Denver Nuggets 106, Dallas Mavericks 105

Posted by Rob Mahoney on May 9, 2009 under Recaps | 45 Comments to Read

Photo by Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images.

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When angry, count to four. When very angry, swear.
-Mark Twain

There are losses that make you want to yell and scream.  There are losses that make you want to roll over and die.  And then, there are losses that leave you staring in disbelief, mouth agape, as if the life has been sucked right out of you.

Or, if you’re like me, it’s a rotation of the three until I successfully recover from my postgame stupor.

In general, I try to avoid the thing that nobody wants to talk about but everybody wants to talk about: officiating.  There’s a certain give and take to the ref game, and I respect that.  But tonight is different.  Although a  blown call in the fourth quarter technically carries the same weight as one in the first, the critical mistake of the officiating crew in the final seconds of Game 3 was the biggest dagger I’ve seen in these playoffs.  In one missed call, Dallas fell from a hopeful 1-2 to a funereal 0-3, a death knell in NBA basketball.  It’s up for debate whether or not the Mavs had a real chance at winning this series, but one suddenly silent whistle made any debate irrelevant.

No team has ever come back from an 0-3 deficit, and though winning some games would dress up the series in its Sunday’s finest, the Mavs don’t appear to be a team that can buck that trend.  Every piece of evidence imaginable would point to the Mavs losing this series, and can’t even convince myself, much less you, otherwise.

What makes last night’s loss so painful is that the Mavs did what they needed to to win.  Nene (5 points, 2-10 FG), a dominant force in Games 1 and 2, was neutralized by a more effective frontline and a defense aware of his presence.  Josh Howard was revived from ankle hell to score 14 points, grab 7 rebounds, and play some commendable defense on a white-hot Carmelo Anthony.  Dirk (33 points, 16 rebounds) was absolutely wonderful, and managed to actually build upon his prior brilliance by adding an impressive 15 free throw attempts to his series resume.  Jason Kidd and Jason Terry each broke out of their respective slumps, with Kidd running the break with mastery and Terry hitting the (original) biggest shot of the game to put the Mavs up 4.  But all of that was wiped away when Antoine Wright tried to use the Mavs’ foul to give with two seconds remaining and was denied by official Mark Wunderlich, who saw no reason to stop the play and allowed Carmelo a free look at a game-winner.  This isn’t a complaint about a questionable call — NBA president of league and basketball ops Joel Litvin confirmed the boo-boo — but rather voicing the frustration of a clear error that denied the Mavs a chance at this series.

The thought that history will likely remember this day as a Nuggets’ triumph rather than an officiating failure pains me, but credit to Denver for clawing their way through this game.  It wasn’t always pretty and, to be frank, wasn’t always effective, but they managed to perservere despite a lot of things going wrong.  Foul trouble and poor execution be damned, the Nuggets weren’t going to see themselves embarrassed, and that mentality just so happened to get them face-to-face with a winning jumper.  Luckily for the Nuggs and their fans, Melo didn’t blink.

Brandon Bass (16 points, 5 rebounds, 12-14 FT) was awesome.  He alone dominated Chris Andersen (plagued by foul trouble) and J.R. Smith (plagued by poor shot selection being J.R. Smith), and played tough interior defense while Erick Dampier was resting.  Early in the game, it looked as though Ryan Hollins may have supplanted Bass as the back-up center, but Bass played with exactly the kind of energy and discipline that he needs to be effective on a regular basis.  The free throw attempts are clear evidence of his assertiveness around the basket, but that kind of quantification hardly tells how important he was to the Mavs’ offense.  In the first half, Dirk sitting on the bench meant a scoring drought.  But once Bass started hitting his stride, he afforded Nowitzki some much-needed rest and the team a much-needed weapon.

Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups…were Carmelo Anthony (31 points, 8 rebounds) and Chauncey Billups (32 points).  They had the kind of big games that you expect from players of their paygrade, and there was no chance that Denver even sniffs a win if those two don’t contribute huge baskets and meaningful plays at both ends.

Aside from that, the only other Maverick-killer was their inability to secure defensive rebounds.  The Nuggets grabbed 13 offensive boards, many of which were converted into impressive tip-ins and dunks.  That’s a disheartening way to end a play, especially when Dallas’ half-court defense seemed much improved from the first two games.  They were putting the Nuggets in tough spots, but Birdman or Kenyon Martin would swoop in for an easy jam as the ball bounced off the rim.  We’ve asked the Mavs to improve their defense and they responded, which makes those easy put-backs that much more harrowing.

Closing thoughts:

  • Well, Gerald Green played a full 9 minutes, and it wasn’t pretty.  Josh Howard and Antoine Wright’s foul trouble left Carlisle digging into his bench, and Green rewarded his generosity with 0-4 shooting, 0 assists, 0 rebounds, 0 steals, 0 blocks, and 3 fouls.  Ai yai yai.
  • In case you missed it, you can actualy re-watch the game in its entirety here.
  • Say what you will about Antoine Wright “giving up” on that final play, but I don’t see many faults with his play.  If he challenges the shot, there’s actually a decent chance that Anthony catches him jumping from out of position, draws a foul, and gets three free throws (or maybe even more if the foul was flagrant).  If he even challenges the shot, there’s still a chance that a whistle negates his efforts.  And all of this is taking place in about a second flat, fleeting moments in which Wright is expecting play to be stopped by a tweet.
  • Josh Howard was called for an offensive foul on a play where he drove into the lane and warded off a defender by kicking out his foot…which you may remember was almost the exact play that won a regular season game for Chauncey Billups and the Nuggets against the Mavs back in January (check the clip here at the 1:50 mark, although it’s pretty bad quality).
  • Damn.

GOLD STAR OF THE NIGHT: The Gold Star of the Night goes to Brandon Bass.  Dirk has been playing well all series long and deserves his props, but Bass provided something both unexpected and delightful tonight.  Shooting 14 free throws off the bench in just 25 minutes is quite a feat, and Bass is quite a player.

Denver Nuggets 117, Dallas Mavericks 105

Posted by Rob Mahoney on May 6, 2009 under Recaps | 30 Comments to Read

Photo by Garrett W. Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images.

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Have the courage to live. Anyone can die.
-Robert Cody

Brick by brick, the Mavs built the foundation for a victory.  They survived 1st quarter adversity to remain within striking distance.  The bench stepped up as Josh Howard went down.  They clawed their way into a game that they really had no business being in.  And yet, when a Jason Terry three finally pushed the Mavs ahead 74-72, I couldn’t shake the unmistakable feeling that it would all come crashing down.

Boy, did it, in a way that may seem eerily familiar.

After hanging, and hanging, and hanging with a Nuggets team playing better basketball than them on both sides of the floor, the Mavs blew a perfect opportunity by scoring just 2 points in the first 6 minutes of the fourth quarter.  There were rim-outs, there were horrible turnovers, and there were blocked shots, all of which seemed to end in free buckets for Denver on the break.  The offensive magic that pulled the Mavs through the third quarter unscathed was left gasping the thin Denver air, and the Nuggets danced on the grave of the Mavs’ dead and buried transition defense.  The team that wanted to turn this series into a marathon was run out of the gym, and I can’t decide whether ‘leak out’ better describes the nemesis of the Mavs’ defense or the insufferable feeling of their playoff hopes dripping away.  Each drop brings us a bit closer to another playoff loss puddled on the floor, and another step towards the team staring itself down in the puddle’s reflection.

For three quarters, this was a game.  You can thank Dirk Nowitzki (35 points on 20 shots, 9 rebounds, 4 assists) for that.  Dirk’s impact was anything but the silent assassinations we’re used to; each fall-away and maneuver in the post was deafening.  He served as a constant reminder that no Nugget can guard him (don’t worry, I’ll get to the TNT crew later), and also that the Mavs’ offense can’t function without him.  That’s where Denver’s defense really excels.  They can’t stop Dirk, and they don’t even do a very good job of limiting him.  But the second that the offense stops going through Dirk or the second that he sits on the bench, the Mavs look bewildered.  Our possessions begin with a lot of dribbling on the perimeter by Jason Kidd or Jason Terry, and usually end with a turnover or a forced jumper at the shot clock buzzer.  They haven’t taken away our best player, but they may have taken away much more.

The number of open dunks and layups the Nuggets had was humiliating.  Erick Dampier, Ryan Hollins, and James Singleton finally started stopping the freebies with a steady supply of fouls, but the attempts the Nuggets were able to get on the whole were entirely too easy.  The Mavs would grind and pick and squeeze two points out of a jumper, and the Nuggets would respond in a matter of seconds by hitting a wide open Nene for a dunk.  It’s impossible to say exactly how much Dampier’s ankle is limiting him, but for his sake I hope it feels like a ball and chain.  Otherwise, Nene has basically ripped Damp’s heart out of his chest, demoralizing and emasculating him on national television with rolls to the basket, thunderous dunks, and sly work in the post.  Nene finished with 25 and 8, but it seemed like his highlight reel would last for days.

The Mavs’ bench does deserve the appropriate credit for their offensive exploits, but the defense was bad enough that no Mav should leave this recap unmarred.  Jason Terry finally looked like Jason Terry again, registering 21 points and 6 assists off the bench.  Ryan Hollins was the Mavs’ most effective center, and he somehow corralled his speed and athleticism into a few buckets.  J.J. Barea and Brandon Bass vaguely resemble the contributors we saw against San Antonio, but even their mild success was balanced with a steady diet of defensive failure.

On his return, JET ran headfirst into his foil, J.R. Smith (21 points on 6-10 shooting).  Smith showed his full range by making alert, intelligent passes to open teammates, and pulling up early for an errant 26-footer at the end of the second quarter that allowed Kidd to run the length of the court and hit a bomb of his own to pull the Mavs within three going into the half.  He was every bit the Maverick irritant, coming away with a few steals and hitting big shots to stop the Mavs’ momentum dead in its tracks.  I’m sure George Karl will fall asleep smiling.

Carlisle made frequent use of the zone defense, and personally, I’m not sure what to think about it.  It seemed to limit the number of successful slashes, but the Mavs gave up entirely too many offensive rebounds to Denver’s bigs, and surrendered a few baskets to backdoor cuts.  It’s hard to tell exactly how effective it was without some in-depth analysis, but to be honest it seemed like a wash.

Carmelo Anthony (25 points, 5 rebounds, 5 assists) was again brilliant in the fourth quarter, capping an otherwise quiet game with a 15-point explosion to put the game out of reach.  Whether foul trouble or stomach pains have kept Melo mortal, his close-out performances have been stellar.  He’s hitting tough jumpers without forgetting to attack the basket, and essentially using a style that is quintessentially Melo to improve on his perceived shortcomings.  There’s no doubt that he has evolved as a player, and when that fully-evolved form is on display it is to be both feared and respected.

Closing thoughts:

  • I can’t think of anything that makes me angrier than Jason Kidd penetrating all the way to the rim, and declining a layup for a chance to whip the ball around to a shooter.  Truly infuriating basketball.
  • The TNT crew (and by that I mean Kenny, Charles, and C-Webb) really grilled Dirk for describing Denver’s defenders with positive attributes.  Apparently in saying that Nene and Martin are strong and Andersen can challenge shots, Dirk was ceding some gravely important psychological edge.  Oh, but then he kind of dropped 35 on them.  A big thanks to Ernie Johnson and P.J. Carlesimo for being voices of reason and actually listening to Dirk’s soundbite before they frolick off into exaggeration land.
  • Denver’s first quarter parade to the free throw line was brutal.  They entered the bonus with about 6 minutes remaining, and shot 14 free throw attempts in the first quarter alone.
  • Jason Kidd’s performance was much easier to swallow, but with all the free three-pointers he blew, his performance still hurt.  On top of that, Chauncey Billups (18 points, 8 assists, 4-9 3FG) finally emerged from whatever cave he was hiding in, so not only was Kidd sub-par, he was outclassed.
  • For those who don’t know, Josh Howard missed three of the four quarters with some swelling and soreness in his ankle.

GOLD STAR OF THE NIGHT: The Gold Star of the Night goes to Dirk.  Let’s just leave it at that, because even though Dirk had a wonderful night offensively, this team doesn’t deserve a superlative right now.

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.

So, Children, What Did We Learn Today?

Posted by Rob Mahoney on April 29, 2009 under Commentary | 4 Comments to Read

The first round is in the books, and the Spurs are no more (for now).  There have been a lot of micro-level observations about the Mavs’ play and their responses to the Spurs’ specific strategies, but it’s about time that we make a good, honest appraisal of where this team is.

  • The Mavs have some fight in them.  In the regular season, the Mavs could gut it out with contenders one night and then blow one against Milwaukee another.  But we’ve seen a completely different look from the team in the last five games (well, four of the last five games).  Where the old Mavs would roll over and hit the snooze button, the new Mavs leap out of bed fully energized and karate chop the alarm clock in half.  They’ve been able to leap gaudy offensive efficiency numbers in a single bound, and their defense has been passable enough to secure wins.  Tony Parker and Tim Duncan took their turns going on mini-runs in this series, and the Mavs built on the resilency they showed in the final games of the regular season and fought back.  Call it experience, call it better offensive execution, or call it mental fortitude, but when the Mavs get hit they’re hitting back.  That’s pretty huge progress from a squad that tended to fold like origami when faced with the slightest coercion a few months ago.
  • The Mavs are not an elite defensive team, but they’re also not a bad one.  They currently rank 8th among playoff teams in defensive efficiency at 102.9, which for comparison’s sake would have ranked 7th in the regular season.  They’re notably better than Houston (104.0), one of the best defensive teams in the playoffs.  The sample size is hideously small, but there is a pretty big piece of anecdotal evidence that goes in the Mavs’ favor: against the Spurs, the Mavs were able to stop the Spurs from doing what they wanted to do.  Poppovich wants to use Tony Parker and Tim Duncan as a mechanism to open up three point shooters, which can kill teams from the corners.  Parker and Duncan are obviously still big-time contributors, but San Antonio’s offensive strategy hinges on those shooters.  I’d be lying if I said the Mavs completely took away that strategy.  Parker’s deep penetration still allowed plenty of open looks.  But as the series went on and the team resigned itself to the fact that Tony Parker’s going to be able to get his, the approach shifted.  Kidd and Barea began playing the angles, hoping to limit Parker and funnel him into the help rather than stop him.  And on the perimeter, Josh Howard, Jason Terry, and even Dirk were locked in place on the shooters, either expecting the kick-out or rotating perfectly.  The defensive rotations and shot contesting in Game 5 was some of the best we’ve seen from the Mavs all season.  Don’t discount that, especially when this offense only needs a little breathing room to win.
  • Josh Howard is back.  We all had our fingers crossed that throwback Josh wasn’t a mirage, and we lucked out.  Frankly, he deserves a post all to himself, and he’s going to get one.  But for now, it’s worth noting that there are four players that are legitimate stars on this team, even if the stat sheet isn’t in their favor every night.
  • The bench seems deeper than ever, and the mob is ready to contribute in a big way.  J.J. Barea was pegged as a potential X-factor for the Spurs series, but Brandon Bass’ and Ryan Hollins’ contributions were nearly as valuable.  The ability to throw a variety of defensive looks at Tim Duncan to keep him on his toes while also having a safety net for Erick Dampier’s foul trouble was indispensible.  James Singleton has been lost in the shuffle of Josh Howard’s return, but he could be a piece of the puzzle to defend Carmelo Anthony (supposing Denver guts out another win).  The success of Barea and Bass make stopping the offense that much more difficult, and they’ve eased the burden on the big guns by playing smart, gutsy basketball.  Plus, Antoine Wright was a non-factor in the last series, but he’ll be an important defensive piece in a series against either the Nuggets or Hornets.  At various points throughout the season, I’ve worried that a bench consisting of Barea, Hollins, Bass, and Singleton was akin to loading up your pistol with peanuts when you ran out of bullets.  Not only did they each prove me wrong individually, but on the whole this bench is stronger than I’ve given them credit for.
  • Blocking out a star won’t stop its light from shining through.  The bench was so successful in part because of all the attention Dirk and JET received.  The Spurs were clearly ready to let Kidd, Josh, and the rest of the bunch decide the fate of this series, but those open shots and clear drives don’t happen unless Terry is getting trapped on the wing or Dirk is doubled at the free throw line.  Both of their shot attempts were down, but their floor presence was unmistakable.  Dirk showed off his much-improved passing game, and both he and Terry patiently waited out the defense.  Yet even with both shooting significantly fewer shots, the Mavs’ offense looked unstoppable at times.  The ball is moving to the open man, the turnover rate is as impressive as ever, and Dirk and JET are still making their mark despite their point totals.  Don’t get me wrong, I’d still openly weep when Dirk goes for 50, but every time he makes a bullet pass to a cutter, an adorable little angel puppy gets its wings.  Aww.

I Will Never Tire of This

Posted by Rob Mahoney on under xOther | 2 Comments to Read

Photo by Danny Bollinger.

He might even be better at it than Dirk.  Here’s to hoping Bass pulls it off in-game.

Dallas Mavericks 88, San Antonio Spurs 67

Posted by Rob Mahoney on April 24, 2009 under Recaps | 9 Comments to Read

Photo by AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez.

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Of course life is bizarre, the more bizarre it gets, the more interesting it is. The only way to approach it is to make yourself some popcorn and enjoy the show.”
-Unknown

We’re 144 minutes into this series, and the Mavs have played catch-up to gut out a tough win, had their egos taken behind the barn and shot, and completely obliterated the entire Spurs roster.  Three very different games, and three very different impressions that have all asserted one thing: we’ve learned nothing about this series that we didn’t know coming in.

But last night, that nothing sure was fun to watch.

It’s hard to expect the Mavs’ epic defensive performance to have any kind of staying power.  The Spurs won’t be psychologically scarred by the thrashing they took last night; if anything, they’ll be as motivated as ever to control Game 4.  But in a vacuum, playoff performances don’t get much more dominant than the thorough smackdown the Mavs laid down on the Spurs.  Dallas held the lead throughout, and appeared focused on grooming that lead early.  A five point lead wasn’t enough.  An eight point lead wasn’t enough.  A fifteen point lead wasn’t enough.  And as the differential kept climbing and climbing, it was easy to see that Dallas’ weapon of choice wasn’t killer offensive execution, but rather a defense with fangs, claws, talons, horns, and fully automatic machine guns.

If you’d like a face for the Mavs’ exemplary defense, I’ll give you three: Jason Kidd, Josh Howard, and Erick Dampier.  Tony Parker was obviously in the Mavs’ crosshairs, and they successfully held TP to 14 points on 5-14 shooting with 3 turnovers.  If that surprised you, then brace yourself: that defense on Parker was keyed primarily by Jason Kidd.  Kidd hardly guarded Parker exclusively, but he provided the groundwork and a point of reference for J.J. and Parker’s other defenders.  He hustled to get into position, tried his damnedest to slow Parker even half a step, and used timing and hustle to irritate Tony into turnovers or misses.  Essentially, Kidd succeeded in doing everything Barea had done previously, but the defense’s accomplishments were even more pronounced because of shot-blocking from the weak side.  Enter Howard and Dampier.  On Howard’s best nights, he’s a good on-ball defender and a great off-ball one.  This was one of those nights.  Howard played the passing lanes and forced his share of turnovers, but cemented the Mavs’ defensive gameplan by coming out of nowhere for huge blocks.  Dampier followed suit, protecting the rim from Parker and Duncan (who finished with just 4 points and 2 rebounds while shooting 2-9 from the field) without fatally injuring anybody.  Parker wasn’t knocked flat on his back, but he might as well have been.  Also, Dampier was much improved in defending the screen and roll, showing strong on the screen to halt Parker’s progress and block the easy passing angle.  It may not seem like much, but it means the world.

The best defensive strategy the Mavs employed all night was strictly a preventative one: run up the score as quickly and demonstratively as possible, and force Pop to start thinking about Saturday.  The turnover between last night’s game and the game early on Saturday afternoon is shorter than you’d expect in the playoffs, and I’d wager Tim Duncan’s knees don’t much like the notion.  As such, it seems perfectly reasonable for Gregg Poppovich to have an ear trained to the wailing of Timmy’s joints.  With the game clearly out of reach, Duncan and Parker took a seat.  Not only did that make their box score output look even dimmer, but it significantly curbed the risk of any San Antonio comeback.  I am not afraid of Jacque Vaughn.

Maybe the point total doesn’t wow you, but Dallas’ offense was tremendous as well.  J.J. Barea (13 points, 7 assists, just one turnover) got the start in place of Antoine Wright, and the Mavs reaped instant dividends with his 9 points and 2 assists in the first frame.  Throwing Barea into the fire early not only helps facilitate the offense with a player who is a superior shooter and ball-handler to Wright, but also poses virtually no risk defensively with Roger Mason Jr. and Michael Finley on the floor.  Barea also relieves Kidd and gives the Mavs another transition defender to pick-up Parker, a luxury that cannot be discounted.  Carlisle made a big adjustment in giving Barea the start, and he deserves all the credit.  One can only hope that the the adjustment’s impact mirrors Avery Johnson’s sub of Devin Harris into the starting lineup in 2006, a chess move that provided the basis for a Game 7 checkmate.

As Barea goes, apparently so too does Brandon Bass (10 points, 5 rebounds, 2 blocks).  Both were instrumental in the Mavs’ victories, lending further legitimacy to the thought that this battle won’t be won in the stars, but in the trenches.

It needs to be said that the Spurs shot atrociously.  Part of that was a renewed interest in defense from the Mavs, but even the best D can’t force a team into shooting 2 of 17 from three.  But with the way the Spurs were shooting, it only made defending Tony Parker that much easier.  Parker’s drive always come with the threat of a kick-out to the corner, but with those threats neutralized by sound defense and an off night to balance SanAn’s white hot shooting in Game 1, the Spurs best playmaker developed a bit of tunnelvision.  All the easier to block, my pretty.

Dirk Nowitzki (20 points on 8-12 FG, 7 rebounds) has officially arrived at the 2009 Playoffs.  Welcome aboard, buddy.  His numbers are far from daunting, but Dirk put on a dominant shooting performance that gave us a taste of things to come.  Don’t expect 67% shooting every night, but you can’t count on Dirk to be more of an offensive factor from here on out.  Book it.

Closing thoughts:

  • The Spurs’ 67 points was the all-time low allowed by a Maverick playoff opponent.  Booyah.
  • If the bright side of the blowout for the Spurs was getting Tony Parker and Tim Duncan plenty of rest, then the Mavs have their benefits eclipsed.  Not only did the Mavs put together a completely dominant two-way performance on their home court and build up their confidence, but Dirk Nowitzki, Josh Howard, and Jason Kidd all had comfy seats on the bench for the entire fourth quarter, and Jason Terry played just 24 minutes in the entire game.
  • Jason Terry (10 points, 4-9 FG, 2 assists, 3 turnovers) is facing some brutal traps whenever he and Dirk start up the two man game (name drop!).  It’s frustrating, but Terry’s not forcing it and is generally getting the ball to his open teammates.  I’d love for Terry to get open looks, but if trapping JET means a wide open Dirk is waiting at the free throw line, I think I’ll find a way to cope.
  • Josh Howard has added a great wrinkle to his game: passing to dive cutters after drawing extra attention.  Old Josh pulls up and lets the shot fly, regardless of the fact that its heavily contested.  But since his return, Josh has shown a willingness to dish to that wide open cutter, creating an easy as ABC bucket for Erick Dampier or Brandon Bass.
  • If you watched tape of Dirk dealing with double teams in 2007 and today, you’d see two completely different players.  The Spurs continued to throw doubles at Dirk from a variety of angles, and occasionally even attempt to play the angles on the swing pass to the perimeter.  Dirk was having none of that, and either hoisted a clear look, found Kidd to reset the play, or bypassed the passing lane pressure to find a wide open shooter in the corner.  Tremendous.

GOLD STAR OF THE NIGHT: The Gold Star of the Night goes to Rick Carlisle (0 points, 0 rebounds, 0 assists…but 0 turnovers).  Moving J.J. into the starting lineup seemed like an obvious move, but only because of Rick’s willingness to adjust and compromise his previous strategy in order to meet situational needs.  Carlisle is neither too proud nor too stubborn to make the big adjustment, a trait which the greatest coaches share and the tragic coaches lack.  This team came out ready to roll offensively, and the defensive strategy was completely overhauled.  The execution on both ends was spectacular, and there won’t be a whisper of motivational issues on Friday.  That’s obviously not all Carlisle, but it certainly starts with Rick and his staff.  Kudos.

San Antonio Spurs 105, Dallas Mavericks 84

Posted by Rob Mahoney on April 21, 2009 under Recaps | 8 Comments to Read

Photo by AP Photo/Eric Gay.

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“Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.”
-Gregg Popovich, before this game

Dallas was supposed to repeat a lot of things from their Game 1 performance, but playing miserable defense wasn’t one of them.  Shots on the perimeter were to be strongly contested, Parker’s life was supposed to be as difficult as possible, and the Spurs’ supporting cast was sure to fall back to earth.  None of the above came to fruition, and the only thing sloppier and less effective than the Mavs’ offense was their defense.  Mavericks: you’ve got some ‘splaining to do.

Much like Saturday, the Mavs were hit in the mouth early.  But all the moments in Game 1 where the team seemed gutsy or resilient were vanquished under Tony Parker’s (38 points, 16-22 FG, 8 assists) thumb.  The Mavs trapped, they switched, and they hedged…or at least they engaged in defensive sequences that remotely looked like they should have been those things.  I’m not sure that Parker is ever fully solvable if he has the mind to drive at will and the determination to break a team’s spirit, but it’s certainly possible to slow the guy.  The Mavs couldn’t even accomplish that much, and the myriad of strategies they threw at TP were poorly executed due to technique and personnel.

The defensive ineptitude surely started on the perimeter with Antoine Wright, Jason Terry, Jason Kidd, and J.J. Barea, but the interior defense of Brandon Bass, Dirk Nowitzki, and Erick Dampier left plenty to be desired.  The worst part is that it wasn’t just Parker: the perimeter guys had enough trouble staying in front of Roger Mason, and Drew Gooden went Tim Duncan all over Dirk, Damp, and Bass.  Tony Parker’s huge night is simply the one number punchline for how awful the Mavs’ defense was, when in reality they had trouble stopping anyone wearing white.

Part of the blame for Parker’s explosion has to rest on Rick Carlisle’s shoulders.  Frankly, I’m not sure how any team that knew Parker and the Spurs were their opponents could be so ill-prepared to defend the high screen and roll.  The playcall is practically sewn on to the front of San Antonio’s jerseys.  Parker’s quick and intelligent, and to allow him to abuse your defense on the screen like that is simply poor preparation.  Erick Dampier has never been great in that facet of defending big men and it’s arguably the weakest point of Dirk’s defensive repertoire, but both need to do a much better job of hedging and recovering after the screen.  The Mavs were literally running into each other in their scramble to deny Parker the lane.  Embarassing.

But please, don’t be naive enough to hinge this defensive breakdown on Kidd’s shoulders.  And don’t put everything on Barea, or Terry, or Wright, either.  Only with a true team effort can a defense churn out such a wholly and completely miserable display.

Still, give Parker his credit.  Though he had plenty of looks at wide open jumpers, he used every advantage given to him to shape the game with his will.  He converted tough shot after tough shot in the lane, and continued to make defenders look foolish with his game-changing speed and tremendous ability to change directions on a whim.  This is one of the best point guards in the league, and he made sure everyone in Dallas knew that.

To make matters worse, the Mavs overwhelmingly efficient offense nevere showed up.  The Spurs defense was suffocating, with frequent double teams and on-court pressure from angles I didn’t know existed.  The Spurs honed in on every Mav that could potentially give them trouble, and Dirk’s off-night made things pretty difficult.  And by off-night I mean off-night — he airballed a three pointer.  Jason Terry (16 points on 15 shots) found a little breathing room, but just wasn’t quite right offensively.  Josh Howard (3-8 FG, 7 points, 3 rebounds) was nowhere to be found, despite his tremendous performance in Game 1.  Somehow, the Spurs managed to do the unthinkable: they tightened up and negated the offensive impact of every player on the Mavs roster.

Despite all of Dallas’ offensive and defensive flaws, they did manage to make a few runs.  The lead constantly seemed to drift back to the 11-13 range (even as late as the third quarter), occasionally even dipping into single digits.  The Spurs looked like they just couldn’t separate, because every significant increase in the lead was met with an eventual spurt by the Mavs.  But then, they separated.  Boy, did they separate.

Tim Duncan (13 points, 11 rebounds, 5 assists) showed up, but frankly he didn’t have to do all that much.  Having a future Hall-of-Famer that can go to work in the post is surprisingly irrelevant when the opposing team’s defense will cede points to anyone holding a roundball.

Gregg Poppovich clearly lied: the Spurs’ coverage of Brandon Bass was much more aggressive.  In Game 1, Bass didn’t so much as smell a double-team, but in Game 2, he had two defenders breathing down his neck every time he caught the ball on the wing.  Barea was apparently enough of a bother to draw the attention of Bruce Bowen, and it pretty much shut Barea down.  J.J. made a few shots, but his attempts in the lane were quickly smothered by all kinds of help defense.  The results weren’t pretty.  The height advantage that Spurs’ defenders have on Barea can make adjusting to him much easier, and last night it limited J.J. from getting anything going inside or penetrating cleanly enough to get out a good pass to the perimeter.

The three point disparity wasn’t even there.  Both teams attempted 18 threes, with the Mavs making 6 and the Spurs making 7.  Dallas just got punked in every way possible by the Spurs, be it by means of tremendous defense, offensive penetration, or just Tony Parker.  All the credit for this win goes to Pop and Parker; the coach made every adjustment necessary to take away the most dangerous weapons on the court, stop penetration, and prevent Dallas from rebounding on the offensive end, and Parker just single-handedly decimated the Mavs’ defense.

Closing thoughts:

  • The flagrant foul called on Jason Terry in the second quarter was ridiculous.  But, to be fair, Dirk was getting plenty of calls, and Terry’s drawn foul to end the first half is typically a no-call.  I’m not saying it wasn’t a foul, just that under those circumstances, it’s rarely called.
  • The Mavs used a zone defense that slowed the Spurs down for a few possessions to end the first half, but it didn’t get much play in the second half.  I wouldn’t mind seeing more.
  • Dallas did as much to kill their own momentum as SanAn did to stifle it.  Every time the Mavs’ offense was finally putting something together, JET would launch a quick, contested three, or Josh Howard would over-do it by driving into three defenders without a plan of attack.  These are not smart basketball plays, and though they’re not a reason why you lose by 21, they are reasons why you lose.
  • Don’t forget to stop by for the live chat at 2 EST/1 CST to talk about this one.

GOLD STAR OF THE NIGHT: I’m not really sure there is one.  There was no star in the losing cause, no potential savior.  There was no one.  In fact, let’s just give it to Tony Parker.  He was good at basketballing.

Heard It Through the Grapevine

Posted by Rob Mahoney on April 20, 2009 under xOther | Read the First Comment

  • Joey from Straight Bangin’ sometimes writes about basketball, but always writes in a way you can’t help but admire.  His post is largely appreciating the Spurs as a team, a franchise, and an entity, but it does paint quite a picture of the current Mavs: “After years of manic tinkering, reactive decisions, and impulsive risks, always trying to be at the leading edge of the industry, Dallas came into this season relative staid, somewhat forgotten, and widely dismissed. Many people thought the Mavs would fail to make the playoffs, and it was generally accepted that the team was this almost grotesque amalgamation of mismatched parts, the ruins of all those hurried decisions and ever changing new directions…The Mavericks, instead, have coalesced, and now play with this assured calm. And don’t mistake calm as a synonym for plodding or boring. It’s not a stylistic designation; it’s one of identity. Suddenly, Dallas just seems to get what it is, and more importantly, it likes itself. I’d imagine that being marginalized was a key component in this odd renaissance of collective self-esteem. The Mavs are much more a team than they have been in the past. Far from a series of players colliding as each seeks out an identity, and far from a group in the throes of constant upheaval, Dallas is actually content to be what it is…Suddenly, Dallas is very much like San Antonio in this regard. And as such, I am suffering this bizarre sort of Stockholm Syndrome. I should hate the Mavericks for stealing away my moments with Pop and Timmy, yet I secretly love Dallas thanks to the identity metamorphosis.”
  • An appraisal from Graydon Gordian of 48 Minutes of Hell: “For the time being, I have few recommendations to give. The theories behind the decisions we made on both ends of the ball remain sound; our difficulties lie in the execution. The most glaring failure was our interior defense: If we limit their points in the paint, we will quickly regain control of the series.”  The Spurs seems to agree, and the Mavs hope to stay a step ahead.
  • Tom Ziller of The Sporting Blog: “For years, analysts have been racing each other pronounce the correct time of death for the Spurs. In the process, they have all been wrong. Pardon me, after watching S.A. dominate the Mavs for more than a half before submitting to incredibly hot shooting, for having a little patience with a team that has proved its power time and time again.”  We’d all be wise to heed Ziller’s advice.  This series is far from over.
  • Tim MacMahon does a wonderful job breaking down the stints of each defender on Tony Parker.  The good news: J.J. Barea.  You knew that already.  The bad news?  Antoine Wright had some serious problems staying in front of Parker, and figures to be a relative non-factor in defending TP.  Don’t worry, Antoine, we have need for you in other places.
  • The Mavs are oozing confidence right now.  Eddie Sefko of the Dallas Morning News: “The Mavericks played the second half Saturday like they knew they were the superior team and were supposed to cart a W off the AT&T Center court. There was no tentativeness.’We knew we could come out here and get the win,” J.J. Barea said. “I’m not going to lie – it was a good feeling. But we still know we’ve got a long way to go. We’ve got to beat them three more times. It’s not an easy task. We’ve got to keep our heads and not get too excited.’”
  • Jakedfw of Mavs Moneyball drops some truth bombs, and they are awfully startling: “The Mavs defense stunk. Sure, the Mavs played some great defense during stretches of the game, but that can’t hide the fact that we gave up nearly 100 points in a game played at a snail’s pace.  To put this game in perspective, the Mavs had a defensive efficiency of 119.8. This is very similar to the defensive efficiency they had in the Utah game on February 5, which was actually a slightly better 118.6. The result of that game where the Mavs played better defense? Well, you may remember it—the Mavs lost by 28, 115-87. And this, in a nutshell, is the scary part of the Mavs this post-season: Their offense has become so spectacularly good that they can play worse defense than in a game they lost by 28 earlier in the season and still win.”
  • Jason Kidd needs some Pepto.  Do we have a problem on our hands?
  • Mike Finger of the San Antonio Express-News: “Watching Josh Howard torch the Spurs in the first game of the Dallas Mavericks’ postseason Saturday, a few onlookers might have thought they were seeing a story involving renewed dedication, or healing, or obstacles overcome, or even redemption. The problem is Howard thinks all of that is baloney. Told Sunday that teammate Jason Terry complimented the way he’s been able to focus recently, Howard said, ‘Same focus I’ve had since I’ve been in the NBA.’ Asked if his 25-point performance in the Mavericks’ Game 1 victory was a sign that his injured ankle is finally feeling better, Howard said, ‘No, it’s the same.’ When someone mentions the turbulence of his past year — one in which trouble popped up everywhere from talk radio to YouTube — Howard asked, ‘What have I been through?’ And as for the idea that he’s somehow using this postseason as a way to show how determined he is? ‘I was determined last year,’ Howard said, ‘and (expletive) got blown out of proportion.’”  Regardless of where you stand or stood in regard to Howard’s recent past, he’s been turning lots of heads lately.  I’ll raise my glass to the prospect of him turning a few more.
  • I’m not sure I agree with Jean-Jacques Taylor of the Dallas Morning News when he seems to indicate that bench play has been a strength all season long.  I won’t argue that JET has been incredible.  But lest we forget, the bench presented huge problems early in the season.  Who was going to compensate for Josh Howard’s injury?  Who was going to provide scoring on the second unit besides Terry?  Barea and Bass had effective stretches, but there were dark times.  The reserves have emerged in a big way of late, but let’s not fool ourselves by saying that the bench has been a strength the entire season.
  • Kelly Dwyer of Ball Don’t Lie: “…you’ve got to admit, there are some troubling signs for the Spurs. For all the talk about the Spurs supposedly falling way off defensively during the regular season, let’s get real, this team was fifth in the NBA in defensive efficiency. Now, that’s down from third last season and second in the NBA when they won it all back in 2007, but that’s still a pretty stout year overall. And especially considering Duncan’s ineffectiveness on that end down the stretch, and so many of Manu Ginobili’s minutes being replaced by the hard working but ultimately step-slow Michael Finley. About 130 points per 100 possessions? With Dirk Nowitzki sitting most of the first half? At home? No, the Mavs couldn’t guard the Spurs at times, but they’re supposed to be average defensively. San Antonio’s issues on that end are a lot more troubling.” Dwyer is absolutely right, though.  The Spurs are a step down defensively based on their own ridiculous measuring stick, but this is still an elite team on that end of the ball.  And yet Dallas was able to put together a remarkably efficient game in spite of a sandbag of a first quarter.  If the Mavs lose this series, it’s doubtful that the blame will lie on the offense.  Rather, Michael Finley, Bruce Bowen, and Roger Mason will be standing in the corners, bloody daggers in hand.
  • Somehow I missed Basketball-Reference.com’s preview, but here it is.  And for comparative purposes, here’s the Spurs.
  • Mike Fisher of DallasBasketball.com: “Well, after JJB’s sweet turn on Saturday (13 points, seven in the final quarter), the Spurs have a decision to make. Bowen on JJB? Then who covers Jet?Parker on JJB? Then how does Tony ever get a blow? Alter the rotation to include young Hill and or old Jacques Vaughn on JJB? Playoff series are all about game-to-game adjustments, and I’m sure Pop will come up with … something. But I’m not sure why he wasn’t able to ‘come up with something’ going into G1. Didn’t he already know JJB was capable of this?”  Well, Pop?  What up?
  • Matt Moore of Hardwood Paroxysm: “The best thing about [Barea] on Parker was that Parker would burn him, and Barea would go right back to work. That’s a big thing to do against the Spurs. They’re effective against everything, but if one thing works 8 out of 10 times, then you look stupid 2 of the 10, you should still do it. Barea risked Parker going to the rack and breaking his ankles to not give him the first step of his explosion.”
  • Mike Monroe of the San Antonio Express-News relays a question that has never, ever, ever been asked before: “Was Mavericks point guard J.J. Barea the chicken, and center Erick Dampier the egg in Game 1, and which came first?”

Dallas Mavericks 105, Spurs 97

Posted by Rob Mahoney on April 19, 2009 under Recaps | 2 Comments to Read

Photo by AP Photo/Darren Abate.

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“Surprise is the greatest gift which life can grant us.
-Boris Pasternak

The fires of the fourth quarter may forge championship mettle, but the finale was hardly the most important frame in Saturday’s Spurs-Mavs showdown.  What Dallas was able to do in the fourth is remarkable and noteworthy in its own right, but we’d be looking at a very different outcome if not for a fantastic display of Maverick resiliency to finish the first half.

With almost nine minutes remaining in the second quarter, Dirk Nowitzki picked up his third foul, and immediately subbed out.  The Mavs trailed by nine, and things were going from bad to worse.  But a decidedly Dirk-less lineup didn’t seem to mind; Brandon Bass, Josh Howard, Erick Dampier, and Jason Terry managed to not only jack up Dallas’ defensive intensity, but actually trim the lead against the likes of Tim Duncan and Tony Parker.  The Mavericks forcibly removed the Spurs’ boot from their throats, rose to their feet, and started swinging.  Every punch didn’t connect, but the fact that the Mavs sans Dirk were able to stand their ground and then some against a clicking San Antonio squad is very indicative of how this Maverick team has evolved.  A few months ago, maybe the Mavs folded in that second quarter.  Maybe the sight of their own shots clanging off the rim would discourage them from bringing the appropriate defensive focus, and the Spurs would go hog wild on a team crippled by the loss of its star due to foul trouble.  That nine minute stretch would be the kiss of death.

Yet here we are, and here the Mavs are, standing tall on their 1-0 series lead.  That second quarter (and, in turn, what it represents) doesn’t mean everything, but it certainly means something.

It’s way too early to judge what will work and what won’t work over the course of this series, but there is one thing I feel very comfortably saying: J.J. Barea defends Tony Parker (24 points, 9-22 FG, 8 assists) more competently than I ever could have imagined.  We know that Barea has the quicks.  The man runs around like his shorts are on fire.  On offense, that typically translates into creative drives and open looks, and on defense, that typically translates into…well, not all that much.  Barea has been a bit of an irritant as a defender, but I don’t know that we’ve seen him truly inhibit a legitimate scoring threat in a meaningful way.  After last night, I can say that no more; Barea didn’t lock down Tony Parker as much as he got under his skin, staying with him step for step, getting all up in his business, and putting those amateur acting lessons with Carl Weathers to work by putting on a one-man show for the zebras.  Does Barea flop?  Oh, most definitely.  He exaggerates the contact, and he does what he has to to sell the call and compensate for his height.  But to angrily classify J.J. as a ‘flopper’ is to ignore the effectiveness of his defense.  He’s not creating contact where there is none, he’s simply putting a flashing neon sign on his back that says “OFF ARM PUSH-OFF!” or “LOOK, A LOWERED SHOULDER!”.

On top of it all, Barea (13 points, 3 assists) came up big on the offensive end.  He was so effective in fact, that he stole fourth quarter minutes away from Jason Kidd and Josh Howard.  As far as I’m concerned, every second was well deserved.  J.J.’s shortcomings were practically invisible, and he confidently drove to the basket at will.  He finished his drives well, but those plays dwarfed in comparison to Barea’s decision making and creation for his teammates.  By the time Barea was more than a blip on the Spurs’ radar, he was taking advantage of all the extra attention by setting up Antoine Wright in the corner or Brandon Bass at the free throw line.  Just beautiful, beautiful basketball.

I don’t expect Barea to hinder Parker consistently, and I don’t expect his bag of tricks to always come up roses.  Parker will bounce back, and with help from the tape and his coaches, he probably won’t fall into the same traps.  But J.J. was able to make Tony overdribble and indecisive, and that tickles me a bit.  Maybe it won’t work every night, but on a night where Dirk and JET aren’t scorching, it was exactly what the Mavs needed.

Brandon Bass (14 points, 7-9 FG, 4 rebounds) was nearly as brilliant, but succeeded without drawing too much attention.  His defense and rebounding were exactly what we’ve come to expect from Bass, and his offense anchored an important stretch for the Mavs in the second quarter.  He played foil to the Spurs’ Drew Gooden, and I’d say that he succeeded greatly in that regard, despite Gooden’s contributions.

Dirk (19 points, 8 rebounds) was good, but was unexpectedly limited.  Some of that credit goes to the Spurs’ defensive pressure, some of it goes to Dirk’s random off half, and the remainder can be chalked up to shot selection.  All kinds of Spurs lined up against #41, and Bruce Bowen and Drew Gooden each had some success.  Like Parker, I wouldn’t necessarily count on Dirk being limited to these numbers again.  But it’s good to know that the Mavs are no longer damsels in distress, waiting for Dirk to put on his cape and save them from the cold, cruel world.

Erick Dampier (10 points, 11 rebounds) showed exactly how valuable he can be in a series against a player of Tim Duncan’s skill set.  Duncan’s line was far from shabby (27 points, 13-24 FG, 9 rebounds), but Damp bothered Duncan just enough to cause a few of those misses, and his aggressive board-work earned him more than a few buckets and earned his team a few possessions.  On some nights it’s hard to appreciate Dampier, and on others he is completely infuriating.  But he usually shows up to play against the biggest of the big, and though the box score may not agree, Dampier was very effective against Duncan and co. last night.

I’ll end it with one more player note: Josh Howard (25 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists) has officially found himself.  Some of his shots were hunted and a few jumpers were clearly forced.  Still, Josh took over the third quarter (in case you didn’t get the memo, the third quarter is the new first quarter) offensively and displayed his wonderfully high activity level on defense.  The “X-Factor” was exquisite, and Josh’s ankle troubles seemed a distant memory.  Just to make sure, Josh took an early seat on the bench, sitting for the entire fourth quarter.

More to come later today on the surprising (Barea’s defense) and disturbing (Spurs’ three pointers) trends from Game 1.

Closing thoughts:

  • Michael Finley was unbelievable.  He finished with 19 points on 5-5 shooting from three, and several of those attempts were from well beyond the line.  Fortunately for the Mavs, Fin seems destined to fall back down to Earth.  It’s just the way he is.  But, it’s more symptomatic of the real problem: the Mavs simply were not sticking to the Spurs’ shooters.  That could be a problem.
  • Jason Terry turned in a subpar night with just 12 points.  I think it’s safe to say that he has Gregg Popovich’s attention, because all kinds of Spurs were playing denial D on Terry all night long.
  • One game down, and still no sign of George Hill, the Spur who has the best chance of limiting Barea.  If Pop continues his hard stance on not playing Hill and the Spurs lose the series, he could be facing a summer of annoying, repetitive questions.

GOLD STAR OF THE NIGHT: The Gold Star of the Night goes to…come on, man, it’s J.J.  He was a stud in the fourth quarter, and was actually the most effective point guard on the offensive end.  That’s right, better than Kidd.  Barea’s willingness to set up his teammates made the game easy, and his ability to finish in the lane with fakes and floaters kept the defense on their toes.  Keeping my fingers crossed that this is only the beginning.

The Official Two Man Game Official Dallas Mavericks Versus San Antonio Spurs Official Playoff Preview for the Official 2008-2009 Official Post-Season

Posted by Rob Mahoney on April 18, 2009 under Commentary, Previews | 7 Comments to Read

Let’s get this out of the way upfront: I think the Mavs will win this series in six games.

Now that you know the ending, let’s see how we got there.

It’s almost frightening how little we actually have to go on for this series.  The Mavs have been without Josh Howard for most of the season, and the decisive hammer of Manu Ginobili’s prolonged absence didn’t fall until late in the season.  That restricts this version of the Mavs to just one single regular season contest against these Spurs.  It seemed pretty meaningful around March, but does that one game really set the precedent for a series of complex strategies, extremely specific approaches, and series-long adjustments?

We shouldn’t throw out the one piece of evidence that we have on these grounds, but just don’t expect an instant replay every time out. Unless you expect Tony Parker to go for 35+, because that’s something we’re going to have to get used to.

Manu Ginobili’s injury is going to hurt the Spurs, and it’s going to hurt them a lot.  But this is the playoffs, and Tony Parker, Tim Duncan, and Gregg Popovich are going to bring their A+ game.  That’s just the way the Spurs roll.  So I fully expect TP and Timmy to step up their games and almost fully compensate for Manu’s lost production.  The problem lies in the fact that in doing so, they’ll have to completely force the issue, dominate the offense, and probably tire themselves out.  For two teams that have a history of taking games to the wire and potentially beyond, that’s gonna be a wee bit important.

For everybody that’s hoping for Tim Duncan’s ever-so-slightly injured knee to suddenly explode, think again.  I know he doesn’t have that much playoff experience under his belt, but that young man’s going to be pretty darn good some day.  And you know what?  Odds are he is going to blitz Erick Dampier, Brandon Bass, and whoever else is unlucky enough to guard him.  That’s just how he do.  The key with Duncan is to make his work as difficult as possible.  Dampier isn’t an ideal match for Duncan defensively, but he’s the best we’ve got.  He has to bother TD enough to sandbag that field goal percentage, put a hand in his face, and make Duncan really go to work.  He’ll get his, but it won’t be easy.

With Parker, I don’t even know where to begin.  Antoine Wright, Jason Kidd, Jason Terry, Josh Howard, and J.J. Barea will likely all get their shot, and I don’t think any will have much success.  The best strategy is to try to give Parker space, and force him to make jumper after jumper.  But giving a player like Parker that kind of space is pretty counterproductive.  He’ll simply rear back and charge full speed ahead into the lane, using that extra space to generate the momentum to get right to the cup.  Parker is a helluva finisher, and on top of that he’s a master of theatrics.  It’s practically a lost cause.  But what is there the Mavs can do, really?  Hopefully the length of Howard and Wright can bother Parker for stretches, but I’m not counting on it.  The key is to find a way to endure the onslaught, and strike back with some vigor on the offensive end.  Duncan and Parker can’t do everything, and they will make mistakes.  The Mavs just need to force a few extra mistakes, pressure as much as possible, and limit the contributions of the rest of the bunch.  That and pray that Parker doesn’t go into God-mode.

Photo by Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images.

When you look at this series, it’s easy to focus on the 2006 pieces; it’s Dirk, Josh, and JET vs. Parker and Duncan.  But save a big of your attention for Jason Kidd, who just so happens to be an incredible point guard.  I doubt that Kidd will have another big scoring night against the Spurs.  Most of his points figure to come off of spot-up threes.  But what Kidd does is open the floodgates for the Mavs that aren’t always creating for themselves.  Erick Dampier is suddenly throwing down oops.  J.J. Barea is getting wide open looks at threes.  Brandon Bass is fed in just the right place in the post.  James Singleton catches a bullet pass right under the basket.  These are things often overlooked, but none of it happens without Kidd.  The volume scoring is going to come from the brightest of stars, but Kidd is chipping in 6 points here and 8 points there by setting up the ‘other’ Mavs with easy buckets.  Huge.

On an individual basis, let’s look at what the Spurs have defensively.  Roger Mason Jr. is likely guarding Terry, Michael Finley and Bruce Bowen will take turns with Howard, and Matt Bonner/whoever else Pop digs up will draw the short straw with Dirk.  How is any of that beneficial for San Antonio?  Each of those three Mavs is fully capable of eclipsing their counterparts and more, and seems poised to do so based on each Spur’s defensive inadequacies.  Mason is a nice player and a great shooter, but lacks the discipline to effectively hound the JET.  Bowen has lost a step since he’s lost a step, and even then Howard gave him trouble.  Michael Finley is Michael Finley, and try as he might, those legs are spry no longer.

The Spurs Dilemma in 2006 was this: Bruce Bowen couldn’t guard both Dirk Nowitzki and Josh Howard at once, and whoever was free of Bowen’s shadowing went off.  Howard knew just how to attack the Spurs inside with his array of post-ups and runners, and when Bowen was switched on him, the Mavs went straight to Dirk at the elbow.  This year’s model shares that in common with the Spurs of old, but with one notable exception: Bruce Bowen just isn’t the lockdown defender he used to be.  If Bowen can’t significantly limit the production of one of the two, and another Spur doesn’t have unexpected defensive success, how exactly does San Antonio hope to stop the Maverick attack?

I will say this: to his credit, Matt Bonner has played Dirk unusually well.  He’s big but not too strong, not particularly quick or athletic, and doesn’t seem to have any specific attributes that fit the bill for the thorn in Dirk’s side.  But he doesn’t give up ground, doesn’t fall for Dirk’s fakes, and holds his own.  Unfortunately for Bonner and the Spurs, that’s not enough.  Without Manu storming from the stables, the Spurs will need to completely clamp down on at least one of Dallas’ big scorers.  Their best shot just so happens to be against one of the most deadly and resilient scorers in the league today, and one who isn’t going to go down quietly against San Antone.

The bench play will need to be enormous if Dallas wants to take the series.  J.J. has shown flashes of Devin Harris in him, exactly the kind of quick, penetrating point guard that has given the Spurs trouble in the past.  Brandon Bass has the midrange shot and the quickness in the post to give Tim Duncan a headache, not to mention enough strength to bully a bit.  James Singleton and Ryan Hollins will have their turn, and whatever they can offer could make for advantage – Mavs.  I doubt very much that you’ll walk away saying that Brandon Bass won or lost this series, but that doesn’t make his contributions any less important.  These two teams have such incredible players at the top that they’ll trade blow for blow all series long.  Establishing and reaping the benefits of the players farther down the chain of command is where the series could very well be decided.  Of course that could very well work against the Mavs, if the Spurs can get their peripherals in a groove and negate the impact of the Mavs’ reserves.  In J.J. and Bass we trust.

The Mavs have to hope that home court advantage doesn’t come into effect.  Take care of business at home, and steal some momentum on the road.  A potential game seven would be where everything favors the Spurs: an army of clutch performers, one of the best strategists and motivators in the game, and a roaring home crowd.  I’m not sure the Mavs would be able to overcome.  But if all goes according to plan, it hopefully won’t have to come to that.

Photo by Dustin Chapman.

Pop’s impact cannot be denied.  I’ve got nothing for respect for the Spurs’ ringleader, and am sincerely jealous of his beard-growing abilities.  But for just one second, let’s show Rick Carlisle some love.  Carlisle has shown exactly the kind of creativity and adaptability that every team should want of its coach, and what he’s lacked in motivational polish he’s made up for in his willingness to try anything and everything to get the Mavs a win.  He’s not Popovich.  His ring-less fingers make that painfully apparent.  But Carlisle is no scrub.  He knows what he’s doing, he’s been here before, and he draws one mean out-of-bounds play.  The coaching advantage undoubtedly goes San Antonio’s way, but the margin may be slight enough to have its impact discounted.

Carlisle (and the rest of the Mavs staff, notably Darrell Armstrong) will have quite a task in managing Josh Howard’s…situation.  Howard hasn’t shown any signs of reverting to his jumpshot-happy self, but Carlisle needs to ensure that it stays that way.  Howard’s understanding of his role in the offense will be absolutely paramount if the Mavs are going to make it out of this series alive, and that requires Josh and the coaching staff to be fully in sync, from head to ankle.  Health is only a subplot.  Howard is going to be slightly limited, and that’s something the Mavs will have to deal with.  Off-days in between games will nurse tender joints, and there’s nothing an ice pack, a band-aid, and some good ol’ fashioned aspirin can’t fix, right?

Making playoff picks is tough because there are so many internal forces at work.  But for once, my job seems easy.  My gut, my heart, and my head are all telling me Mavs in six.  The series is close enough to be a toss-up, but every force in this universe tells me the Mavs are going to pull it out.  File these thoughts away as the delusions of a Mavs fan if you’d like, but I’ve got a feeling.  And a thought.  And an instinct.  All together that has to amount for something.