You know the drill. The Difference is a reflection on the game that was, with one bullet for every point in the final margin.
On a night of needed triumph for the Mavericks, it’s difficult to decide what should lead The Difference: Vince Carter’s (9-17 FG, 5-10 3PT, 25 points) surprise fourth quarter domination, or another night of overarching and essential offensive efficiency from O.J. Mayo (10-17 FG, 27 points). I’ll choose neither, and mention what a relief it was to see Darren Collison (7-11 FG, 19 points, seven assists) back in early season form. The offense fell into step with Collison’s passing surge, and the Mavericks were able to limit turnovers and capitalize on open three-point opportunities (13-29 from beyond the arc). Even with Dirk injured, three-point shooting is central to the team’s identity and success, especially given how well Mayo, Carter, and Jae Crowder (4-6 FG, 3-5 3PT, 12 points, four rebounds) have shot from beyond the arc this season.
Speaking of Crowder, it was nice to see him back in the rotation and contributing immediately. His reaction after he made a three early in the game summed up the Mavericks’ night: an important moment of victory in the context of recent failure, and a huge relief in terms of the team’s prospects until Dirk returns. (Side note: Shawn Marion continues to be simultaneously fantastic and underrated on defense. That vital close on Carmelo Anthony’s jumper in the final seconds wasn’t perfect, but it was enough to cause a moment of crucial hesitation.)
It’s almost jarring how much more relaxed and smooth O.J. Mayo’s game as a whole has become in Dallas – there’s a fluidity and calmness to the way he creates space and pulls up for jumpers that almost never existed in Memphis. Perhaps that’s a product of how his role has largely shifted and expanded, and perhaps it’s due to the natural growth some players find in their mid-20′s. It likely stems from both the natural and situational, and Mayo’s dual evolution as a player couldn’t have come at a more opportune time for the Mavericks. At least in the short-term, he’s the relentless conductor that guides the Mavericks’ offense. That was never more obvious than tonight, as Mayo kept the Mavericks in the game through offensive lulls and quickly found Collison and Carter around the perimeter in key moments.
LeBron James had become death, the Shatterer of Worlds. If July 8th, 2010 was the date that the bomb dropped, the NBA’s Manhattan Project had started long before. It has been said that while all three of Miami’s Superfriends were affable since their arrival in the 2003 draft class, it was the 2008 Olympics where their cabal was created and real plans forged. All of them passed on full contract extensions, went into free agency where any team could have them for the right price, but ended up with Pat Riley, who just happenstancely had decided to rebuild in the middle of Dwayne Wade’s prime and had the money to pay all three available. Jeff Van Gundy prophesied they’d win more than 72 games and the era of player-created teams began.
Mere days after the Decision, Carmelo Anthony’s wedding brought together many of basketball’s young superstars. It was there that Chris Paul declared to form his own “Big Three,” supposedly referring to Amare’ Stoudemire, Carmelo, and himself. For all those that had foreseen apocalypse in The Decision, it was now undeniable: the end was nigh. Small markets and less desirable locales would be destroyed by pillars of fire, prayers went up that Michael, Larry and Magic would be raptured before having to see a future where would-be rivals were teammates. These upstarts would rule the Earth soon enough, friendship and collusion would hold the basketball world in an iron grip. And the next shoe did drop shortly behind the first: Amar’e signed with New York in the off-season with Carmelo following in a mid-season trade.
Not all that was foreseen came to pass. Miami failed to live up to its immediate expectations and there was talk of Spoelestra being fired (not that anyone would be silly enough to fire a coach shortly after adding two star players…). The Heat lost in the Finals their first season after adding James and Bosh. As quickly as it had been declared they would set a new record of wins, their loss in the Finals to the Dallas Mavericks brought about declarations that LeBron would never win a championship.
Praise was heaped on the Mavericks from every direction as all those who had foretold the demise of their beloved sport instead were reassured in the success of the previous status quo. The Mavericks won their sole championship on the back of a slow build through draft, trade and free agency, and the continuation of the trusted method of paying the luxury tax to win. Dallas had provided a reprieve with which to review how the NBA’s greatest teams of 2011 had been formed: OKC’s drafted nucleus, Dallas’ free agent and trade, Miami’s player-as-GM foray. One team was noticeably absent.
You know the drill. The Difference is a reflection on the game that was, with one bullet for every point in the final margin.
Execution is always a matter of great importance, but from opening tip this game came to be defined by the Mavs’ energy. Dallas came out of the gates with an insistence on beating New York in transition on offense and curtailing fast break opportunities on defense, perhaps best showcased by Ian Mahinmi (nine points, six rebounds, three steals, two blocks) flying back and forth across the court (for a block in transition, for a soaring rebound, for a gliding dunk, etc.). As Dallas’ energy waned, New York’s defense picked up and capitalized. The Mavs’ most successful stretches of basketball were dictated by their energy and assertiveness, and though those things were indicative in small differences in approach (Shawn Marion being more aggressive as a fast-break ball-handler, Rodrigue Beaubois looking to get to the rim, Jason Kidd not being gun-shy) than consistent, over-arching tropes, they were still very evident nonetheless.
It’s in that vein that I do have praise for Lamar Odom, in spite of a miserable shooting night and an otherwise neutral stat line. If nothing else, Odom played hard — and considering where he and his mind have been in the last few weeks, I think that’s an acceptable step. It doesn’t make 1-of-9 shooting okay, but under the circumstances the bigger issue is Odom’s commitment to the team and to the game. He has the talent to produce more, and if he’s engaged, he will.
Shawn Marion and the Mavs’ collective defense did a great job against Carmelo Anthony. It felt as though Anthony was actually getting to his favorite spots on the floor with some ease, but once at the rim or in his pet zones, rarely did he put up a shot attempt without a hand in his face. This was particularly true inside, where the Mavs’ interior defenders swarmed Anthony as early as possible. He was blocked from behind, forced to contort, and ultimately, held to six points on 12 shot attempts. Some of that is the natural process of the Knicks’ offense feeling itself out, but the Mavs did an outstanding job of capitalizing on some of the disarray and made Anthony a non-factor.
You know the drill. The Difference is a reflection on the game that was, with one bullet for every point in the final margin.
Let this game be a healthy reminder: Although the Mavs typically perform quite well in crunch time, their closing execution isn’t infallible. Jason Terry (13 points, 5-13 FG, six assists, seven rebounds) can still fall prey to a simple missed jumper. A weird defensive sequence can still result in an uncontested Tyson Chandler (14 points, 5-7 FG, 10 rebounds, three blocks) dunk. A lot goes on in the waning moments of a close game, and though Dallas performs in those situations at a higher level than most, they’re not immune to games like this — games when all the magic flows through the heart and hands of an opponent, leaving none for that final, improbable comeback.
Two things stuck out to me in this particularly wonderful performance from Jeremy Lin (28 points, 11-20 FG, 3-6 3FG, 14 assists, four rebounds, five steals, seven turnovers): his range and his poise. I, like many others, saw Lin’s occasional three-point makes as an aberration. Lin, after all, is only shooting 32 percent from three-point range to date, even with some alleged outliers inflating his percentage. But there’s something to be said about his confidence beyond the arc, and on this occasion among several others, his impressive accuracy. Maybe he’s a bit streaky from long range at this point in his career, but he’s still emerged from the bench with a reasonably formed jumper, capable of putting pressure on opposing defenses and offering him a crucial tool to play off of Amar’e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony. But Lin’s poise — in the face of Shawn Marion’s length, in the face of scrambled coverages, in the face of heavy defensive pressure, in the face of a ticking clock — is really and truly remarkable. I don’t think the Mavericks failed as a team defense, largely because Lin didn’t fold under any reasonable amount of defensive pressure. Dallas came in with a strategy, Rick Carlisle altered it on the fly, and it still didn’t pan out. Such can be expected when a team sees a white-hot opponent on the court for (essentially) the first time, and such can certainly be the case with a player as resilient as Lin.
Also, as a general footnote on Lin: Don’t sweat the turnovers, at least in terms of Lin’s overall development. Those high turnover marks have a habit of popping up for any aggressive young player, particularly when they’re thrust into a dominant offensive role. Pace, position, and ball dominance all play a big role in bringing Lin’s turnover marks to a swell, even though — on a per-possession basis — his overall turnover marks are comparable to that of Rajon Rondo, Ricky Rubio, and Andre Miller. Curbing those turnovers would do a lot for the Knicks’ offense as a whole, but it’s really not much of an issue so long as Lin remains productive overall.
Your sizable news du jour: Dallas may be among several teams interested in acquiring Carmelo Anthony without the guarantee of a contract extension, according to ESPN.com’s Marc Stein. It’s indicated that the deal would likely have to include at least three parties, so you can close up the Trade Machine for now unless you want to get really zany.
Rick Carlisle isn’t too high on his team these days. From Eddie Sefko of the Dallas Morning News: “Asked to take his team’s pulse at the 10-game mark, [Carlisle's] assessment was frank: “I think it sucks.” And with that, it became clear that the Mavericks have plenty of work in front of them. Carlisle must again re-configure playing rotations with Butler back in the lineup. Beaubois, when he returns, will force another adjustment. The defense has been commendable much of the time, but when it’s been bad – like that third quarter, when the Hornets shot 72 percent and forced seven Mavericks turnovers – it’s been terrible. ‘We’ve got to get tougher,” Carlisle said. “I’m not into looking back. I’m into what’s going on right now and what’s going on tomorrow and the next day. You can’t get in situations where we get distracted by officials’ calls. This is a game about aggression and poise. You have to have the right amount of both.’”
From Marc Stein for ESPN Dallas: “In just the latest indication that the purportedly deep supporting cast repeatedly promised going into the season isn’t delivering, Dallas is being outscored by 23.1 points per 48 minutes with Nowitzki off the floor through 10 games. The Mavericks, by contrast, are outscoring the opposition by 13.8 points per 48 minutes when Nowitzki is on the floor.” Yikes.
The Legends lost their season opener last night to the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, 115-123. I didn’t have a chance to catch the game myself, but from what I understand there wasn’t all that much defense played by either team. Antonio Daniels finished with 19 points, seven rebounds, seven assists, and three steals. Sean Williams added 15 points, five rebounds, and five blocks. Kelvin Lewis chipped in 18 points (on 19 shots, but he did score 12 in the first quarter alone) and six assists. Justin Dentmon led the Legends in scoring with 21 points off the bench, but he turned the ball over four times.
The elusive regular season home-and-home series is perhaps the best way to artificially generate a playoff-like atmosphere. The two games may lack in post-season gravity, but by pitting two competitive teams against one another in consecutive contests, players are allowed to slide into their narrative roles while coaches make more detailed game plan adjustments than usual. It’s another regular season game in the grand scheme of things, but it’s hardly an independent entity; perhaps we could view the second game as vaguely episodic, but each outing only makes thematic sense when evaluated within the context of a two-part series.
The Mavericks are in the middle of such a series at this very moment, as they’ll take on the Nuggets this Saturday albeit on more familiar turf. I’ve already harped enough on the relevance of the Mavs’ defensive performance in Wednesday’s game, so naturally that’s a point of interest in the follow-up. However, just as important will be the sustainability of the Mavs’ offensive execution, and more specifically, the Nuggets’ response to a dominant performance by Dirk Nowitzki.
With Denver’s primary bigs sidelined, Nowitzki was free to score at will from the low block. In Dallas’ first concentrated effort to isolate Dirk in the post, Shawn Marion freed him up with a baseline screen that ultimately proved to be counterproductive; the 6’5” Arron Afflalo had previously been assigned to defend Nowitzki, but Afflalo switched with the more sizable Carmelo Anthony on the screen. Dirk was still able to draw a foul while battling for post position, but the play setup made Dirk’s post-up far more complicated than it had to be.
Dallas then ran a nearly identical set with one caveat: rather than having Marion set the baseline screen (and have Anthony switch onto Nowitzki as a result), the Mavs used Dominique Jones. Rather than having to wrestle with Melo to allow the entry pass, Dirk was free to catch and finish easily over venerable statesman J.R. Smith.
Next trip down, the Mavs executed the exact same play with the exact same result. Smith decided to chase the entry pass, but Nowitzki finished with the same easy two.
Following a timeout, Denver tries something a bit different. Anthony is designated to follow Nowitzki, and the Nuggets ditch their plan to switch on low screens. It didn’t matter much. Although Nowitzki would obviously have preferred going to work against Chauncey Billups rather than Carmelo Anthony, he faces up, his teammates clear out, and Dirk rains a jumper over Anthony, who can’t even make much of a play on the ball.
Which defender Denver opted to use was irrelevant to Dirk. He scored over and around everyone placed in front of him, and in the few instances when the Nuggets were caught doubling? Dallas’ shooters were ready and waiting on the weak side. In this sequence, a fast break matches Nowitzki against Billups, which urges Smith to cheat off of Marion. Dirk finds Shawn in the corner, who swings it to Terry, and the ball moves back to the strong side to J.J. Barea for a wide open three. He doesn’t convert, but that’s a quality shot created by moving the ball out of the mismatch.
Later, a side screen sets up Nowitzki with prime post position, and his subsequent back down draws three Nuggets defenders. Dirk kicks the ball out to Jason Kidd, who is relatively open at the three-point line, but the ball doesn’t stop there. Kidd swings the ball to an open Jason Terry — who actually triggered the initial screen action — in the corner. Boom, as they say, goes the dynamite.
I’m not sure there’s a proper counter for Denver. Nowitzki can abuse any one-on-one matchup the Nuggets throw his way, and he’s also smart enough to find the open man in the case of a double/triple-team. Terry, Kidd, and Caron Butler have been hitting their looks from outside, which means that the Nuggets merely have their choice of execution. It’s not a flawless offense (all it takes is an off-day from Dirk and the whole scheme dissolves), but considering the Mavs’ clear positional advantage, there’s no excuse for Dallas to have anything but sterling offensive efficiency come Saturday.
“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”
This was a game that the Mavs needed to win. This was not the way that the Mavs needed to win it. Denver provided the Dallas’ first real challenge on the schedule, and rather than prove that their defensive success in the first three games was indicative of a real and sweeping change, we’re now left wondering how many of the season’s first 144 minutes should be taken seriously at all.
Dallas was, statistically speaking, an excellent defensive team before last night. Yet when the Mavs had a chance to make a statement against a top-10 offense, they allowed an unpalatable 111 points per 100 possessions. The Mavs’ defensive performance in the first three games matters, but the value of that performance has withered under high heat. There are better offenses out there than the Denver Nuggets. There are surely better offenses out there than the Denver Nuggets sans Nene, Kenyon Martin, and Chris Andersen. And when those offense come, the Mavs may not get the lucky bounce they need to leave the floor as victors.
Dallas will have to be better. Luckily, we’re now a mere four games into the season, and the Mavs have innumerable opportunities to solidify their defense before the games stop meaning something and start meaning everything.
We shouldn’t let this win soak up too much gloom, though. Offensively, Dallas was pretty fantastic. That’s an idiomatic Maverick way of saying that Dirk Nowitzki was pretty fantastic. With almost all of Denver’s bigs sidelined, Nowitzki (35 points, 15-31 FG, 12 rebounds, three assists) went to work on a cast of undersized defenders. George Karl refused to throw any kind aggressive double teams Dirk’s way, and his team paid the price with each move on the low block, and each jumper dropped over the hand of a defender that could barely reach Nowitzki’s eye level.
Dirk dominated the game and the Maverick offense, and pushed Dallas’ offensive efficiency just far enough to overcome their deficiencies on defense and the glass. On a typical night this season, Nowitzki uses 24.7% of the Mavs’ possessions. Last night against the Nuggets, he used 47%. Forget alpha and omega, Nowitzki was the entirety of all alphabets of all times, all that had been and all that ever would be for the Mavs’ O.
Others thrived from Dirk’s resplendence. Jason Terry spotted up on the break beautifully and balanced the weak side when things slowed down. JET had 16 points and went 4-of-4 from three in the third quarter alone, keying a 14-4 run that gave Dallas the lead. Of those 14 points, Terry scored 11.
Kidd should also be credited, even if he scored just three points of his own. 83.3% of Terry’s field goals were assisted, and 100% of both Caron Butler’s (16 points, 7-14 FG, seven rebounds) and Shawn Marion’s (eight points, six rebounds, two blocks) field goals were set up by a teammate. Kidd’s 12 dimes don’t account for allof those FGs, but his execution of the offense was masterful. Kidd is just so unbelievably patient; Kidd is kind; Kidd is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. He does not insist on his own way; yada, yada, yada; He bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Nowitzki had the ball in his hands an astounding percent of the time, but it was Kidd who got it there. He was making perfect entry passes, waiting for plays to develop, and finding Dirk (and JET, and Caron…) when he leaked into open space.
When Kidd is functioning at this level, the Mavs are a rather brilliant offensive team. But when Nowitzki is left purely to his own devices to fuel the entire offense, the well-oiled machine tends to sputter. Both players are essential if Dallas is to have a top-shelf offense again, and games like these give us a glimpse — however stilted it may be in terms of usage — of the Mavs’ offensive potential with both Kidd and Nowitzki playing effectively.
Carmelo Anthony finished with 20 points and 15 rebounds, but had a pretty frustrating night overall. He shot 42% from the field on 19 attempts, and while I’d love to attribute some of Anthony’s rougher patches to Shawn Marion and the Mavericks’ defense, Melo didn’t do himself any favors. Dallas played him well, but it was a bit of an off-night.
A silver lining to the Mavs’ defense: Dallas utilized a match-up zone in the second and third quarters that was fantastically effective, but relied on it less and less as the game wore on. The Mavs shouldn’t want to be in a place where their defensive future hinges on the effectiveness of the zone (which, for all of its strengths, is still a bit gimmicky), but knowing that it can still be effective in spurts against rhythm offenses is valuable knowledge.
Speaking of: Nowitzki could probably stand to not hedge quite so heavily toward the middle when playing zone with Chandler. Tyson can cover plenty of ground on his own, and considering the potency of Denver’s three-point shooters, Dirk might be better served honoring the impact of the corner three. Dirk did what he could to close out, but sometimes he was just too far out of position. I realize that threes are a realistic concession of the zone, but in this case some of those attempts (and makes) might have been preventable.
This was not Brendan Haywood’s finest performance.
Gary Forbes is now an NBA player. Forbes started for the Nuggets, and drew the short straw on being the first defender to face Dirk Nowitzki. He did an admirable job, and the former D-Leaguer dropped 12 points on 50% shooting to boot.
Jason Kidd is doing a great job of giving up the ball early on the break and then spotting up as a three-point shooter. In traditional fast break situations, I’m always surprised that opponents pay so much attention to the threat of a Kidd layup. He’s not a very good finisher at all, and the thought of a pass always comes first, second, and third for him. But by giving up the ball early, Kidd turns himself into a fast-break weapon. No longer is he only looking to set up a bucket with a pass. Instead, he’s capable of completing transition opportunities of his own on both the primary and secondary break:
J.J. Barea’s three turnovers hurt, as did his defense at times. But does anyone dare discount the impact of his nine points in a game decided by a single bucket? Barea made mistakes, but he also drew offensive fouls and got to the rim when Dallas needed offensive help.
Arron Afflalo (known affectionately in some circles as “Spellcheck,”) is the real deal. Afflalo had a tremendous year last season with the Nuggets, but he’s become an even more versatile offensive player while continuing to groom a rather potent three-point stroke. Fans of every other NBA team are jealous.
Again: no Kenyon Martin, no Nene, no Chris Andersen. Yet the Nuggets nearly matched the Mavericks in offensive rebounding rate. Dallas has to do better work on the defensive glass. The Mavs’ offensive rebounding on the other hand, was fine. And, might I add, clutch:
All of this has happened before, and all of it will happen again. In games like these, it’s hard not to wonder if going small is a more viable option than Rick Carlisle and his coaching staff acknowledge. Brendan Haywood and Tyson Chandler are very good defenders, but in games like this one, they become strictly help defenders and rebounders. Taking on-ball post defense out of their job description leaves them slightly less useful, and I do wonder if running a lineup of Kidd-Terry-Butler-Marion-Nowitzki might have been more effective at times. It’s not the most intuitive way to get better defensive results, but having more natural match-ups could be a conceivable boon for the Dallas D.
GOLD STAR OF THE NIGHT: Come on. Dirk Nowitzki. The Mavs won with their offense, and their offense won with Dirk.
Jamal Mashburn owns 34 Outback Steakhouses and 37 Papa John’s locations. He also might want to buy the Detroit Pistons, and thinks Michael Jordan’s flu game was mostly hype. Just a Chatty Cathy, that Mash.
Bobby Simmons, once a candidate to join the Mavs’ training camp before being bypassed in favor of Steve Novak and Brian Cardinal, is in camp with the Spurs.
John Hollinger (Insider) forecasts the Mavs’ coming season, which he predicts will bring 48 wins and the 5th seed in the West. Honestly, the relative ranking isn’t a bad as it sounds. The West’s second tier is no cakewalk, and to make matters worse, Hollinger’s qualms (reliance on victories in close games, roster shortcomings, slight drop-off due to age, player utilization, etc.) are legitimate.
Tuesday was the first day of training camp, and all foundational, non-contact work. Apparently — and this is news to me — teams are not allowed to hold more than one contact practice per day. Just some food for thought as the Mavs continue to conduct two-a-days through camp.
Jason Kidd, on Dirk dropping five pounds in the off-season to make it “easier on [his] body, easier on his joints,” (via Mike Fisher): “I think he’s tired of people telling him he’s a ‘power forward.’ I think he wants to get down to 220 so he can be a 2-guard.’’
Dee Brown, Mavs camper (via his Twitter account): “Man I see why J.Kidd has had an hall of fame career amazing player much respect big homie!”
And a few older bullets from an edition of the Grapevine that accidentally went unpublished:
Eddie Sefko of the Dallas Morning News, with the off-handed downside of Alexis Ajinca’s upside: “The Mavericks have been intrigued by the way Ajinca has worked out the past month or so. Coach Rick Carlislehas watched some of the workouts and especially likes the fact that Ajinca is closer to 7-1.”
Skeets and Tas talk a lot of Mavs-Nuggets on today’s episode of The Basketball Jones, and Tas does not approve of the “Roddy Buckets” moniker. Have to agree on that one — is that really the best we can do? UPDATE: On the Jones’ mailbag episode, the guys announced that they’re running a contest for the best nickname for Beaubois. Call in at 1-888-TBJ-4377 to leave an audio message or send your video message to tbj[at]thescore.com, best entry gets a prize.
Jeremy of Roundball Mining Company: “Some of you may remember when the Golden State Warriors upset the Dallas Mavericks in the first round of the 2007 playoffs it was Stephen Jackson who hounded Dirk Nowitzki game after game.If the Nuggets have a player that fits that mold it is Carmelo Anthony.I was hoping to see Melo spend some time covering Dirk and I got what I asked for.Melo worked hard, fought for position and kept Dirk on the perimeter.He could have done a better job boxing out, but it would be interesting to see what Melo could do on Dirk for an extended period of time.” I can’t say I agree. Jackson has always been a more tenacious defender than Melo, and although Anthony’s defense has certainly improved this season, I don’t see him as being a good primary option for defending Nowitzki. Then again, I don’t see Kenyon Martin, Chris Andersen, Johan Petro, or Joey Graham as good options either, and I’d point to Dirk’s success last year in the playoffs as my evidence.
Speaking of Kenyon Martin, Yahoo’s Marcus Spears reported earlier this morning that it’s possible Martin might not play for the rest of this season at all. Playoffs included.
Something of note that we saw last night: Rodrigue Beaubois playing extended minutes at point guard alongside Jason Terry. I understand Rick Carlisle’s reluctance to play Roddy at the point, especially with the post-season looming. But having Jason Terry as the shooting guard not only gives the Mavs another ball-handler, but someone with enough point guard experience to make for a pretty interesting backcourt. The Spurs have been using Manu Ginobili at point alongside George Hill during Tony Parker’s absence, though Hill might be listed as the PG. I can’t help but wonder if the Mavs couldn’t try something similar with their second unit, playing Terry and Beaubois in a tandem-PG/SG role in which both can use their handles, passing, and shooting to set up each other and their teammates. It’s not a straight up “Beaubois at PG” solution or a “Terry at PG” solution, but a hybrid model that would seem to serve the Mavs’ needs best…supposing those needs involve burying J.J. Barea.
“I have been impressed with the urgency of doing.”
-Leonardo da Vinci
I don’t need to tell you what this win means in terms of playoff seeding, or how good Denver is, or how close the playoffs are. These are things that we all know and we can all appreciate the gravity of. But I will say this: if you roll together timing, magnitude, tangible implications, and pertinence for the future, this is the most important Maverick win of the season. Bigger than the wins over the Lakers, any inspiring comeback, any gutsy, last-second win, or drawn-out defensive battle. We’ve seen Dallas struggle in recent weeks with all kinds of opponents, but last night they were highly-motivated, well-prepared, and ready to rock Denver’s world.
And that they did. That. They. Did.
From the opening tip, the Mavs were just operating at a different level than the Nuggets. The ball movement for Dallas was pristine, while for Denver it was a tad sloppy and just a second off. The Mavs (and Shawn Marion, in particular) were clearly ready for Carmelo Anthony (10 points, 3-16 FG, nine rebounds) and Chauncey Billups (11 points, 3-14 FG, six assists) going in, and they executed their defensive game plan to perfection. This isn’t to say that the Nuggets’ performance, in spite of limited production from their two best players, wouldn’t be enough for a win on some nights. Against some teams in the league, the Nuggets’ 93, with 30 free throw attempts and 12 offensive rebounds, would be enough for a victory. But for the first time in weeks, the Mavs presented a challenge of a different kind for an elite opponent, even if they are a struggling one. The Mavs finally look like a team that’s ready to play playoff basketball, ready to embrace and exploit the physicality and strategy that go with it.
This is the product that Mark Cuban and Donnie Nelson envisioned when piecing together this roster. Shawn Marion (21 points two steals) was brought in specifically to handle threats like Anthony, and his defense was absolutely superb. Brendan Haywood (10 points, seven rebounds, four assists) defended the rim and helped to negate Nene’s impact. Caron Butler (10 points, seven rebounds) and Jason Terry (15 points, 3-5 3FG) provided supplemental scoring, Dirk Nowitzki (34 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists) did the heavy lifting, and Jason Kidd (eight points, 10 assists, six rebounds, three steals) ran the show like few point guards in the league can. This is what the finished product looks like, and we can only hope that what we saw last night was an unveiling rather than a sneak preview. If so, we’re entering “best basketball at the right time” territory, which is a pretty special place to be.
Nowitzki and Marion were particularly impressive. Dirk notched just the second triple-double of his career, and his 34 points came in a different fashion than we’re accustomed. Nowitzki usually makes his money from mid-range, but he put together a 4-of-5 showing from beyond the arc in a bit of a throwback performance. Despite his reputation as a sweet-shooting big man (which he is, don’t get me wrong), Dirk has phased the three out of his nightly arsenal over the last few seasons. It’s not that he can’t shoot them, but in an effort to help the Mavs engineer a more deliberate offense, he’s move his game inward. He sets up in the low post to draw fouls, attract double-teams (a tactic which Denver was happy to utilize, and Dirk capitalized with 10 assists), and get easy buckets, and operates from the high post near the top of the key or the free throw line extended. This is contemporary Nowitzki’s game as we know it, but we saw a Dirk of a different breed against the Nuggets. Dirk had just three two-point field goals, and 28 of his 34 points came off of free throws and three-pointers, the most efficient shots possible.
Marion wasn’t quite as impressive in terms of his all-around game, but the combination of his lock-down defense on Anthony (though to be fair, he obviously had help) and his scoring punch is well-deserving of second billing. Marion scored on an array of runners and layups, as per usual, but it was his ability to post up the Denver guards that was especially helpful. Plus, his own scoring success didn’t outfit him with blinders, and he was willing to find open teammates with passes even from deep in the post. I’m not sure if the Nuggets will still be switching so much on screens if they were to match up with the Mavs into the playoffs, but Marion’s versatility is an obvious way for Dallas to exploit mismatches. He took Chris Andersen off the dribble, he posted up Billups, and he was everything the Mavs wanted him to be.
Even if these last two games are a daydream, they’ve been a pleasant one.
J.R. Smith (27 points, 10-16 FG, four rebounds, five turnovers) was both a blessing and a curse, which shouldn’t surprise anyone. I don’t have any problem with a player like Smith focusing solely on his scoring on a night like this, even if he could be using that prowess to create looks for his teammates as well. His efficient shooting and high scoring volume exempt him from that in my book, though, on the grounds that J.R. putting up that kind of production should be good enough. The five turnovers, though, hurt big time. Dallas only had seven turnovers as a team, and for Smith to sniff that total on his own is a bit troublesome. That said, I’m still awed by his scoring ability on nights like these, and if I had to bet my life on one guy in the NBA to take a bad shot at the end of the shot clock, I’d probably pick Smith.
The Mavs started quarters with authority. The first quarter began with a 17-4 Dallas run, the third with a 7-0 run, and the fourth — after a Smith three-pointer had brought Denver within 10 — was marked by a 15-4 run in the opening minutes.
Dirk grabbed three offensive rebounds, which is enough to tie his season-high.
27 assists on 38 field goals. Tremendous. Dirk and Kidd each had 10 assists, but I’m not sure that number properly encapsulates Kidd’s value. This was one of his better nights running the offense, and the Mavs looked like an elite offensive team. 123.9 points per 100 possessions is awfully impressive, and while that’s representative of team-wide success, the responsibility for the team’s offensive production weighs heavily on the point guard’s shoulders. Kudos, Kidd.
Mavericks fans live to see Rodrigue Beaubois succeed, and he actually played reasonably well in spite of a 2-of-7 shooting performance. Unlike most of Beaubois’ games this season, most of his minutes in this contest came at point guard, as J.J. Barea missed the game with a sore left ankle. And unlike most of Beaubois’ games this season, most of his production came at the defensive end, where he was excellent against Chauncey Billups and grabbed three steals.
Erick Dampier (four points, five rebounds) looked much more mobile and energetic in nine minutes, and assertive to boot. Since returning from injury on March 10th, Damp has looked a bit rusty in limited minutes. He’s not the quickest big on the court even when healthy, but last night’s game should inspire optimism for many reasons, including the possibility of having a healthy and engaged Erick Dampier.
This is the fifth game in seven nights for the Nuggets, and while I don’t really believe in scheduling as an excuse, it deserves a footnote.
Solid minutes for Eddie Najera, some coming at the 4 and some at the 5, but even solid…er minutes for Joey Graham (10 points, 4-5 FG, four rebounds). Not what you’d expect from Graham in a game like this, but surprisingly effective role players can make a huge difference in match-ups like these, especially in the playoffs. Chris Andersen, on the other hand, failed to get a single bucket in almost 18 minutes.
An even more impressive note on Dirk and Marion’s performances: they played just 37 and 29 minutes, respectively.