There Are No Lines

Posted by Rob Mahoney on August 4, 2009 under xOther | 24 Comments to Read

The off-season gives a basketball fan’s mind plenty of room to wander.  There are no games, there is no structure, and the overlying principles are theory and speculation.  Some of speculation is fueled by necessity (i.e. If I read one more Lamar Odom-related article, I’m going to drive my car off a bridge), some by want (All-Stars are shiny), and hopefully, some from a desire to better understand the dynamics of the NBA.

Fanhood in itself is a practice of otherization; the necessary construction is an Us vs. Them dynamic, with the defining group characteristic being a particular shade of laundry.  There are no real nationalistic ties to the enterprise of pro basketball, although the argument could be made that a localized, city-inspired pride has shaped the destinies of more than a few teams.  It’s our team versus your team, with little room in between.  Whoo-hoo.

But because most fan bases are more concerned with the color of a player’s uniform than all else, lines become blurred and allegiances change quickly.  That’s just the nature of an industry where workers are swapped for ballers or dollars.  The emotions attached to an outgoing player range from that of long lost lovers, like the fanfare that Steve Nash still receives in Dallas, to misguided feelings of betrayal, such as the inexplicable boos and taunts heaved at Michael Finley.  Breaking up is hard to do, but sometimes deciphering the emotions left over is even harder.

Two newly acquired Mavs, Shawn Marion and Tim Thomas, definitely qualified as part of them.  Specifically, they were both members of the franchise rival Phoenix Suns, but each also provided a specific and unique nuisance to Mavs teams past.  Marion was a hellish defender and freak athlete who terrorized the Mavs with his leak-out speed, Flubber-infused sneaks (yes, I went there), and long arms.  He was an irritant and an enemy because he was wearing the wrong uniform.  Thomas, on the other hand, made his name in Dallas by taunting the resident superstar.  He made some big plays against the Mavs in ’06, but the reason why Tim Thomas made a splash was because he chose to cannonball rather than swan dive.  Thomas is brash, he’s cocky, and he directly challenged the Mavs’ best player.  And yet Thomas is now a Maverick, and his first three-pointer will be met with a chorus of cheers.

I’m always curious — and this is where you guys come in — as to when those cheers stop.  If not for Thomas, the man who smooched in the face of Maverick pride, then for whom?

Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade are two top-level talents that come to mind, but their skills are gaudy enough to turn haters into true believers with a mere change of zip code.  The desire to field an incredible basketball team would supercede any hurt feelings MFFLs might still harbor, and Kobe or Wade would be welcomed with open arms.  Hugs and kisses, fruit baskets and Jell-O casseroles.

But there is a player out there on the free agent market that would truly test the limits of fan commitment.  He’s one of the league’s universal villains, the fruit of the loins of a conference rival, and a personal thorn in the side of Mavs’ fans in particular.  In this world, he goes by the name of Bruce Bowen, although many are convinced that his on-court persona is in congress with The Dark Lord himself.

There’s no speculation that the Mavs are interested in Bowen, and I’m not even suggesting that they should be.  But I am floating out this scenario to muck things up a bit.  Which players, despite their contributions either real or theoretical (Bowen, model citizen though he may be, is hardly the defender he once was), are beyond the pale?

Personally, I’m not so sure the pale exists.  In the good ol’ days, teams were a hallowed thing.  Rivalry was a team’s life blood and wearing a jersey meant something.  That, or a comparatively shallow perspective on teams and the league at large turned local scenes into a propaganda machine.  The availability of more and more information through television and the interwebs has made it that much more difficult to demonize players and franchises.  Bruce Bowen isn’t just a player with questionable tactics on the court, but also a stand-up guy and that nut from those HEB commercials.  Media expansion has turned players into people, which doesn’t bode well for the die-hard separatists.

The lines have been drawn, but they’ve dulled far beyond relevance.  But all of this sparks a different debate entirely: if a player’s prior employers matters less than ever, does that make us, as fans of the game, members of a greater enlightenment or simply advocates of an empire of mercenaries?

Expect Delays

Posted by Rob Mahoney on April 28, 2009 under Commentary | 3 Comments to Read

Photo by Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images.

Jason Terry has averaged 12 points per game on 35% shooting in this series.  His PER is down a full 10 points (from 19.3 to 9.3), his true shooting percentage is down 12 points, and his effective field goal percentage down is down 12 points.  Under any normal circumstances I’d send in a police report for JET’s sudden disappearance.  Big games are Terry’s thing, and his heroics have been a complete non-factor in this series.

Bruce Bowen did a number on JET, but in doing so left Josh Howard and J.J. Barea free to spread their wings.  But then, something strange happened: when Bowen’s talents were needed elsewhere, Terry’s jumper didn’t come back.  It could have run off to elope with Matt Bonner’s, or maybe it’s still hiding under the bed from big, bad Bruce.  Regardless, the one Mav that oozes confidence no matter the occasion seems to have lost it in his stroke.  The numbers say that Jason Terry is long overdue for a big game, but I just don’t see it happening against the Spurs.  I don’t know if anyone can fully understand why his shot has abandoned him, but Terry isn’t hitting on wide open looks from midrange and long range, virtually automatic shots for him this season.

Jason Terry has garnered an awful lot of defensive attention over the course of this season, but he’s never encountered anything quite like this.  For once, Terry is being doubled off of the two man game (name drop!).  For once, Terry had drawn the Spurs’ top perimeter defender.  I wouldn’t say Terry’s in a shooting slump, because these events are largely explainable: San Antonio is playing some great defense on Terry.  So good, in fact, that they don’t even have to guard him to guard him.

If the Mavs are able to make it to the next round, we won’t have to worry about Terry’s shooting.  The percentages will pick up, he’ll show up in a big way, and he’ll make sure that the folks in Denver (or, as a formality, New Orleans) remember his name.  But for the rest of this series, I wouldn’t count on the JET taking off.

Luckily for Terry, he doesn’t need to score 20.  The Spurs are going to try to claw their way out of this 3-1 hole.  Dirk, Josh, Kidd, the bench, and maybe even the Spurs’ own shooters will do their best to bury them.  All the JET needs to do is bide his time, chip in when he can, and be there to put one final shovel of dirt on the Spurs’ grave.

A Difficult Glass to Read

Posted by Rob Mahoney on April 20, 2009 under Commentary | 2 Comments to Read

Photo by D. Clarke Evans/NBAE via Getty Images.

Game one is in the books, and unfortunately we’re left with more questions than answers.  The glass rests on the table, but whether it’s half-empty or half-full is anybody’s guess.

The Mavs were able to overcome subpar efforts from both Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry to get a win on the road.  I’ve asked for little more from this team all season long, and it’s huge in terms of development and adjustment.  Still, you have to be worried about what the Spurs did to JET and Dirk defensively.

On the bright side, neither player was woefully inefficient.  They weren’t hoisting up prayers or hunting for looks.  But Terry in particular was completely blanketed by Bruce Bowen and friends, and only attempted 8 shots in total.  When was the last time Terry had less than 10 attempts?  If you disregard the February 7th and March 1st games, in which Terry’s minutes were significantly limited due to injury, you have to go all the way back to November 3rd.  The JET tends to get his looks one way or another, but on Saturday night he was practically handcuffed.  J.J. Barea’s success could potentially have a huge impact on JET’s production, depending on Pop’s defensive adjustments.  If Bowen ends up seeing time on Barea rather than Terry, it could provide JET with plenty of opportunities against the less stingy Michael Finley, Tony Parker, and Roger Mason.  But, if Pop decides that Terry, the far worthier threat, deserves the Spurs’ undivided attention, the JET may have to work extra hard, look to draw fouls, or simply be content with hoisting up fewer attempts.

My thought is this: put Terry on the floor in situations where Popovich must make difficult strategic decisions.  If JET, Josh Howard, and Dirk are all on the floor at the same time, who does Bruce Bowen guard?  That of course depends on the rest of the Spurs’ lineup, but it would almost certainly force an inferior defender (or two) to concede points to one of the Mavs’ big scorers.  It doesn’t quite afford Dirk or Josh the rest they need or ease their scoring burden, but it just might be necessary to keep the Mavs’ offense in fifth gear.

Dirk I’m not worried about.  He can get shots off at any time he wants against any defender the Spurs throw at him, and was more limited by foul trouble than anything.  He’ll be there when we need him most.

J.J. gives the Mavs a much-needed extra dimension in their defense against Tony Parker, but it’ll be interesting to see how a game’s worth of film changes that.  Parker is a smart player and Pop is a brilliant coach; the Spurs will surely have new ways to take advantage of Barea’s height and a variety of avenues to increase Parker’s access to the lane.

What’s interesting is that the Mavs weren’t locking down on the Spurs’ shooters, as is their custom.  Tim Duncan and Tony Parker typically go to work, while defenders stick with Finley, Bonner, Mason and the other shooters on the outside.  It’s absolutely crucial in negating the impact of those back-breaking corner threes, and it’s something that the Mavs didn’t do very effectively in the first half of Saturday’s game.  The defense focused on the corners in the second half, and Barea dug up a new way to limit San Antonio’s shooters: stifle Parker’s penetration.  Drive and kick offenses rely on deep penetration to set up open shots, and Parker clearly wasn’t used to being kept up with.  Barea moved his feet and got in TP’s way enough to not only limit Parker’s scoring, but also his ability to dish to the Spurs set up on the perimeter.  That was the real reason why San Antonio’s offense was hindered in the second half of Saturday’s game, but to predict that Barea can repeat his performance with the same success is to ignore Popovich’s genius entirely.

I will say this: for as creative and intelligent as Gregg Poppovich is, J.J. Barea is just as relentless and tenacious.  He’s never had a reputation as a defender, but the guy loves to compete.  You simply don’t make it into the league at 6’0” (in heels) unless you’ve got a little Napoleon in you.

It’s also worth noting that the Spurs shot about as well as they will in this series (11-14 from deep…that’s 78.6%), including 5-5 from three for Michael Finley and 4-7 from three for Roger Mason.  Both are good shooters, but to expect them to continue at that pace would be a tad ridiculous.

So should the Mavs be happy that Terry’s shots that he took went down, or disappointed that he couldn’t get many off to begin with?  Should Dallas be pleased with Barea’s defense on Parker, or concerned about what will happen when Tony figures things out, as great players are wont to do?

I’ll tell you around 10 tonight.

Heard It Through the Grapevine

Posted by Rob Mahoney on 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.

Box ScorePlay-By-PlayShot ChartGameFlow

“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.

No Game Is an Island: The Long and Winding Road

Posted by Rob Mahoney on February 24, 2009 under Previews | 7 Comments to Read

The Dallas Mavericks visit the San Antonio Spurs
7:30 CST

I’m not sure what to make of Mavs-Spurs anymore.

The 2006 playoff series remains my favorite that I have ever witnessed.  The history between these two teams over the last decade is undeniable, even if the Spurs have always acted like they have an older brother complex with the Mavs.  The games this year between the two have been incredibly entertaining.  But where are the sparks?

This could be an incredible case of imposing my own view of the “rivalry” onto the teams, but I just don’t pick up the same vibe.  The energy is there, but it’s on a completely different wavelength.  As the Spurs have aged slowly and now find themselves trying to sneak into the backdoor of championship contention, and as the Mavs have dropped off greatly from the 2006 days, has the matchup lost its mystique?

Tim Duncan used to be the enemy.  Now, while I still hate the palms-up “Who, ME?!” foul reactions, I respect him as the greatest power forward to ever play the game.  Tony Parker is still there, but for some reason I find him much less irritating.  Manu Ginobili is still there (although he’s injured for tonight’s game), is sometimes sickeningly good, and…yeah, I still hate him.

It could be any number of factors, really.  I’ve liked Roger Mason since last season and the dude has ice water in his veins.  His work ethic is amazing, and in classic “root for the underdog” fashion, I can appreciate how far he’s come to get to SanAn.  I would have preferred if Michael Finley hadn’t gone to our division rivals after the Mavs cut him loose, but I’ll never forget his work as a pillar of this franchise’s legitimacy.  George Hill is a likable rookie from a small-time school that’s actually two schools sharing one campus.  I would never say that I like the Spurs, but I’m just not sure that I hate them anymore.

With most of the headliners static and a few new faces, there is one name that is conspicuously absent from the Spurs’ success this season: Bruce Bowen.  The vicegrip that Bowen once had on the wings of the league has loosened considerably, as a function of his reduced role and reduced abilities.  He can still hit the corner three that makes your head sink into your hands and your shoulders slump, but his relative fall into irrelevance is both cause for the Spurs’ defensive fall-off and my growing indifference towards the franchise.

What was it that characterized the Spurs as the NBA’s evil and necessarily juxtaposed them opposite of the white knight Mavericks?  And, more importantly, why has the dynamic changed?  Is it the fall of a dynastic titan or the gradual disappearance of villanous basketball’s poster boy?