.  Chris Andersen and Anthony Carter are natural defenders off the bench, but even those considered suspect on that end (J.R. Smith, Linas Kleiza) have stepped up their game and helped the Nuggets to thrive on D.  If the Nuggets are able to repeat their defensive performance, the impact of players like Barea and Bass could be rendered irrelevant.

But with players like Smith and Kleiza, if you can break their concentration by denying them the instant dividends of stops, you can potentially turn them into defensive liabilities.  Dallas will need to work the mismatch game and continue to move the ball if they’re going to have that kind of early success, because despite what skill set and physique will tell you about the Kenyon Martin, he can’t guard Dirk one-on-one.  This season, Dirk has averaged 30 points (44% shooting), 11.3 rebounds, and just 1.5 turnovers against Denver.  Over their entire careers, Kenyon has been able to “hold” Dirk to 27.8 PPG (48.5% FG) and 10.1 RPG.  Martin has become a talented, physical defender that can give a lot of players trouble.  I just don’t believe Dirk to be one of them.  Dirk has the range to pull him to uncomfortable spots on the perimeter, he has the pet moves to put Martin in foul trouble, and even if Dirk doesn’t have position or an angle, he has the height to shoot over him.  Even the league’s best defenders aren’t ideal for guarding just anybody, and Martin is no exception.

The later George Karl realizes that, the better.  But the Mavs need to be prepared for the impending defensive pressure.  I wouldn’t be surprised if we see some of the same double-teaming strategies employed by San Antonio, with the Nuggets betting they can outlast the Mavs’ supporting cast.  Dirk’s passing ability will definitely come into play once again, as his ability to find open perimeter shooters and slashers down the lane will greatly affect the flow of the Dallas’ offense.  That means that the other players on the floor need to create and work in space and be ready to answer the call.  In the last series, that was Josh Howard, J.J. Barea, Erick Dampier, and Brandon Bass.  But with Antoine Wright poised for a more prominent role this time around, things could get a little trickier.  Wright is indispensible in his ability to spell Josh Howard as a defender for Carmelo Anthony, but his shooting is a bit suspect.  His ability to either finish his looks, swing the ball after drawing the rotated defender, or use that space to drive to the basket will be crucial.

Brandon Wade/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT

“Guarding Carmelo Anthony” has been a prominent theme here, and figures to be one throughout the series.  He looked completely unstoppable in the regular season, and Carlisle will have his hands full coming up with ways to slow him down.  James Singleton is a rugged, physical rebounder and defender, but he lacks the technique and speed to keep up with a player of Anthony’s caliber.  Antoine Wright will certainly have a go, but Anthony’s versatility will give him trouble, as well as Wright’s offensive limitations.  Enter Josh Howard, the Mavs’ most promising defender at small forward.  Howard didn’t have to guard an elite wing last series, but still played very impressive defense with a variety of on and off the ball tactics.  And, most importantly, he was very focused and very active, a welcome to contrast to the sometimes lackadaisical Josh we’ve seen in the past.  But everything won’t come up roses for Howard.  He’s still a little wobbly on that bad ankle, and trying to protect against the drive while predicting Melo’s pull-up jumper won’t help in the least bit.  Anthony’s got a killer first step and a vast repertoire, two factors that go heavily in his favor.  It’s up to Josh to show that he’s ready for the challenge, and that whether he’s guarding Ime Udoka or Carmelo Anthony, he’s a top-notch defender in this league.

Personally, I wouldn’t take any chances.  The more Josh is able to rest the better, because Anthony can be tired out just like Tony Parker was.  If you give Carmelo a variety of looks and coverages to keep him on his toes, he may be worn down enough to be visibly impacted.  Equally important is Josh’s offense, which can assist greatly in wearing down Anthony.  Provided he’s making Carmelo work around screens and stay in front of him on the way to the basket, Josh can play a huge role in limiting Anthony’s minutes/effectiveness due to foul trouble and fatigue.  Of course that’s only the beginning.  Antoine Wright and James Singleton need to turn into the Mavs’ own version of the Nuggets’ Dahntay Jones, bullying and pushing on Carmelo every step of the way.  That kind of beating can both wear down and test the patience of any player.

Speaking of Dahntay Jones, the Mavs defenders need to be fully aware of what he can (not a lot) and can’t do (quite a bit) offensively.  I’m of the opinion that Jones’ defender should bring a strong double on either Chauncey Billups or Carmelo Anthony, forcing Jones to either make a play or make a shot.  He doesn’t have much of a midrange touch and is reluctant to camp on the perimeter, which means that the Mavs’ frontline has to simply rotate to protect the basket should Jones opt to drive.  Jones isn’t on the floor for his offense, so it’s up to the Mavs to take advantage of that by bothering Denver’s two best offensive options instead of Jones.  Even that solution isn’t a cure-all, but the Mavs have to make the best of what they have defensively.  It’s going to come down to so much more than K-Mart vs. Dirk or Chauncey vs. Kidd, because those are both going to be group efforts.  Team defense is what it takes to stop teams as balanced as the Mavs and the Nuggets, and so the ability of Antoine Wright to stop J.R. Smith, while completely relevant, is really only the beginning of the discussion.

Photo from friends.mavs.com

It’s not that I don’t have great respect for Denver’s defense, but for the Mavs it really is as simple as “Do how we do, baby.”  Jason Terry will face some tough defenders in Jones and Anthony Carter, but hopefully it’s nothing he won’t be able to overcome in transition and playing the two man game with Dirk.  Essentially, Terry is the one spot where Denver can really take something significant away from a major Maverick producer.  If Chauncey “takes away” Kidd’s offensive production, at best he’s taking away a spot-up shooter and bothering Kidd’s dribble.  I have too much faith in Kidd’s court vision and ball-handling abilities to fret about that.  If the Nuggets play Dirk one-on-one he’ll get his, and if not you’d hope that the role players are able to make up for the scoring with their suddenly easier looks.  Howard has off-games, but he also provides a very different kind of player than anything the Nuggets had to face with the Hornets.  Though Denver is a very different team than San Antonio, the series comes down to the same basic premise: rely on offensive efficiency while limiting the Nuggets enough to win.  The Mavs simply don’t have the personnel to rely on defensive prowess to win, so their ability to execute against Denver’s D will determine their fate.

This series is a very winnable one for the Mavs.  They have enough offensive firepower to overcome even the staunch Nuggets’ defense, and they have just enough to limit the Nuggets’ production offensively.  Both of those rely on a million other factors, but the Mavs have have the players and the fight in them to advance.  That said, I’m picking the Nuggets to win in seven.  It’s going to take incredible strategic prowess to eliminate Dirk’s impact, but it would take a damn near miracle to eliminate Carmelo Anthony’s.  Historically, he’s had his way with the Mavs, and though Carlisle has been nothing short of excellent thus far, I’m just not sure that the team can totally withstand an attack that centers around Anthony, but is by no means reliant on him.  If Anthony (or Billups, or a combination of the two) can exploit the Mavs like Tony Parker was able to, Denver’s role players will finisht the job in a way the Spurs’ never could.

Here’s to hoping I’m wrong.

Heard It Through the Grapevine

Posted by Rob Mahoney on under xOther | Be the First to Comment

  • Eddie Sefko of the Dallas Morning News: “Still, the Nuggets will be a big change from the Spurs. ‘It’s a different level of athlete we’ll see, top to bottom,’ coach Rick Carlisle said. ‘There’s going to be technicals and flagrants in the playoffs. We always talk about the importance of keeping our aggression but also having poise. Denver’s an aggressive team, but so are we.’ The Mavericks still don’t physically intimidate their opponents, but they have become mentally tougher this season, a trait that can be traced to Jason Kidd’s arrival. Asked about the Nuggets’ zest for mixing it up, Kidd said: ‘We’re not going to back down. They probably will be physical. But this is the playoffs. We’ll be fine.’” The article also mentions that George Karl plans to start the series guarding Dirk one-on-one with Kenyon Martin.  Of course those are based on Karl’s own comments, so draw conclusions at your own peril.
  • The official Mavs team photo…where the team fittingly couldn’t decide whether to smile or scowl.
  • David Moore of the Dallas Morning News: “Expect Denver to leave Jason Kidd or Antoine Wright when they are on the court to run an extra defender at Nowitzki. Look for them to shadow Jason Terry off the pick-and-roll the way San Antonio did. ‘The wild card I like in this game is A.C. [Anthony Carter] on Jason Terry defensively,’ Karl said. ‘Jason is a tough match-up for a lot of teams, but we’ve done a good job on him. Knock on wood.’ The Nuggets believe they can live with 20 to 25 a game from Nowitzki. What they don’t want is for Terry to explode. He didn’t during the regular season. Terry failed to score more than 20 points and shot 39.4 percent from the field in four games against the Nuggets.”
  • I played moderator for the Mavs’ roundtable, and Nate Timmons of Pickaxe and Roll serves in the same capacity for a Nuggets’ roundtable featuring Jeremy of Roundball Mining Company, Mike the Nuggets Examiner, Andrew of Denver Stiffs.
  • Eddie Sefko of the Dallas Morning News: “J.J. Barea’s response to those who think he can’t match up with any of the Nuggets players: ‘Hey, they’ve got to match up with me, too. … They’ve got strong guards, but I’m just going to do what I do.’”
  • Revisiting the relationship between Rick Carlisle and Chauncey Billups from their Detroit days.
  • Dave Krieger of the Denver Post: “Kenyon Martin admits that Dirk Nowitzki, the next NBA star on his playoff menu, has an advantage. He’s taller than me, of course,’ Martin said of the Mavericks’ 7-foot forward. ‘But I think I make up for height in other ways.’ At ‘other ways,’ he raised his eyebrows and grinned. The wretches knew what he was talking about, but just in case, he spelled it out: “Hold him, grab him, push him, whatever you can do.’”

Big Yellow Taxi

Posted by Rob Mahoney on March 30, 2009 under Commentary | 8 Comments to Read

Brian Windhorst of the Cleveland Plain-Dealer:

This summer Kidd will become an unrestricted free agent and there’s a good chance that the Cavs will again look into his availability. He has said he wants to remain a Maverick, but Sunday he certainly made it seem like playing alongside James in Cleveland was a viable option. “I could sit and watch from the bench,” Kidd said. “[LeBron] is so talented, he’s going to get guys wide open shots. So we’ll look at free agency and what happens for me next year.” The Cavs are thrilled with point guard Mo Williams, who became an All-Star this year. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for another, especially if Kidd were to accept a more limited role, as he did for Team USA. Though the Cavs have Delonte West and Daniel Gibson who can handle the ball, they don’t have another true point guard on the roster.

Eddie Sefko of the Dallas Morning News:

After Sunday’s loss to James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, Kidd said he tries not to think about James calling him and suggesting a reunion next season. The two became friends when they played together for the U.S. Olympic team. “Yeah, that’s a hard call,” Kidd said. “You don’t want to answer the phone. I just have to explore my different options I’m going to have this summer.” Kidd tries not to think about the summer. There’s plenty of season left for the Mavericks. But with the Mavericks playing the Cavaliers, it was inevitable the subject would come up. “I could sit here and watch from the bench,” Kidd said, joking that James plays much the same way he does.

How do two very reputable beat writers cover the exact same event and the exact same quote in such drastically different ways?  Is there really enough subtext in Kidd’s comments to add fuel to everybody’s fire?

Mike Fisher has an eloquent response at DallasBasketball.com:

Eddie’s story doesn’t say that. It says Kidd “laughed” as he was talking of “sitting on the bench” while LeBron starred. But Kidd did not dismiss anything. He did the opposite. He addressed something. And he did so in the wake of a 28-point loss to the very team that is ostensibly planning on courting him. One of the Mavs players visiting Cleveland and leaving the impression that he might want to play there next year? Even if he was just being polite? Now I’m even more tired and more pissed.

I don’t blame him one bit.  That comment is kosher for the routine, casual nature of pre-game questions.  But following one of the Mavs’ worst losses of the season, I’m not sure I want one of the Mavs’ star players laughing at all, much less joking about the possibility of ditching the team in the off-season.

But that’s not the real worry here, is it?

The concern is that just over a year ago, the Mavs’ sent their young starting point guard and two first round picks to New Jersey for a chance to waltz with the venerable Jason Kidd, and there is a realistic chance that they’ll be left with nothing this summer.

From Marc Stein of ESPN.com:

The growing sense in Dallas is that there are only two threats to the Mavericks’ hopes of re-signing Jason Kidd this summer.

Having just turned 36 and facing an unavoidable pay cut from this season’s $21.4 million, Kidd hasn’t dropped a single hint about leaving the team that originally drafted him in 1994, focusing instead on trying to make sure the injury-plagued Mavs reach the postseason, preferably as nothing lower than the West’s No. 7 seed. Dallas certainly needs to keep Kidd after the goods it surrendered to New Jersey in February 2008 to get him — Devin Harris and an unprotected first-round pick in 2010 — but serious interest from either L.A. or Cleveland could be a real threat.

1. Kobe Bryant convincing big-guard-loving Phil Jackson and the Lakers to make a run at his dear friend Kidd with L.A.’s midlevel exception.

2. LeBron James convincing the Cavs to make a run at his dear friend Kidd with their midlevel exception.

…Dallas certainly needs to keep Kidd after the goods it surrendered to New Jersey in February 2008 to get him — Devin Harris and an unprotected first-round pick in 2010 — but serious interest from either L.A. or Cleveland could be a real threat.

Depending on how you prioritize the Mavs’ talent, Kidd could be anywhere from the team’s best player to the third best.  What he does at the point is irreplaceable given the current chips, and finding an acceptable substitute in a timely fashion given the Mavs’ salary cap situation would be nearly impossible.  That’s why, as much as it pains me to say it, the Mavs’ future rests squarely in the hands of Jason Kidd.  If Kidd opts to leave the Mavs this summer, any chance of contention in the near future leaves with him, and the rebuilding plan should go into effect immediately.

Assuming we actually have a rebuilding plan.

It would depress me greatly to see Dirk wearing any uni but Maverick blue, but is it really fair to him to ask him to stick around for a lost cause?  It’s an idea that’s been beat around all season long, but it’s one the Mavericks’ brass may have to confront head-on if Kidd skips town.  The bare bones roster would be significantly crippled, with Jason Terry and Josh Howard as the only other steady producers…if even they could be called that.

The Denver game made one point painfully apparent to me: Jason Terry is no point guard.  His ball-handling under durress is sloppy, and his wayward passes without so much as a hand in his face were inexcusable.  I previously thought that given the Mavs’ system, Terry could man the point alongside a playmaking 2.  Now, I’m not so sure.  His play could be markedly different if he was given a training camp to adjust, but my flirtation with the idea is all but dead.

But that’s only the tip of the iceberg.  Brandon Bass and James Singleton, two of the Mavs’ most important players off the bench, share Kidd’s unrestricted free agent status.  Singleton is coming off his first year with the team, and Bass off his second.  Both were acquired via free agency, so the Mavs don’t possess Bird rights (which would allow them to go over the cap to re-sign) for either player.  Essentially, the team would be left with the mid-level exception and the bi-annual exception to sign Bass, Singleton (assuming he remains in the team’s long-term plans), a replacement point guard (within reason; think Kevin Ollie, Anthony Carter, Marcus Williams, Jason Hart) that pretty much has to be an unrestricted FA (lest their previous team match the offer sheet, as would likely be the case with restricted FAs), as well as Gerald Green and Ryan Hollins.

It’s hard to anticipate how the economy will play a role in all of this.  While the cap handcuffs the Cavs and the Lakers from offering big-money deals to Jason Kidd, the anticipated deals for Brandon Bass are a bit more difficult to anticipate.  On one hand, the economic struggles of many of the league’s owners could limit both the length and total value of any offers that Bass, a good not great power forward, gets.  But on the other hand, Mark Cuban is hardly the only opportunistic owner; it seems reasonable that there will be other front offices looking to take advantage of a seller’s market.  Harm could come even if Bass, Singleton, and Hollins (notably 3/4 of the team’s current center rotation) receive such offers without taking them.  For a team on such a tight budget, even driving up the price on the Mavs through competitive offers could still prove damaging.

Say what you will about Kidd, or about the Mavs’ chances with him as their starting point.  But right now, the team needs to hang on to the few assets that they do have, and Kidd is definitely near the top of that list.  We knew that trading for Kidd would limit the Mavericks’ window, but I never would have anticipated that his impending free agency would turn the entire franchise into a game of Kerplunk, potentially as the final straw that would cost the Mavs all the marbles.  No Kidd means no hope, and no hope means no justification for the contracts of Erick Dampier, Jason Terry, and Josh Howard.  That opens up an entirely new can of worms as to where precisely the Mavs go from there, but that seems like a conversation for the day that we lose everything.

Stock your bomb shelters, kids.  We could be due for the fallout.