“There’s such a thin line between winning and losing.”
-John R. Tunis
Sometimes a game flows like the scripted word, with a rhythm, climax, and resolution that unfold seamlessly. All is right in the world as the good guys win and the bad guys falter, with no doubt in anyone’s mind as to who was the victor. Heroes are born, legends are written, and everything fits neatly into archetypal form.
But others are written like a biting satire. They make mockery of everything we think to be true, and rely on that defiance and a departure from the expected to prove some kind of point. There may be heroes, but winning the day is hardly an assumption.
From a Maverick perspective, the game would certainly be described as the latter.
After just ten minutes of play, a collision between Dirk Nowitzki and Carl Landry left Dirk with a deep laceration on his arm and Landry minus three teeth (according to Marc Stein, pieces of two of those teeth were actually in Nowitzki’s arm). Neither returned, and the game’s narrative structure had set a prime opportunity for the Mavs to prove their Rocketsesque mettle; Dallas would have to win without their primary scorer, their undisputed best player, and their leader. The cast of characters included: Jason Kidd (the wise sage), Jason Terry (the sidekick with an iron will), Josh Howard (the returning hero), Erick Dampier (the rock, the guide), Shawn Marion (the unwavering defender), J.J. Barea (the seemingly overmatched hero), and Tim Thomas (the rogue with a heart of gold). The stage was set for an epic tale of loss and redemption and triumph in the face of adversity.
And though the game lacked any kind of rhythm or pacing whatsoever, it seemed bound for the fairytale ending. With the Mavs trailing by four points with just over a minute remaining, Shawn Marion stripped Trevor Ariza on what looked to be an easy bucket for the Rockets. After running the floor in transition, Marion was left wide open by the scrambling Houston defense, and Jason Kidd rewarded his efforts with a feed for an easy bucket. And once Aaron Brooks missed one free throw to plant hope in the Maverick huddle, Rick Carlisle drew up a doozie of a play. After some misdirection by Jason Kidd and Jason Terry and a nice shot fake, Tim Thomas was left with a wide open look from the corner. Nothing but net, and the Mavs had one shot to make a defensive play and send the game into overtime.
Shawn Marion, who had been terrific on defense all night, demanded the assignment of guarding the red-hot Aaron Brooks. According to Kidd, Marion insisted that with his height and length he could bother Brooks on the drive or on the shot, and he couldn’t have been more right. Brooks passed up a shot attempt with a taller defender in front of him, and Marion forced him into an out-of-control dive toward the basket that ended with Shawn standing triumphant and a Rockets turnover with .4 seconds to play. The stage for the miracle had been set, but Jason Kidd’s lob was a bit off the mark, and Shawn Marion’s alley-oop layup attempt a bit short as a result.
But in most cases, overtime periods carry only false hope for short-handed teams. With Dirk nowhere in sight, the Mavs certainly qualify, and what had been a tremendous run by the remaining Mavs quickly spiraled into an emotional explosion. Aaron Brooks and Kyle Lowry continued to run their offense with confidence, and the Mavs provided themselves no opportunity for catharsis by missing jumper after jumper. Ultimately, the game’s defining sequence featured the Mavs down six with a minute to play, and a bit of hope as Erick Dampier began to elevate for a dunk attempt. But rather than rise and finish with a momentum-shifting slam, Dampier was pulled down by the shoulders by Aaron Brooks, who made no play on the ball whatsoever. Brooks was assessed a flagrant one, and in the ensuing video replay aftermath, the officiating crew also assessed a technical foul to Erick Dampier. It was Damp’s second tech of the night, and despite the fact that the elbow is virtually invisible on video, it warranted Damp’s automatic ejection. From then on, finishing the game was a mere formality.
It was a bizarre sequence, and according to Mark Cuban, one that doesn’t follow the letter of the rulebook (only flagrant two fouls are eligible for video review, and Brooks was assessed a flagrant one). But such a sequence only illustrated the value of a single basket in a close game. Regardless of who was right and who was wrong in their assessment of whatever it is that happened on that play, the Mavs had wasted two and a half quarters worth of opportunities. With no Dirk Nowitzki to balance the offense and no cohesion to the team defense, the Mavs looked beyond helpless. Kyle Lowry (a career high 26 points, 10 assists, and a career high-tying five steals) and Aaron Brooks (23 points, six assists) were simply too proficient, and with both on the court, the Mavs lacked the speed to combat their penetration into the lane and separation for jumpers. Meanwhile, Jason Terry struggled from the field (6-15 FG) and didn’t have command of his usual basketball savvy. Josh Howard started the game terribly before finally getting his act together in time to help the Mavs mount a run. And though Erick Dampier’s work on the glass and on defense was, frankly, game-changing (three blocked shots, seven offensive rebounds, and 14 total rebounds), his reinforcements (Drew Gooden and Kris Humphries) failed to defend or produce in any meaningful way. After Dirk left the game, the odds were not stacked in the Mavs’ favor, and until the final run of the fourth quarter, the responded with lethargic D and sloppy offensive execution.
The finale was poignant and demonstrative. It was a sign to the Mavs that coasting isn’t acceptable, and that refusing to play to your potential will only end in heartbreak. Dallas’ efforts were all for naught, and though Dirk’s absence provides a convenient scapegoat, the message here makes no mention of fighting valiantly. Rather, the point is this: Although the Mavs have come so far in terms of their defense and clutch execution, this is still a work in progress. This is still a team that has plenty to learn from a game that has plenty to teach, and regardless of just how high you’ve climbed, every game has the potential to be a humbling experience.
- J.J. Barea was instrumental in keeping this game competitive. He finished with 23 points on 8-15 shooting, with his couple of turnovers balanced by some pretty timely shots.
- The Mavs and the Rockets shot an identical 8 of 20 from three, but you would have never guessed it based on their impact. Each Maverick long ball was powerful, but the Rockets’ makes were of monumental importance. Brooks’ final shooting numbers (8 for 20 from the field) may not be sterling, but that man is a master of the momentum-killing three-pointer.
- Jason Kidd didn’t have a great defensive night, but he does so many things for the Mavs when he’s on the court. His work out of the post against Brooks gave the Mavs a fighting chance in overtime, and though the Dallas offense was anything but smooth, Kidd still contributed with 11 rebounds, 10 assists, four steals, and two blocks.
- The Rockets killed the Mavs with their ability to quickly shift into the transition game, and only when the Mavs began to counter the fast break did they make any headway whatsoever.
- Kyle Lowry was sensational. Seriously.
- The Mavs tried their hand at some zone, with mixed results. It seemed to at least slow down the Rockets, but the Mavs surrendered too many offensive rebounds because of the lack of box-out accountability. On top of that, David Andersen (16 points) and Luis Scola (19 points, 10 rebounds, five assists) have the range to be zone busters, and Lowry and Brooks were able to lure away chunks of the zone to leave jumpers open for the taking.
- Emotions were running high as the Mavs put pressure on the Rox late in this one. A tech for Jason Kidd and David Andersen for a little scuffle, two Ts on Erick Dampier (one for the alleged elbow, and another for Damp breaking his usually stoic demeanor to argue a non-call), two Ts on Rick Carlisle, and one T to the talkative Josh Howard.
- Shawn Marion really put the shackles on Kevin Durant the other night, but this may have been an even more impressive defensive performance. He wasn’t quite as consistent, but he made huge defensive plays with the game hanging in the balance.
- Dirk Nowitzki is considered questionable for Sunday due to the deep lacerations in his elbow, and Carl Landry will see a surgeon tomorrow.