Necessary Surprise

Posted by Connor Huchton on January 17, 2012 under Commentary | Read the First Comment

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Connor Huchton is a contributor to Hardwood Paroxysm and Rufus On Fire, and beginning today, he’ll be a semi-regular contributor here at The Two Man Game. You can follow Connor on Twitter at @ConnorHuchton.

A daunting problem faced the Dallas Mavericks on the eve of a new season, only months removed from a championship: how would a franchise now at the pinnacle of its existence replace a player that was the key to the team’s surprising 2010-2011 run? The organization had decided to let Tyson Chandler brave the overreaching free agent waters elsewhere, largely for long-term cap reasons, and now lacked assurance at the center position. How could the Mavericks hope to reach any semblance of their recent success without the keystone of a championship defense?

Possible answers presented themselves in various, (albeit less impressive) ways. The Mavericks signed Brandan Wright (a power forward capable of playing center) and Sean Williams to one-year deals as a play for both depth and potential, but made little progress in their other attempts to find a player outside the organization who could serve as a solution to their Chandler-less woes. This left a substantial burden of minutes on foul-prone Brendan Haywood and oft-unused young center Ian Mahinmi.

Prior to this season, Mahinmi struggled to find a place in a rotation — both in Dallas and elsewhere.  Though his minutes per game have risen with every season (3.8, 6.3, and 8.7, respectively), he’s never been able to garner consistent minutes. The issue hasn’t been Mahinmi’s inability to produce – he was actually quite impressive on a per-minute basis in two seasons with the Spurs – but instead an inability to conquer depth as he developed in his first years in the league. After finally carving out a consistent role for himself last season (in his third year in the league) as the Mavericks’ third-string center, an opportunity for a bigger role and ample playing time presented itself to Mahinmi.

In the relatively short period since, Mahinmi has established himself as both a viable and impressive center option for a Mavericks team in desperate need of such a player. Despite a substantial jump in minutes per game, from 8.7 to 19.6, Mahinmi’s efficiency has risen significantly. These improvements aren’t generated from solely one positive change in Mahinmi’s game. Rather, a series of substantial enhancements have raised his PER from last season’s relatively average 13.7 to this season’s impressive 16.5.

The upgrades in Mahinmi’s play begin on the offensive end. The greatest change for Mahinmi has come at the rim, where his shots are most often generated. Mahinmi is making 78.4 percent of his attempts at the rim, up from 67.2 percent last season. Instead of resorting to simply flinging attempts skywards when under duress, Mahinmi appears more relaxed and controlled, and has been able to contort and finish with ease in difficult situations as a result. He’s also made strides a bit further away from the basket, as Mahinmi’s occasional mid-range jumpers have paid dividends against defenses that hardly expect him to be capable of making such a shot. Confidence isn’t unstoppable on its own, but it’s a valuable addition to an improved form and a year of basketball learning.

Though Mahinmi’s defensive improvements are both harder to recognize and less extensive than his offensive contributions, these slight changes can provide key value over the course of a long season. Mahinmi’s total rebounding rate and steal rate have increased by slight margins (along with a decreased foul rate), while his other attributes have remained relatively steady in increased minutes.The Mavericks’ defensive system relies on a strong interior defensive presence. Mahinmi’s increased offensive abilities  have enabled him to stay on the court for longer periods of time, allowing him to provide this defensive presence, a quality essential to the Mavericks’ markedly improved scoring defense in recent games.

The Mavericks find themselves somewhat dependent on Mahinmi, and he has thus far risen to the team’s need. Though small sample size is an oft cry in early season evaluations, the consistency and wide-ranging nature of the beneficial changes in Mahinmi’s game leads one to believe that a full regression to the mean is certainly not imminent. Mahinmi is still a relatively young player, so these developments can hardly be considered unexpected. A “leap” from Mahinmi seemed important to continued Mavericks’ contention before the season began, and that leap has appeared prevalently in the season’s first 12 games. If Mahinmi’s current play proves itself sustainable, as most known measures validate, the Mavericks could find the team’s center play acceptable and the future, both long-term and short-term, brighter than expected.

The Difference: Dallas Mavericks 99, Sacramento Kings 60

Posted by Rob Mahoney on January 15, 2012 under Recaps | Read the First Comment

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Box ScorePlay-by-PlayShot Chart GameFlow

TeamPaceOff. Eff.eFG%FT/FGORB%TOR
Dallas95.0104.250.030.926.117.9
Sacramento63.226.720.925.417.9

You know the drill. The Difference is a reflection on the game that was, with one bullet for every point in the final margin.

  • Back-to-back games against the struggling Milwaukee Bucks and the perpetually befuddled Sacramento Kings weren’t going to test the Mavs’ competitive fiber, but they did end testing the Mavs’ limits. In two straight games, we got to see exactly what kind of dominance this Mavericks team is capable of, and though the level of competition gives these two huge wins a certain disclaimer, demolishing lesser teams does have a decent correlation with long-term success. More importantly: after being on the receiving end of a couple of routs to begin the season, Dallas is finally making legitimate strides in their efforts to create balance.
  • It’s fantastic and reassuring and all kinds of confusing that the Mavs are able to be this good with Dirk Nowitzki averaging just 12.5 points in the last two games. Some of that is a function of playing time (particularly because of the Mavs’ tendency to work through Nowitzki late in close games), but the marginal nature of Nowitzki’s involvement has been apparent irrelevant of his production. Dirk’s still doing work, he’s just doing substantially less than he did at any point last season.
  • Congratulations to the Kings, who now have the honor of posting the lowest point total for any Maverick opponent in a half, the lowest point total in a half in Kings franchise history, the lowest point total for a Maverick opponent in a game, the fewest field goals made by a Maverick opponent, the lowest single-game field goal percentage in Kings franchise history, and the lowest single-game field goal percentage mark for any Maverick opponent overall. Gold stars all around.

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The Difference: Dallas Mavericks 102, Milwaukee Bucks 76

Posted by Rob Mahoney on January 14, 2012 under Recaps | 3 Comments to Read

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Box ScorePlay-by-PlayShot ChartGameFlow

[Game-specific advanced stats forthcoming.]

You know the drill. The Difference is a reflection on the game that was, with one bullet for every point in the final margin.

  • Even a thorough scrubbing of the Mavs’ Friday night game against the Milwaukee Bucks would reveal few — if any — notable flaws. Dallas started fast, repeled Milwaukee’s advances, and finished strong. They played a dominant game on both ends of the court, and rested weary legs in anticipation of Saturday’s date with the Sacramento Kings. They left absolutely no doubt of the game’s verdict, a welcome occurrence in a season where doubt has become a recurring theme.
  • Vince Carter had his highest-scoring game in a Maverick uniform by way of a remarkably aggressive first-quarter performance. He had two nice dunks — both in the half-court offense, mind you — in the first five minutes of the game. Carter has brought an assertive scoring approach to each of his games as a Mav, but this quick start was notable if only because his performance was so efficient and so emphatic.
  • The first of those dunks:

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The Difference: Dallas Mavericks 90, Boston Celtics 85

Posted by Rob Mahoney on January 12, 2012 under Recaps | 5 Comments to Read

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Box ScorePlay-by-PlayShot ChartGameFlow

TeamPaceOff. Eff.eFG%FT/FGORB%TOR
Dallas89.0101.148.117.726.715.7
Boston95.548.435.96.116.9

You know the drill. The Difference is a reflection on the game that was, with one bullet for every point in the final margin.

  • No recap of this game would be complete without proper documentation of the bucket (and free throw!) that brought about its conclusion:
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    The Mavs’ offense on the whole isn’t looking all that impressive, but Dallas’ immediate scoring future is looking brighter based on one simple fact: Dirk Nowitzki (16 points, 7-11 FG, seven rebounds, four assists) has progressed beyond polishing his ability to hit open shots and moved right on to practicing — and making — the impossible ones. This functional game-winner was generated by a wonderful drive, but the fact that Nowitzki was able to convert the layup rather than merely draw a foul is indicative of just how special of a player Dirk is. Nowitzki manufactured a few open looks throughout the game after faking out his defender, but his second half was particularly notable for his run-ins with impossibility.

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The Difference: Dallas Mavericks 100, Detroit Pistons 86

Posted by Rob Mahoney on January 11, 2012 under Recaps | Read the First Comment

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Box ScorePlay-by-PlayShot ChartGameFlow

TeamPaceOff. Eff.eFG%FT/FGORB%TOR
Dallas90.0111.158.029.017.215.6
Detroit95.647.829.013.922.2

You know the drill. The Difference is a reflection on the game that was, with one bullet for every point in the final margin.

  • Don’t look now, but Mavericks basketball is fun again. Delonte West turned his second game filling in for Jason Kidd into something special, as from the very beginning he was creating some truly spectacular shots off the dribble. West found Brendan Haywood in the right spots, turning the typically clumsy center into an occasional weapon. He created situations that put so much pressure on Detroit’s defense that Dirk Nowitzki was left wide open on the weak side. He worked the ball around, made a living off of his silky handle, and picked up six steals to just five points to make his Kidd imitation complete. It’s been a true pleasure to see West go to work for the Mavs this season, and this seems like a good a time as any to remind you that this guy is playing for the league’s minimum salary. I’m still not quite sure how that happened, but hot damn did Dallas get one of the steals of free agency.
  • Preface: garbage time, Detroit Pistons, etc. But Brandan Wright…wowza:

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The Difference: Dallas Mavericks 96, New Orleans Hornets 81

Posted by Rob Mahoney on January 8, 2012 under Recaps | Be the First to Comment

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Box ScorePlay-by-PlayShot ChartGameFlow

TeamPaceOff. Eff.eFG%FT/FGORB%TOR
Dallas90.0106.748.632.415.415.6
New Orleans90.045.335.917.122.2

You know the drill. The Difference is a reflection on the game that was, with one bullet for every point in the final margin.

  • A win is a win is a win, but this one was hardly glamorous or constructive. There’s certainly nothing wrong with the Mavs getting another game under their collective belt, but we don’t know anything more about Dallas than we did 24 hours ago, and I’m not sure the Mavs know anything more about themselves, either. Here’s three cheers for conditioning and repetitions, but this was a pretty cosmetic win.
  • Ian Mahinmi (13 points, 5-6 FG, seven rebounds, two steals) is making it far too easy for Carlisle to leave Brendan Haywood (two points, six rebounds, one steal) on the bench. Defensively, Mahinmi has been solid, though admittedly imperfect. On offense, he’s done a tremendous job of finding spots on the floor with both open passing lanes and easy scoring opportunities. I don’t think we’re at all near a point where Mahinmi would supplant Haywood as a starter (such a move would be ill-advised for motivational reasons alone), but the games in which Mahinmi logs more playing time than his counterpart are becoming more and more common — and rightfully so.
  • As terrific as Delonte West (12 points on six shots, four assists) has played to start the season, I was still a bit surprised that Rick Carlisle opted to start the game with him as the nominal point guard in Jason Kidd’s absence. It was a good call, mind you — and the right call, if such a thing exists in this case — but still one I didn’t expect him to make this early in the season. West and Vince Carter (who started at the 2) both responded well as starters, and Jason Terry (12 points, 5-9 FG, 2-3 3FG, four assists), and Rodrigue Beaubois (11 points, 4-10 FG, two assists, two steals, two turnovers) contributed nicely off the bench.

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The Difference: San Antonio Spurs 93, Dallas Mavericks 71

Posted by Rob Mahoney on January 6, 2012 under Recaps | Read the First Comment

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Box ScorePlay-by-PlayShot ChartGameFlow

TeamPaceOff. Eff.eFG%FT/FGORB%TOR
Dallas89.079.835.720.825.016.9
San Antonio104.548.810.518.09.0

You know the drill. The Difference is a reflection on the game that was, with one bullet for every point in the final margin.

  • The Mavs have certainly wasted no time this season in rattling off some truly awful losses. The opening night thud against the Miami Heat was practically expected, even if the magnitude of the beatdown the Mavs suffered was a tad surprising. Hitting a terrific Denver Nuggets team on the next night was a recipe for disaster as well, and the fact that Dallas ran out of gas — especially after struggling in their track meet against Miami in the opener — was fairly predictable. And most recently: though the Mavs were lucky enough to play a Spurs team without Manu Ginobili, they’re struggling against a brutal schedule that practically demands inferior basketball at some points. That doesn’t excuse the loss — much less the blowout — but it does meet a game like this one with a bit of a shrug. Requisite patience, yadda yadda yadda, but the clock is only kind for so long, Mavs.
  • Jason Kidd left in the first quarter with a lower back injury, and did not return for the rest of the game. Though the offense certainly could’ve used his help, that’s not necessarily a bad thing; Kidd started the game by leaving Gary Neal (12 points, 4-7 3FG, five rebounds, two steals) — one of the league’s most prolific outside shooters — open on virtually every possession. That’s never sound policy, and Neal’s quick start was a big reason why the Spurs were able to decimate the Mavs in the first half.
  • Now, if Kidd’s injury becomes a lingering problem and forces him to either miss court time or play through considerable pain, that’s a huge setback. Send him your well wishes, painkillers, and ice packs if you have any interest in the Mavs playing well this season.

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The Difference: Dallas Mavericks 98, Phoenix Suns 89

Posted by Rob Mahoney on January 5, 2012 under Recaps | 2 Comments to Read

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Box ScorePlay-by-PlayShot ChartGameFlow

TeamPaceOff. Eff.eFG%FT/FGORB%TOR
Dallas91.0107.746.215.438.014.3
Phoenix97.868.212.224.416.5

You know the drill. The Difference is a reflection on the game that was, with one bullet for every point in the final margin.

  • The Phoenix Suns clearly planned to smother Dirk Nowitzki (20 points, 7-17 FG, six rebounds, seven assists) with multiple defenders, and he made them pay with smart passes through and over the top of the defense. The precedent was set early in the first quarter: Shawn Marion set a baseline screen for Nowitzki only to find himself wide open under the basket just seconds later. Both defenders had rushed out to attack Nowitzki out on the wing, and in an efforts to satisfy their defensive emphasis, had forgotten about the other forward on the floor.
  • This was another very typical, low-scoring performance for Jason Kidd (three points, three assists, five rebounds, four steals), in which he manages to control the game in other ways. Nowitzki and Vince Carter helped Kidd enough in the playmaking department to make him a luxury in that regard, but his help defense was phenomenal against the Suns’ fluid offense. The game plan was simple: 1) Move Kidd off of Steve Nash as much as possible, 2) Allow him to dominate the passing lanes with his good timing and better anticipation, 3) Profit.

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The Difference: Dallas Mavericks 100, Oklahoma City Thunder 87

Posted by Rob Mahoney on January 2, 2012 under Recaps | 2 Comments to Read

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Box ScorePlay-by-PlayShot ChartGameFlow

TeamPaceOff. Eff.eFG%FT/FGORB%TOR
Dallas87.0114.951.921.327.513.8
Oklahoma City100.043.526.028.614.9

You know the drill. The Difference is a reflection on the game that was, with one bullet for every point in the final margin.

  • This game was a prime demonstration of Vince Carter (14 points on nine shots, three assists) as a post-up option. It’s not about the buckets scored, but the opportunities created; Dallas ran their offense through Carter on the block in the second and third quarters, and VC was able to respond by drawing fouls, getting to the rim, and attracting plenty of defensive attention. Carter was such a convincing post threat that the Thunder left Dirk Nowitzki wide open in the opposite corner in order to blitz him down low. That kind of rotation barely seems possible, but mismatches like the ones Carter was able to create often force opponents into drastic measures.
  • Nowitzki (26 points, 10-16 FG, 1-5 3FG, six rebounds) may not have matched last year’s playoff performance in magnitude, but Monday night was a return to normalcy. The last time these teams met, Dirk looked rushed and uncomfortable. He hesitated before shooting open jumpers, and didn’t put much effort into establishing position at “his spots” on the floor. This performance was “vintage” Nowitzki, if they do indeed make months-old vintages. His footwork, ball fakes, and spins were all in playoff form, and though Dallas didn’t lean on Nowitzki’s offense as heavily as they did in the postseason, he was every bit as efficient as the Mavs could have expected him to be. I hope you enjoyed the first of what will undoubtedly be many brilliant showings for Nowitzki this season.

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The Difference: Minnesota Timberwolves 99, Dallas Mavericks 82

Posted by Rob Mahoney on January 1, 2012 under Recaps | 4 Comments to Read

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Box ScorePlay-by-PlayShot Chart — GameFlow

TeamPaceOff. Eff.eFG%FT/FGORB%TOR
Dallas94.087.242.222.114.018.1
Minnesota105.348.220.037.017.0

You know the drill. The Difference is a reflection on the game that was, with one bullet for every point in the final margin.

  • This is just the way of the season’s early going, apparently. The Mavericks more closely resemble themselves for a few games, but then dissolve completely on offense against a pretty poor defense just a few days later. We knew to expect struggles. We knew it would take time for the new Mavs to work their way into the system, and time for the old Mavs to work their way into game shape. But now we also know to expect complete inconsistency, as there are no assurances at all of which Maverick team will show up on a particular night. In this one? A team that scores 87.2 points per 100 possessions, and will wither away even against the most questionable defenses.
  • Dallas managed a brief return to normalcy with a fourth quarter combination of the zone defense and Dirk Nowitzki (21 points, 9-20 FG, four rebounds) attacking from all angles, but a timeout gave Rick Adelman a precious opportunity to calm down a jumpy young team. Ricky Rubio (14 points, 2-3 3FG, seven assists, four turnovers) drew the attention of defenders and hit spot-up shooters in the corners and bigs rolling to the rim, attacking the Mavs’ zone at two particular points of weakness. Kevin Love (25 points, 9-16 FG, 5-8 3FG, 17 rebounds) took over from there, and the Wolves finished the game on an uncontested 15-point spurt that left several minutes on the clock but no doubt in the game’s result. This year’s Timberwolves are every bit as entertaining as the manic team that ran up and down the court last season, but this year they’ve traded the unintentional comedy of a Michael Beasley-driven offense for a more sensible, balanced attack driven by pace and Rubio’s guile. It may not result in a playoff berth, but Minnesota is more than capable of “stealing” a game like this one against a supposedly superior team.

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