Denver Nuggets 106, Dallas Mavericks 105

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

Photo by Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Closing thoughts:

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

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

Denver Nuggets 117, Dallas Mavericks 105

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Closing thoughts:

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

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

Staring Down the Panic Button

Posted by Rob Mahoney on May 4, 2009 under xOther | Be the First to Comment

Photo by Danny Bollinger.

In Game 1, two critical Mavs sprained an ankle, Jason Kidd had twice as many turnovers as assists, the bench saviors were all wearing home whites, Dirk couldn’t get a helping hand, and the opportunity to take a game under Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups’ feet was lost.

I’m sure there were positives in that 48 minutes somewhere, but the theme for Game 2 is improvement.  Looking over the lists of errors and miscues from Game 1, I can’t help but think that the Mavs are in charge of their own destinies.  It comes down to unveiling a more refined style of play on Tuesday, a display of an offense that doesn’t struggle to finish in transition or toss around careless passes on the perimeter.

Jason Kidd probably can’t play any worse, so at least that’s one minor victory in the bag.  But Jason Terry and J.J. Barea need to do their part as well to ensure that the offense doesn’t come to a grinding halt.  It’s difficult for both JET and J.J. to see over and around traps, but their ability to swing the ball around the perimeter and not get greedy with their playmaking will cut down the team’s turnovers and hopefully open up the shooters.  I was literally frightened whenever the Mavs passed the ball, as if each lazy hand-off or cross-court bounce pass was an open invitation for a Nuggets’ fast break.  That, more than anything, needs to be reconciled if the Mavs want to hang in this series.

Asking for precise execution on something as simple as passing the ball should go without saying, but these Mavs apparently need a reminder every once in awhile.  That reminder is even more crucial given Josh Howard’s injury status.  Josh said that having two wobbly ankles is “like walking on egg shells,” and that if Game 2 were a regular season contest, he’d be watching from the bench.  But it’s not and he won’t be.  Regardless, any time Josh does put in on the court will likely be limited, and the Mavs’ best defensive strategy for Carmelo Anthony (getting him in foul trouble) will be a bit more difficult.  If we’re expecting less scoring from Josh and more from Melo, that could mean serious problems even for a Dallas offense that executes perfectly.  Antoine Wright will have to really dig in, lest Melo explode for a nickel.

Offensively, Jason Terry will need to pick up the slack.  He was shadowed by Anthony Carter, J.R. Smith, Chauncey Billups, and Dahntay Jones during Game 1, and the only reason his shot attempts and point totals don’t look unusually meager is because of some fourth quarter shot hunting.  In the game of basketball, I’m an advocate of doing what works, and ramming that consistent ingredient down your opponents’ throats.  If you have a speedy point guard, drive and kick until the defense changes to counter it.  If you have a reliable low-post threat, feed him the ball until the double-teams come.  And if you have two players who can absolutely ruin defenses with the two man game, give them the ball and spread out.  If the Nuggets continue to switch on screens, Jason Terry needs to realize that there are two options for exploiting the mismatch.  Terry can turn overaggressive shot-blockers against themselves, using the pump fake to lure Chris Andersen and Kenyon Martin into foul trouble, which helps out the entire team.  And likewise, force a second defender to help on Dirk, which opens up shots from the perimeter and lanes for slashers.  Make the Nuggets prove that they can stop Dirk before you give them any benefit of the doubt, and make them prove that their defensive strategies are as sound as they claim.

I can foresee Nene being a big problem in this series, particularly with Erick Dampier running gingerly on that sprained ankle.  Around the basket, I trust in Dampier’s size to limit the easy looks.  But off the pick-and-roll, it’s up to Damp to play under the screen and it’s up to the guards to battle through.  Dirk has played way off of Kenyon Martin in similar situations and Chauncey Billups has yet to really exploit that.  Plus, any possession ending with a Nene or Martin jumpshot has to be considered a win for the Dallas defense.  Nene’s still going to be the beast that he is, but at least the defense might be in position to contest his attacks on the rim.

On Sunday, we saw reasons to worry, but nothing to really freak about.  The Mavs are fully capable of stealing Game 2 in Denver and coming home with the series all square.  A lot depends on two gimps, a revival of the league’s Sixth Man, and a healthy bump in basketball IQ, but the playoff Mavs have shown that they’re a bounce-back team.  Kidd, Terry, and Dirk need to take Game 1 personally, and the Mavs on the whole need to realize their offensive potential.  “Must-win” games are a myth, but an 0-2 deficit against Denver would put both teams on tilt.  For the Mavs, that would likely end in more risky plays and more turnovers.  For the Nuggets, an emotional ride would push them towards even more aggressive defense and a parade to the free throw line.  If the Mavs are going to win this series, they’re going to need a statement win, and I see no better place for that than Game 2.

Denver Nuggets 109, Dallas Mavericks 95

Posted by Rob Mahoney on under Recaps | 5 Comments to Read

Photo by Louis DeLuca / DMN Photo Staff.

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Beginnings are always messy.
-John Galsworthy

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

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

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

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

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

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

Closing thoughts:

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

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

Epitaph of a Hornet

Posted by Rob Mahoney on May 2, 2009 under Previews | Read the First Comment

The New Orleans Hornets, R.I.P., are the latest casualties of the Nuggets.  As such, I reached out to Niall Doherty of Hornets 24-7 for some advice to help the Mavs do what the Hornets could not.  Here are the words of wisdom that Niall has printed on the Hornets’ tombstone:

  1. Don’t let Chauncey pull up for the long J in transition. That’s his money shot. Force him to take it inside. Even if that results in a layup for him or a dunk for someone else, you just saved yourself a point.
  2. Let Carmelo shoot. He can knock down the jumper but he’s much more dangerous when he’s attacking the basket. Peja Stojakovic did a good job baiting him into taking the jumper in Games 1-3, but Melo decided to get to the rim a lot more after that and his effectiveness soared.
  3. Heckle J.R. Smith. Tell him he can’t shoot. Watch him ignore his teammates and launch numerous bad shots. Be glad he doesn’t play for your team, even if he hits a lot of them.
  4. Dallas will have to match the energy of guys like Chris Andersen, Kenyon Martin and Dahntay Jones. That trio really gets after it with defense and rebounding, igniting the rest of the team. You’ll come to hate Jones as the series goes on, while wishing he was on your team.
  5. Run at every opportunity. The Hornets really suffered trying to execute in the half court. When they pushed the ball up the court and attacked Denver early in the shot clock, they fared much better.
  6. Spread the floor, move the ball and find guys who can hit shots. The Nuggets will aggressively trap and double team the likes of Nowitzki, Terry and Howard. The Mavs will need good quick passing and guys moving off the ball. Make it tough for the defense to rotate and cover, and it’s essential that some role players step up and make shots. The Hornets didn’t have that and it killed them.
  7. When the Nuggets push and shove, push and shove back. Don’t let them be the aggressor. The Mavs might do well to have someone like Dampier hit hard early in the series, even if it costs him a game or two.

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

Posted by Rob Mahoney on under Previews | 3 Comments to Read

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

Photo by Glenn James/NBAE/Getty Images.

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

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

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

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

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

Brandon Wade/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT

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

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

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

Photo from friends.mavs.com

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

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

Here’s to hoping I’m wrong.

What, Is There a Game Tonight or Something?

Posted by Rob Mahoney on April 15, 2009 under Commentary | 6 Comments to Read

You know the story by now: based on the outcomes of the Dallas-Houston, San Antonio-New Orleans, and Denver-Portland games tonight, the Mavs could be seeded anywhere from 6 to Z and will be playing either the Rockets, the Spurs, or the Nuggets.

Who do you guys want to see in the first round?  Against any of those three opponents the Mavs would almost certainly be underdogs, but at least they’re not the Lakers.

I’m not afraid of Denver necessarily, if for no other reason than a twisted psychological justification of this paper tiger vibe I’ve gotten from the Nugs all season.  Maybe somewhere, in my heart of hearts, I think Carmelo may be cursed.  Or maybe I just don’t like Kenyon Martin.  The Nuggets are drawing plenty of attention as a dark horse, but inexplicably, my gut says otherwise.  Chauncey Billups has turned the team around, Carmelo Anthony is a phenomenal scorer, and Nene has ben incredible this season, but something about that team doesn’t sit right with me.

Houston, on the other hand, is a bit frightening.  I’m not sure that anyone on the planet wants to play against Ron Artest for a playoff series, much less Artest with the likes of Shane Battier by his side and Yao Ming on his back.  They have all the pieces to dominate almost every Mav defensively, even if it does mean matching the merely average defender Luis Scola on Dirk.  It’s not that the Mavs can’t beat the Rockets, because they can.  I’m just not too sure they would.  Yao’s too tough of a cover for Damp, Jason Terry and Josh Howard could be smothered on the wings, and essentially the Mavs would be hinged on Dirk going hogwild.  He’s fully capable, but could he do it four times out of seven?

San Antonio, for me, is where the intrigue lies.  They’re a good team, but a wounded one.  On top of that, as I’ve said time and time again, the Mavs were built to beat the Spurs.  Dirk, Josh, and JET pose a lot of problems for the Spurs’ defense, and if Tony Parker’s penetration is halted in the slightest, the Mavs have a good shot.

Regardless, the Mavs have a shot at a series, which is more than we could have said if they were locked in 8th.  I’d prefer to steer clear of the Rox, but come what may.  Personally, I’m hoping for a Mavs win and a Spurs win tonight, setting up another Mavs-Spurs classic.

So, LET’S GO MAVS.  And, for once and once only, LET’S GO SPURS.

All-Star Starters Announced Tonight

Posted by Rob Mahoney on January 22, 2009 under xOther | 4 Comments to Read

The moment we’ve all been waiting for, in which Dirk Nowitzki is denied yet another shot to start in February’s All-Star Game.  For the longest time it was Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett, but now the story has completely changed: the last known poll results placed Dirk at 5th behind Duncan, Carmelo Anthony, Amar’e Stoudemire, and Ron Artest.  Yikes.  I’ve got no qualms with Duncan making the game (other than the fact that, y’know, the Spurs are the antithesis of all that is good in the world), and Anthony has had a stellar season for a good Nuggets team.  But seeing Dirk trailing Stoudemire’s self-promoted voting campaign that oozed arrogance while missing out on the charm of the similar campaign a year ago by Chris Bosh…it leaves a bad taste in my mouth.  Artest plays for the Rockets, so that’s that.

(Addendum: Word is that Stoudemire’s got it.  Oh, but nevermind the fact that he’s been relaxing and putting his feet up on D and somehow actually looks disinterested on offense.  Besides those things, he’s been awesome.)

But at least two prominent voices in the internet basketball world gave Dirk his due; J.E. Skeets and Tas Melas of The Basketball Jones both chose Dirk for one of the two starting forward positions, and Skeets even selected Jason Terry as a reserve.  Respect.

The moral of the story is: don’t hold your breath for tonight’s announcement.  I’m not saying Dirk doesn’t deserve it (hell, I’d pick him), but ze German hardly wins any popularity contests.