You know the drill. The Difference is a reflection on the game that was, with one bullet for every point in the final margin.
Rick Carlisle tweaked his rotation, and the three Mavs involved — J.J. Barea (eight points, 3-9 FG, four assists), DeShawn Stevenson (11 points, 3-7 3FG), and Shawn Marion (16 points, 7-12 FG, four rebounds) — each had their best games of the series as a result. Not only has Carlisle done a great job of balancing a micro-managing style with the release of control (when he lets the Mavs “just play basketball,” or execute their “flow game,”), but he’s pressed the right buttons in every damn series thus far. Starting Barea as a means to eliminate Peja Stojakovic from the rotation while still keeping Brian Cardinal’s minutes down was actually rather inspired, and though Barea hadn’t really played well in the first three games of the Finals, he was able to accomplish some good things in Game 4 — even as he shot just 3-of-9 from the field. If Carlisle was given the option for Barea to get the same looks and same penetration again in Game 5, I think he’d take it in a heartbeat; Barea worked to create quality shots, but makes just weren’t in the cards this time. Stevenson played an effective game, too, so long as we forget about his horrible, bone-headed foul on Chris Bosh. His 11 points and ability to space the floor were invaluable considering Dirk Nowitzki’s limitations, and Stevenson was an active participant in the zone defense that shut Miami down in the fourth quarter. And then we come to Marion, who had his third game in the series with 16 or more points, and accomplished that much in just 26 minutes — by far his lowest minute total for the Finals. Dallas had leaned too heavily on Marion in the first three games of the series, and while 26 minutes will hardly be the norm from here on out, we should expect more reasonable levels of playing time than the 41+ minutes Marion played in Games 2 and 3.
Dallas continued in their remarkable defense against LeBron James (eight points, 3-11 FG, nine rebounds, seven assists, four turnovers), but what of Dwyane Wade ()? There’s only so much one can do to curtail scorers in isolation, especially those with the handle, speed, and vision that Wade almost unfairly possesses. He can get himself out of trouble so quickly that overt doubling presents serious problems, and yet the Mavs’ man defense can only do so much to contain him. I don’t feel like Marion, Stevenson, and Kidd did a poor job against Wade in Game 4; in many cases they played him well, and Tyson Chandler was there with the help. Wade is just too damn good at what he does, and he torched the Mavs to the tune of 32 points on 20 shots. Wade very nearly deflected some of the ill will aimed at LeBron for his horribly underwhelming performance, but a loss is a loss, and when the Heat are downed it’s often James that’s left to answer for it. I’d be very interested to see how the shift in the narrative had Wade made a single free throw or made a few more buckets, but Dallas winning with clutch execution while Wade shorts a freebie comes with its own narrative power.
Tyson Chandler (13 points, 16 rebounds, nine offensive boards) was a monster, and while plenty will praise him for his relentlessness, I’ve come to praise him for his restraint. Dallas has only remained competitive in this series because of Chandler, and more specifically, because Chandler has avoided foul trouble. The offensive rebounds and put-backs are fantastic, but they’re products of Chandler being on the floor in the first place, something which should in no way be assumed. Carlisle will play Chandler if he can, but foul trouble placed an artificial limit on Chandler’s minutes all season long, and was expected to play a role in one playoff series or another. It hasn’t. Whether defending LaMarcus Aldridge, Andrew Bynum, or Pau Gasol — or somehow protecting the rim from the likes of Wade and James while guarding Bosh — Chandler has kept his fouls down and stayed in the game. Chandler played 43 minutes of fully charged basketball on Tuesday night, and though his motor deserves unending praise, I’m more impressed than ever with Chandler’s ability to cut down on those tempting cheap fouls that got him in trouble so often.
I left the establishment where I was watching Game 2, just after Dwyane Wade hit a three pointer to put the Heat up by 15 with 7:13 left in the 4th Quarter. I had to follow one of the greatest comebacks in NBA history on the radio as I drove home. Although I didn’t get to see it live, there’s something to be said for great sports moments on the radio. Receiving auditory input only somehow seems to heighten the tension…Yeah, I’m not buying it either. I’m an idiot. If you’re too disgusted to keep reading, I completely understand.
Depending on the media outlet, the Mavericks’ Game 2 victory was either an epic comeback, or an epic collapse. I really do appreciate those who are covering it accurately as both. The Mavericks’ scored the points they needed to close the gap, the Heat couldn’t extend or even protect their lead. The Mavericks raised their game on both sides of the ball, a feat that happily coincided with the Heat easing off the throttle. Most of the attention on the Heat following Game 2 has been focused on their failure to score down the stretch; an offense that had been steaming ahead smoothly, suddenly came off the rails. Here are the results of each offensive possession by the Heat over the last 7:13:
Dwyane Wade misses 24-foot three point jumper
Mario Chalmers misses 25-foot three point jumper
LeBron James misses driving layup
Chris Bosh misses 21-foot jumper
LeBron James makes 2 free throws
LeBron James misses 16-foot jumper
Chris Bosh out of bounds lost ball turnover
Udonis Haslem misses 15-foot jumper
LeBron James misses 26-foot three point jumper
Dwyane Wade offensive rebound
LeBron James misses 25-foot three point jumper
Udonis Haslem offensive rebound
Udonis Haslem bad pass (Jason Terry steals)
Dwyane Wade misses 24-foot three point jumper
Mario Chalmers makes 24-foot three point jumper (LeBron James assists)
Dwyane Wade misses 28-foot three point jumper
Obviously, anyone complaining about the Heat’s shot selection and lack of interior attempts over that stretch has a point. By my count, there were two turnovers, two free throws, a layup attempt, three long two-point attempts, and seven three-point attempts. The last two three-point attempts can probably be excused as one was a wide-open game tying try and the other a heave at the buzzer, but even when taking away those two attempts, the Mavericks’ defense deserves credit and the Heat offense deserves criticism for their respective performances over that spread.
However, while I can’t condone the Heat’s shot selection, I can — in part — understand it. Up to that point, the Heat were shooting 40.4% on three-pointers for the series. Wade and LeBron,who were responsible for five of those six missed three-pointers, had shot spectacularly well from beyond the arc. James had made six of his 10 three-point attempts for the series, and Wade had made four of eight. In case you don’t have a calculator handy, that’s 55.6% shooting on three-pointers from a pair that combined to shoot 32.0% during the regular season.
The Heat should take some heat for their shot selection, but they were missing shots that had been going in for the previous 88 minutes of Finals game time. Part of rooting on Wade and LeBron is living with some ill-advised jumpshots. If you’ll pardon a second pun dropped in this single paragraph: they are the kings of the heat check. They make outlandish shots better than just about anyone, but they’re still rely heavily on outlandish shots and sometimes they don’t go in. Luckily for the Mavericks, Wade and LeBron chose an inopportune time to regress to the mean.
A few other points which seem to have been glossed over in the national discussion:
I’m giving myself half a pat on the back today. I went out on a limb in my series preview, saying DeShawn Stevenson should play much better and had an opportunity to have a large impact in the series. The large impact hasn’t quite materialized but Stevenson has been very effective, playing tough defense, grabbing 5 rebounds in just over 36 minutes, and knocking down five of eight threes.
As great as Nowitzki’s scoring bursts were down the stretch, he helped put his team in position to steal a win by killing himself on the glass. In Game 1 the Heat had an Offensive Rebound Rate of 34.8%. In Game 2, Dallas held the Heat to an ORR of 16.7%. Much of that credit goes to Nowitzki, who grabbed 9 defensive rebounds in the second half.
If the Mavs’ zone was indeed busted in Game 1, it was Mario Chalmers who busted it. Dallas didn’t seem to have all that much respect for Chalmers’ offensive ability; whether by design or oversight, ‘Rio found himself wide open in the corners, a cue which led Chalmers to drain a pair of back-breaking three-pointers in the second quarter. Both makes were significant in terms of the game’s momentum, but more simply, they were incredibly efficient opportunities granted to a formidable opponent that needs no favors.
To make matters worse, Miami’s success with the corner three went beyond Chalmers. LeBron James, too, found plenty of open space by spotting up in the weak side corner, as did Mike Miller. The result of those three players’ efforts was 5-of-10 shooting on corner threes in Game 1 alone, a completely unacceptable mark for a team that typically does a stellar job of limiting opponents in one of the most efficient zones on the floor.
According to NBA.com’s StatsCube, the Blazers made just eight corner threes in six first-round games against the Mavs on 28 percent shooting. The Lakers made two corner threes in four games on 12 percent shooting. In the Western Conference Finals, the Thunder made just four corner threes in five games on 33 percent shooting. Chalmers may have been encouraged to take control of the offense, but I find it exceedingly hard to believe that Rick Carlisle and Dwane Casey would so willingly concede one of the most efficient shots in the game, particularly given the defensive emphasis given to the corners in the first three rounds of the playoffs.
That’s why this post began in the conditional; though Miami was able to work well against the Mavs’ zone in Game 1, I see no reason why that particular defense is ‘busted’ or solved. It was bested for a single night, as the Heat took advantage of some poor defensive execution.
“We were playing zone and we didn’t buckle down,” DeShawn Stevenson said. “Those are some adjustments that have to come. We’ll look at tape and find that out. We can’t give those guys shots like that because the corner three’s the easiest shot in the NBA.”
“Our zone’s been good all year. They got some shots that we didn’t want them to get, but our zone is good.”
The zone still created a strong defensive front that denied penetration, and still forced the Heat to settle for some tough shots. It also allowed for corner threes and offensive rebounds, but not purely because of the system’s limitations. The zone isn’t a magic solution that can be employed irrelevant of execution; as is the case with any man-to-man or hybrid defense, precise execution is key. The Mavs were on-point in some regards, but they got careless on the periphery of their zone and paid the price. The problems didn’t occur because Dallas ran a zone, but because they didn’t execute it properly.
“They’re good at attacking the paint,” Brendan Haywood said, “and when teams attack the paint and the ball rotates, sometimes the corner three is what you get. Tonight we gave it up to LeBron, Mike Miller — Chalmers hit a couple. Those things happen, but I feel they can be corrected.”
Part of the perceptual problem is the weird stigma of the zone defense that still endures to this day. Every defensive system has its weaknesses, but the zone’s areas of vulnerability are treated as a death sentence. Every offensive board allowed is an indictment. Every made three is a supposed instigator for change. Many expect a shift back to man-to-man D at the first sign of trouble, even when the zone is successfully walling off the paint and swarming opponents who make interior catches. Defensive breakdowns are simply part of the game, and though the zone is often seen as gimmicky or somehow inferior, it’s merely subject to the same costs that come with defensive letdowns of any kind.
You know the drill. The Difference is a reflection on the game that was, with one bullet for every point in the final margin.
To those struggling to find the fine line between the acknowledgment of Miami’s excellence and the hope provided in the Dallas’ missed opportunities, I empathize. Game 1 has to be viewed in terms of all that the Heat accomplished, but I can’t shed the thought of Dirk Nowitzki’s missed layups, J.J. Barea’s botched runners, Jason Terry’s poor decisions. Credit Miami’s D for their impressive contests — and even for the impact of their potential contests, which clearly had Barea shaking in his boots — but the Mavs can play much better…as long as the Heat defense doesn’t improve yet. We knew this would be a competitive series, but I’m not sure anyone quite expected such an odd start. To credit the Mavs’ offensive failures or the Heat’s defensive successes would be a terrible oversimplification, and yet somewhere in that relationship is the dynamic that could decide the series.
The Dallas zone had its moments, I suppose, but its start to the series was anything but exemplary. Mario Chalmers was able to burn the Mavs with a pair of wide open threes from the corners, but it was the play of Chris Bosh that made things particularly painful for Dallas when in their zone coverage. Bosh finished with five offensive boards in capitalizing on the displacement of the Mavs’ defenders, and his passing from the high post provided a terribly effective counter to the Mavs’ zone look. Rick Carlisle didn’t seem too distressed about the zone’s performance, so I’m curious as to what he saw in Dallas’ Game 1 zone execution that we didn’t; how much zone the Mavs run in Game 2 should provide a more authentic appraisal than anything Carlisle said postgame.
Udonis Haslem and the Heat’s double teamers did a credible job defending Dirk Nowitzki (27 points, 7-18 FG, eight rebounds) by playing passing lanes and limiting Dirk’s attempts. In terms of challenging, the Heat defenders can only do so much; Haslem and Joel Anthony just don’t have the height or length to really alter Nowitzki’s shot, which leaves their means of defending him a bit more reliant on prevention. Anthony couldn’t quite pull that off, but Haslem — with help from Mike Miller and others — was able to put enough pressure on Nowitzki to make him pass out of doubles and rush through many of his possessions against single coverage. Nowitzki needs to get settled in, but Erik Spoelstra is too good of a coach to maintain a static approach against Dirk; he may see the same basic defensive look in Game 2, but the specifics of its implementations (the timing of the double, etc.) will likely change. Nowitzki was able to adjust and attack, but he may have to start that process all over again in Game 2.
Shawn Marion and DeShawn Stevenson were able to have some success in man-to-man coverage against LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, but then the Mavs shifted into zone, the zone failed, and the final product was flawed man-to-man execution that allowed the Heat do do as they willed. James and Wade didn’t have their most aggressive driving games, but they were certainly assertive scorers; the two stars combined to shoot 6-of-9 from three-point range, and several of those attempts came against pretty good defense. The prospect of defending Wade and James is always predicated on concession in some form. Teams often cede long jumpers — both twos and threes — to both James and Wade in the hopes that it lures two of the league’s best creators off the dribble into taking decidedly less efficient shots and stalling their team’s offense in the process. That’s still a semi-effective strategy against Wade (particularly due to his poor shooting from three-point range), but James has somehow become even more unguardable by hitting threes with consistency. Defending against either player is a miserable assignment, defending against both at the same time is just brutal, and defending against both at the same time when they’re hitting 67 percent of their three-point attempts is something I’m not sure the basketball world is — or will ever be — quite ready for.
Nowitzki tore a tendon in his left hand (or on his middle finger, to be more precise) while trying to strip the ball from Bosh on a drive. Had the tear been in his right hand, we’d be looking at a series ender; Dallas needs Dirk producing at an elite level to compete in this series, and a legitimate injury to his shooting hand would be a painful blow. However, the fact that Dirk injured his left hand isn’t exactly irrelevant, consider how crucial his handle and driving ability are to his overall game. It’s no secret that Nowitzki prefers to drive left, and considering how many driving lanes he had in Game 1, a limitation on his handle and finishing ability strikes me as rather significant.
Mike Bibby played 14 minutes, which was probably 14 minutes too long. Mario Chalmers wasn’t perfect, but he was far more productive than Bibby, and the Heat’s no-PG lineups even better than those involving Chalmers. I doubt there will be much of a change in Spoelstra’s rotation at this point in the playoffs, so Dallas needs to take advantage of the time that Bibby sees on a nightly basis.
James actually defended JET to close the game, a matchup that, while stifling and impressively creative, opens up an interesting opportunity. Marion had a fantastic offensive game, but could have been even more involved in the fourth quarter offense by going to work against Miller in the post. Any time that Marion can shed James, he’ll have an offensive advantage on the low block, and while he was able to create from the post a few times throughout the game, I think Marion can be used as an instigator of change. If Marion can be efficient enough in the post against Miller, Spoelstra could be forced to give up on assigning LeBron to chase JET and disrupt the Mavs’ two-man game, which would ultimately open up one effective offense by way of another.
Tyson Chandler and Brendan Haywood aren’t deserving of scapegoat status, but they have to be better on the glass. Their job (of anchoring the defense, challenging the shots of stretch bigs like Bosh and Haslem, and still hitting the boards) isn’t ideal, but it’s the task placed in front of them. I don’t see how the Mavs win this series without Chandler and Haywood pulling off something of a minor miracle in that regard. Best of luck to ‘em.
As a Finals matchup between the Mavericks and the Heat appeared possible, then probable, then certain, the story of a chance at redemption rose to the surface. The Heat’s victory over the Mavericks in 2006 has been The Elephant in The American Airlines Center the past five seasons, and a Finals rematch against the Heat would seem to give the Mavericks a chance to atone for previous shortcomings. If this redemption becomes reality, it will mostly be at the organizational level; only four players from that 2006 series — Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Terry, Dwyane Wade and Udonis Haslem — will be returning for their original teams. The legacy of each has continued to build on the foundation of the 2006 Finals, and will be, in large part, determined by what happens in this year’s Finals. However, the later chapters of several other NBA stories will be written in this series, stories that have little or nothing to do with the initial Finals matchup between the Mavericks and Heat.
Caron Butler is unlikely to play in this series after recovering from a gruesome knee injury. Tat injury seemed cruel at the time, but as the season has unfolded, that cruelty has taken on an entirely new meaning; Butler served as a crucial contributor in each of the Mavs’ regular season wins against the Heat, and yet a single bad fall has robbed him of the ability to participate in this series. Butler’s defensive presence will be particularly missed against LeBron James and Dwyane Wade on the wing, and his absence puts a lot of pressure on DeShawn Stevenson, Shawn Marion, and Jason Kidd to hold their defensive ground.
In addition, Butler has a personal history with Wade and the Heat. He was drafted by the Heat in 2002, and spent two seasons with the team. His second season was Wade’s rookie year and saw the team win 42 games and a playoff series against the New Orleans Hornets. Committed to Wade as the team’s centerpiece, the Heat saw Caron Butler as an inadequate complimentary piece. He was traded the following summer in the deal that brought Shaquille O’Neal — and ultimately, the 2006 title — to Miami. For someone who didn’t participate in the 2006 Finals, his fate is still greatly intertwined in those events.
Brendan Haywood and DeShawn Stevenson came to Dallas by way of the Washington Wizards, and while neither player has any particular history with the Heat, both have had their share of conflict with Miami’s shiniest new toy, LeBron James. In both 2007 and 2008, the Wizards were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs by LeBron and the Cavaliers. Both series were heavy on trash talk and technicals, and featured some heated one-on-one matchups between LeBron and Stevenson. I have to believe that each relishes the opportunity to go through LeBron in their pursuit of this title, even as they publicly say otherwise.
Dallas also has a veritable who’s-who of “Close, but no cigar,” guys. There are 34 active players who have played at least 80 playoff games. 14 of those 34 have never won a championship. 4 of those 14 play for the Dallas Mavericks. In addition to Nowitzki, we find Jason Kidd, Shawn Marion and Peja Stojakovic on that list. It’s worth noting that in LeBron, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Mike Bibby, the Heat have three players on that list as well.
Kidd is finishing his 17th season in the NBA. Among his other remarkable achievements, Kidd has played in 136 playoff games. 10 of those 136 games were played in the NBA Finals, over two separate trips with the Nets. The results are a disappointing 2-8 record. Marion has played 86 playoff games but never participated in an NBA Finals. He lost twice in the Western Conference Finals with the Suns. Stojakovic has played in 91 playoff games. That includes a crushing loss in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals to the eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers.
The Mavericks are a stunning collection of the league’s disenfranchised and overlooked. This series offers many chances for redemption, not just for missed opportunities in the 2006 Finals. A victory over the Heat could provide closure for heartbreaking trades and soul-crushing playoff exits, for years of dominance by the Lakers and Spurs, for odiferous officiating, and for a body slam and a three-pointer from Robert Horry. The ghosts of this playoff series won’t just be wearing the uniforms of the Mavericks and Heat.
Five different Mavericks’ lineups have played at least 30 minutes together in the playoffs. Of those, the most effective has been the Kidd-Terry-Marion-Nowitzki-Chandler combination. In just under 100 minutes, this group has posted an Offensive Rating of 122.51 and a Defensive Rating of 89.56, for an absurd Net Rating of +32.95. They’ve outscored their playoff opponents by 71 points in 96 minutes, meaning they’ve added a point to the Mavericks lead, on average, every 81 seconds.
This has been one of the Mavericks’ strongest and most consistent units all season. Unfortunately, it’s one that may be difficult to keep on the floor for extended periods of time against the Heat. To use this lineup against any Heat unit with both LeBron and Wad means that either Terry or Kidd will likely have to guard Wade. Obviously, this is a less than ideal defensive matchup. Using their zone is an option, but committing to using it consistently with this lineup will make them very predictable. To deal with these matchup problem, the Mavericks may need to rely a little more heavily on a lineup that has been generally ineffective in the playoffs this far: their starters.
Dallas’ starting lineup (Kidd-Stevenson-Marion-Nowitkzi-Chandler) has played the most minutes of any of their five man units in the playoffs. It’s also the only unit they’ve used for more than 25 minutes which has a negative Net Rating. Kidd, Marion, Nowitzki, and Chandler have all played well in other units, and most of the struggles with the starting lineup can be traced to Stevenson. Make no mistake, Stevenson has been bad in these playoffs. He’s shooting 27.1%, and his PER his fallen all the way to 2.2 (with 15.0 being indicative of league average production). Still, I think he the chance to be an impact player in this matchup against the Heat.
When we look at the lineups used by the Mavericks in their two regular season matchups with the Heat, we see they struggled mightily with Terry and Wade on the floor together. The Mavericks had an Offensive Rating of 108.24 and a Defensive Rating of 124.71 in the 44 minutes they were both in at shooting guard. However, in the 29 minutes Stevenson was matched up with Wade at shooting guard the Mavericks posted an Offensive Rating of 126.16 and a Defensive Rating of 71.93. As this was early in the season, and both teams are in a much different place then they were the last time they met, those numbers should be taken with a grain of salt.
But Stevenson does have some things working in his favor. Unless Rick Carlisle is interested in finding minutes for Corey Brewer, Stevenson is the one Maverick with the size and mobility to challenge Wade. His offense is mostly of the one-dimensional spot-up shooting variety, and that single dimension has mostly abandoned him in the playoffs. Still he’s a much better shooter then what he has shown the past few weeks. At some point you would expect his percentages to rebound, moving closer to his averages. As I mentioned above, Stevenson has a history with LeBron, and by association, the Miami Heat. He’s always been a player who thrived on an emotional challenge, and perhaps that connection with James provides just such a challenge. There is a path cleared for him to step up and make a difference in these Finals. It will be up to him to walk it.
You know the drill. The Difference is, under most normal circumstances, a reflection on the game that was, with one bullet for every point in the final margin. These are not normal circumstances.
Jason Terry is holding court in the Mavericks’ locker room, just as he always does, but the swath of reporters that typically surrounds him is not a swath. It’s a sea. It feeds endlessly into waves of cameras and recorders. Ian Mahinmi can be seen across the room, clad in only a towel, holding his arms up above it all as he attempts to pass through — literally wading through the gulf that now stands between him and his own locker.
It’s not surprising that such a contingent has flooded around Terry. He’s become a mouthpiece of sorts for the organization, a quotable commodity that has become even more valuable to soundbite-seekers with Mark Cuban uncharacteristically silent. JET’s statements come pre-packaged for journalistic use, with just the right amount of bravado, insight, and cliché. He’s a talker. This is just what he does. The regulars that follow the team know it, and apparently so do all of the other reporters and cameramen who have seemingly come up through the woodwork. Terry sits, fielding question after question after question, and responding with the punch of a veteran politician. Or maybe just a veteran ballplayer, but with all of the noncommittal responses, who can tell the difference?
Terry, J.J. Barea, and Brendan Haywood comprise the first wave of available Mavs. Barea draws his own sizable crowd of English and Spanish-speaking media, but one media member can be heard telling her cameraman partner to get in position for “Barrera.” Picking apart defenses en route to the NBA Finals may have earned Barea nation-wide respect (or detest, depending on your point of view, I suppose), but it does not, apparently, ensure the correct pronunciation of his name. This might be the first time he’s been called “Barrera,” since being crowned a Western Conference champion, but it’s only a precursor for the frequent pronuncial butcherings to come.
Oddly, Brendan Haywood doesn’t have all that much going on around his locker, despite the fact that he’s perhaps every bit as quotable as Terry. The distinction may lie in the fact that Haywood is more truth-teller than politician; his words draw interest when they’re seen as having the potential to incite conflict, but otherwise, he’s just a back-up center doing what he can to dissect and explain the world around him.
Haywood has been characterized by perceived sulking or brooding over his last season and a half in Dallas, but he’s understandably easy in moments like this one. He talks about wanting to be the back-up center on a team headed to the Finals rather than relishing in a role with more playing time or more touches. He jokes candidly about his words being taken out of their original context prior to Game 5, words which he notes as being more light-hearted than they appeared in text. He’s not just a flagrant fouling machine, but an interesting — if occasionally abrasive, for better and worse — voice within the team. He’s just buried beneath Terry’s charisma, Dirk Nowitzki’s quiet charm, and Jason Kidd’s veneration. Haywood may not always give some writers exactly what they want to hear for their pre-penned stories, but if you ask the right questions and listen closely, Haywood has a lot to offer.
But his smaller scrum naturally drifts into a group waiting for Tyson Chandler — the bigger star, the bigger name, the bigger personality. Haywood waits in his chair to answer the questions of the stragglers, but what may have once belonged to him now belongs to Chandler. Dozens of media members wait around Chandler’s empty locker, chattering amongst themselves in lieu of chatting with Haywood, or DeShawn Stevenson — who stands shirtless at his locker speaking with media members, wearing a scowl of sorts until the word “Finals” lets escape a slight smile — or Brian Cardinal — who dresses in front of his locker undisturbed save one man with no recorder — or Peja Stojakovic — who has a smirk plastered to his face, perhaps making him as one-dimensional in the locker room as he is on the court. The boxing out around the locker of a prominent player isn’t so different from what goes on in the regular season, but it’s all a bit more deliberate; rather than float aimlessly in the vicinity of a particular locker, now the camps are set. Ladders are deployed and cameras are at the ready, all positioned around an empty locker.
Shawn Marion field questions while wearing shades with orange lenses, and talks of the Mavs’ stomachs being “three-fourths full.” Whether he knows it or not, LeBron James is already in and on his mind, even as he goes on to mention that he doesn’t care who Dallas will face in the series to come. Regardless, Marion sees a world in warm tones and unintentionally borrowed analogies.
He politely answers the same question, posed repeatedly with only slightly altered structure. One would think that there are only so many ways to ask Marion about the significance of the Mavs’ experience, but a few tweaked words apparently qualifies as an entirely new question to some. Marion tries his best to make each answer unique, but all of his words begin to bleed together. Even a character like Marion is made a bit repetitive by way of an absurd, redundant media presence.
Marion lifts his glasses as he talks about the Mavs’ belief in themselves, a trust in a system and team that he says has never wavered. He doesn’t stare into space as he dispenses canned confidence, but looks at virtually each media member directly. He wants you to know this. He wants you to know that the Mavs believed, through the regular season and Caron Butler’s injury, through the sprints and slogs, through the first and second rounds that they weren’t supposed to win. The shades will eventually come back down, but Marion’s insistence on that belief does not.
Nothing has changed…in a sense. Dallas believes in their championship hopes as much now as they did on Media Day. Yet to ignore the fundamental difference in the atmosphere both on the floor and within the belly of the American Airlines Center is foolish. There is a discernible difference, even if it exists most obviously in the cosmetics of media prevalence. The players don’t just talk of big games, but have lived them. We all dispense of hypotheticals, because in a most improbable scenario, the Dallas Mavericks are the first team in the NBA Finals. Things aren’t the same. They can’t be, and never will be again. There is a fundamental difference between today and yesterday, between the playoffs and the regular season, between this Mavericks team and the one we saw over 82 games. It may not be drastic, but this is more than just a step in a process for those same Mavs that started the season so full of hope.
Jason Terry still fields questions roughly a half-hour later, and the ocean across the locker room remains. But Dirk dresses quietly — the space around his locker is perhaps the only few feet without a recording device or probing reporter. He prepares for his press conference facing his locker, and more poetically, facing the picture of the Larry O’Brien trophy that hangs within it. Terry, Nowitzki’s locker room neighbor, has the same picture hanging in his, undoubtedly as a reminder of what was nearly theirs, and now what nearly is again.
Haywood remarks about Dirk’s black shirt — “Johnny Cash!” — and then Nowitzki departs to a walk of waves and nods on his way to the interview room, which is naturally full to the brim with even more cameras and recorders and media members. What came from the sea has returned to the sea.
At the stand, Nowitzki rambles a bit, launching into the exhaustive answers that have practically become his trademark. Nowitzki is many things to many people, but after games he is hardly pithy. The hyper-efficient Dirk and the one sitting, leaned back and clutching the mic as he stares through the table and rattles off answers, are somehow one in the same.
With his press conference duties fulfilled, Nowitzki finally escapes…to one more set of media members, though this group speaking his native tongue. Nowitzki and his counterpart walk the halls of the AAC, as Dirk pushes the hair behind his ears. He probably tugged at the upper left side of his imaginary jersey, too, completing the routine for this one last free throw. I imagine it’s hard to keep gait with toes pointed inward and knees bent ever so slightly, but there’s no question that Dirk’s eyes are focused on completing this one final task before he can breathe easy.
Dirk finally makes his way toward the garage, where only he and his police escort will go. His walk is slow, but not heavy; there’s no lightness, but only deliberation. He marches, but somehow does so without the slightest rigidity. As they trail off down the hall, talking and laughing along the way, Nowitzki finally finds respite. In that moment, he offers himself the slightest concession. To this point, nothing in Nowitzki’s actions or words has suggested celebration. He answered questions with the same standard tone, acknowledged fans with the same humility, and even escaped before the presentation of the Western Conference Championship trophy had fully concluded. Yet as he and the officer round the corner into the garage, Nowitzki indulges in a single and final celebratory act: a subtle high five, a prize worthy of a conference champion looking to accomplish so much more.
You know the drill. The Difference is a reflection on the game that was, with one bullet for every point in the final margin.
The Mavericks’ offense was magnificent in the first half. Every movement was crisp and precise, whichmade the Thunder’s stagnation even more apparent. By my count the Thunder attempted just five shots at the rim in the 1st Quarter, with two coming on offensive rebounds. Everything else was on the perimeter. Both sides had plenty of movement, but the Mavericksdisplayed a prescient awareness of where space would be, moving there as it opened up. The Thunder seemed to be seeking open space, and in most cases it eluded their desperate chase. On offense, the Thunder players were looking for opportunities to score; the Mavericks were waiting for opportunities to score. One Dallas offensive possession, in particular, stood out to me. Their second possession of the 2nd Quarter started with a Jason Terry steal. Within 12 seconds, the ball had crossed half-court, at least four passes had been made, three different Mavericks had touched the ball, nearly every Thunder defender had been forced to make a rotation, and Dirk Nowtizki had knocked down an open 16 footer.
In the 4th Quarter the Mavericks’ offense came off the rails. They scored enough to hold on and win, but gave up quite a bit of ground. Instead of the movement and passing that helped them build their lead, which had gone as high as 23 points, there seemed to be a concerted effort to “Get the ball to Dirk.” This resulted in isolation after isolation. A few tough defensive possessions from Nick Collison and the Thunder were back within striking distance.
Kevin Durant had a tough night, as Stevenson and Marion hounded him into a 7 of 22 performance. Durant certainly helped them out by staying on the perimeter. Just 4 of his 22 shot attempts came at the rim, and just one of those 4 was taken before the 4th Quarter. Some may point to his 0 of 8 shooting on three-pointers as a fluke. However, most of those long jumpers were contested and he struggled all game long to find enough space to operate comfortably.
Tyson Chandler completely out-Perkinsed Kendrick Perkins. Chandler finished with a game high 15 rebounds, and stated clearly that the paint belonged to him from the game’s outset. The physicality and nastiness that Chandler has brought to the Dallas back line is what Perkins was supposed to give Oklahoma City. Kind of makes you wonder what would have happened if the Chandler to Oklahoma City trade, of two years ago, hadn’t been voided because of his toe injury.
I’m a basketball nerd so I see references and connections everywhere. ESPN’s time out feature during the 1st Quarter, on notable playoff beards was clearly paying homage, intentionally or incidentally, to the now-defunct FreeDarko and the “Hair up There” section in their Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History. Well done, nameless ESPN segment producer.
The biggest storyline going into this game was Thunder coach, Scott Brooks, holding Russell Westbrook out for the entire 4th quarter of Game 2. The narrative coming out of Game 3 will likely continue to focus on Westbrook; but I’m curious to see what shape it will take. Westbrook was 8 of 20 from the field, and scored 30 points, thanks to 14 free throw attempts. His critics will likely focus on his 7 turnovers and 4 assists. I would be happy to offer criticism of Russell Westbrook for his play tonight, but none of it would focus on the ratio between his shot attempts and Durant’s. A comparison of their shot attempts as an evaluation of his effectiveness misses the point completely. Despite how it’s been framed this week, the problem is not a trade-off between Westbrook forcing the action or Durant getting open looks. It’s a trade-off between Westbrook forcing the action or Durant forcing the action. The Thunder offense created next to nothing in terms of open looks for Durant tonight. That’s an indictment of the entire team and everything leading up to the culmination of each possession, not just Westbrook’s ability and willingness to deliver the ball.
You know the drill. The Difference is a reflection on the game that was, with one bullet for every point in the final margin.
The most glaring problems in this game for Dallas weren’t that Jason Terry finished with just eight points, that Shawn Marion shot 4-of-13 from the field, or even that the Mavs had trouble at times getting the ball to Dirk Nowitzki in his most comfortable spots on the floor. This one’s on the defense. Terry and J.J. Barea had particular trouble containing the dribble penetration of Eric Maynor and James Harden, but Dallas’ trouble containing aggressive drives goes well beyond those players. When the Mavs defend, they’re the superior team in this series. If Dallas plays defense like they have in the first two games of this series, then every contest in these Western Conference Finals will be a shootout — or worse. Dallas can still win under those circumstances, but why lean so heavily on the offense when given the choice to diversify? Why allow Oklahoma City to post an effective field goal percentage of 60.7 when this defense is clearly capable of being much more limiting?
Nick Collison and Eric Maynor did a much, much better job of containing the Barea-Nowitzki high pick-and-roll, effectively neutralizing that sequence in Game 2. Nowitzki and Barea obviously found other ways to generate buckets, but Collison and Maynor did a great job of denying Barea those free drives to the rim while still deterring a pass to an open Nowitzki. Defending these two at the top of the floor can be pretty brutal for opposing defenses, but the Thunder adjusted well to take away this particularly effective aspect of the Mavs’ Game 1 offense. This is a bit more in line with what we should expect from Barea for the remainder of the series; he’s capable of contributing double-digit scoring, but the Thunder’s pick-and-roll D is much better than they let on in the opening game of the Western Conference Finals.
How Kendrick Perkins was able to play even 24 minutes is legitimately curious to me. The notion that trading for Kendrick Perkins would make the Thunder into contenders was understandable, but in this series he has no practical role whatsoever. Perkins can’t effectively defend Dirk Nowitzki, the Mavs’ only interior scoring threat. He can’t stick with Tyson Chandler, as evidenced by TC’s frequent alley oops in transition, semi-transition, and even in a half-court setting in Game 2. Perkins doesn’t rebound particularly well, isn’t defending an Andrew Bynum or Pau Gasol type, and is legitimate dead weight on offense, despite what his bizarre make on a contested mid-range J in Game 2 would have you believe. He’ll likely maintain his starting role, but as this series trudges on, I’d expect Perkins’ minutes to diminish even further in favor of Collison, Serge Ibaka, and the small lineup OKC ran for stretches in Game 2.
DeShawn Stevenson and Jason Kidd have done the best work defending Kevin Durant in the first two games of this series, but I’m sure we’ll continue to see plenty of Marion matched up against KD, if only because the other options are so horrible.
James Harden is doing an incredible job of exploiting whichever defender is put in front of him, and making me eat my words in the process. He’s been significantly better off the dribble than I thought he’d be (or really, Terry has been significantly worse in defending him off the dribble than I thought he’d be), but it’s the pick-and-roll play and flat-out shot making ability that have elevated Harden’s production. He’s been completely fantastic, and I’ve been completely wrong about his potential to make an impact in this series.
Appreciate your patience — been a weird past few days. Ian will be taking care of recapping duties for Game 4, and I’ll be back to regular posting after the weekend.
I never expected to be writing series previews for the Mavs this deep into the post season, but here I am, and here are the Mavs, playing some absolutely fantastic two-way basketball. Dallas played through the first two rounds as well as any team in the playoffs, but in the Conference Finals they’ll face their toughest opponent yet. Oklahoma City has neither Portland’s obvious flaws nor L.A.’s crippling defensive issues, and contending with Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and the Thunder’s brilliant supporting cast will require more incredible execution from the Mavs. There was little room for error during this playoff run to begin with, but Dallas must continue to walk the fine line of passing without overpassing, pressuring on D without fouling, and committing to a team defensive front without sacrificing the means to grab defensive rebounds.
Reducing this series to a “who guards Dirk/Durant?” bullet point may be oversimplifying things a bit, but I understand the temptation to determine the victor of this series by way of defending an opponent’s star player. Nowitzki and Durant are both fantastic offensive players without clear cross-team matchups; Shawn Marion* and DeShawn Stevenson will get the call for Dallas and Serge Ibaka and Nick Collison for OKC, but none of those four should be expected to do a stellar defensive job, even on the basis of an individual game. All four defenders will work like crazy to defend their man, but there’s only so much you can do against Nowitzki’s array of jab steps and fakes and Durant’s combination of size, speed, and shooting.
*Marion actually didn’t spend much time at all defending Durant this season. Caron Butler logged a lot of time against Durant the first two times the teams met, and Marion spent the last game of the season series filling in for an injured Nowitzki. In both contexts, Marion ended up covering Jeff Green during many of his minutes, but should see a lot more of Durant in the games to come.
The key in either matchup is the minimization of losses — which team can manage to get torched for less. With that in mind, I think the Mavs have a bit of an advantage on the superstar front. Whether Nowitzki or Durant is the superior player hardly matters. What does is the fact that Nowitzki has more easily initiated ways to attack defenders (low post, high post, iso on the wing, pick-and-roll, pick-and-pop) than Durant. KD’s alleged troubles to get open and receive passes are very real; he may be one of the most brilliant scorers in the league, but against heavy defensive pressure, his touches can be limited. He’s more susceptible to double-teams. His influence can be hindered by encouraging Russell Westbrook to shoot. Dallas simply has more avenues to derail Durant than OKC does to limit Nowitzki, a point which gets lost in the Durant vs. Marion and Nowitzki vs. Ibaka framework.
As far as individual defense goes, I think Marion is perhaps a bit slower than the Mavs would like, but he’ll have to be their best first line of defense against Durant. Stevenson doesn’t have the size, strength, or athleticism to pull off a Tony Allen-like (or even Tony Allen-light) defensive performance, and Jason Kidd isn’t really an option in this series. Corey Brewer could see the court for a few minutes, but Rick Carlisle clearly prefers the rotation regulars. Marion is the most logical choice at this point, even if the speed advantage he surrenders to Durant could be a recurring problem. Still, Marion will make Durant work for every point he gets, and doesn’t often surrender free cuts to the rim nor bite on shot fakes. Marion is excellent at staying down while getting a hand in a shooter’s face — an advantage afforded him by his height and length — and that ability to challenge Durant’s jumper without allowing KD to draw a cheap foul is incredibly important.
Dallas is the better shooting team in this series, which puts OKC at a disadvantage to begin with; in order to win, the Thunder will need to defend like crazy in order to bring the Mavs’ shooting down to a reasonable level, create a considerable advantage on the offensive glass (akin to Chicago’s Game 1 rebounding dominance against Miami on Sunday night), win the turnover battle by a significant margin, or get to the free throw line at an incredible rate. Marion’s defense can help on a number of fronts, as he can limit Durant’s impact on the glass, create turnovers with deflections, and limit Durant’s free throw attempts. KD may still drop 29 a game in this series, but his full impact across the four factors should be diminished if Marion does his job correctly.
Across the sky, Collison won’t be exploited in his attempts to cover Nowitzki, just overwhelmed (Ibaka may be a different story; he’s a strong defender in most contexts, but this matchup is not one of them). He’ll do a serviceable job against Nowitzki, but I see no way for the Thunder to even hedge on this particular weakness, no way to limit Dirk from doing exactly what he wants to do virtually every time he gets the ball in a position to score. Nowitzki will be bound by his own natural misses and errors, but I don’t see any defensive coverage that can rattle Dirk at this point, and no individual who can truly claim an ability to limit him. With Dirk on the floor against the Thunder this season, the Mavs have posted an offensive efficiency of 131.74. Fish in a barrel, my friend. The Western Conference Finals are the fish, the Thunder defenders are the barrel. Fish in a barrel.
Beyond Nowitzki and Durant, Russell Westbrook is the best player in this series, though with the regular season as precedent, I wouldn’t expect him to play like it. On paper, Jason Kidd seems like a horrible cover for Westbrook; the Thunder point man is among the most impressively physical perimeter players in the league, and can run circles around any defender with the misfortune of covering him. Dallas, however, lets Westbrook be. Kidd doesn’t try to go chest-to-chest with him, but backs away, affording Westbrook all the opportunity to give into temptation and fire off his pet pull-up jumper. Westbrook isn’t a horrible shooter, but this is far and away the preferred result of any Thunder possession. Not only does it often result in a low-percentage shot, but it creates a scenario in which Westbrook has to turn down open shots on every single possession** in order to get the ball to Durant or any other Thunder player. That’s tough for any player to resist, and particularly so for one with an occasionally destructive tendency to fire at will.
**This is as true of the Mavs’ man-to-man defense as it is the zone. Regardless of the coverage, Westbrook will be given room.
In reality, this matchup is less about Kidd vs. Westbrook than it is about Westbrook vs. his own decision making, and subsequently Westbrook vs. Kidd and Tyson Chandler. Westbrook will need to be incredibly patient in order to properly initiate the Thunder offense, and the Mavs will attempt to goad him into shooting by going under every screen and playing several feet off of Westbrook when he has control of the ball. If Westbrook chooses to shoot, he’ll halt the Thunder offense, miss more than he makes (Westbrook converted 29 percent of his mid-range jumpers against the Mavs in the regular season), and generate transition opportunities for the Mavs. If he chooses to drive, he’ll have Kidd bothering him along the way and Chandler lying in wait. In the season series, Westbrook converted just 44 percent of his shots at the rim and 29 percent of his shots in the paint when Chandler was on the floor (according to NBA.com’s StatsCube), and TC will continue to aggressively challenge Westbrook’s drives; leaving offensively limited bigs like Kendrick Perkins and Nick Collison doesn’t create much of a disadvantage for Dallas, so utilizing Kidd and Chandler as a two-man front against Westbrook is only a logical choice. It may be a bit hyperbolic to say that Westbrook will be neutralized in this series as a result, but he’ll certainly be tested and likely be limited.
If much of Westbrook’s positive impact is taken out of the picture, the advantages held by Nowitzki and the Mavs’ supporting cast (which is more versatile and productive than the Thunder’s crew, even if the difference in efficacy isn’t glaring) become even more vital. That could easily be negated if OKC does particularly well on the offensive glass or gets out into transition frequently, but I see the Mavs taking care of business in both of those regards. The Thunder will naturally get theirs on the break and with second chance points, but not to a degree that will significantly affect the series. Marion, Jason Terry, Peja Stojakovic, and J.J. Barea, on the other hand, seem poised to consistently outscore OKC’s supporting cast thanks to the opportunities granted by Dallas’ offensive system. The Thunder will play much better defense than the Lakers did, but the production and efficiency of the Mavs’ complementary scorers was no fluke.
That’s why I predict that the Mavs will win in six games. The Mavs haven’t won back-to-back series because of hot shooting, but because their commitment to offensive execution in these playoffs has no equal. Contending with their ball movement is a difficult feat, and an incredibly difficult one if Westbrook is side-stepping the offense to pull up for mid-range jumpers. There isn’t a terribly compelling reason why the Thunder will be able to disrupt the most beautifully structured and productive offense remaining in the playoffs, and the strength of the Mavs’ offense should power them through to their second ever NBA Finals appearance, prediction jinx permitting.
You know the drill. The Difference is a reflection on the game that was, with one bullet for every point in the final margin.
That, ladies and gents, was one of the most dominant performances in NBA playoff history. Dallas posted an effective field goal percentage of 74.0% — seventy-four percent! — which, according to Kevin Pelton of Basketball Prospectus, was the highest mark in the playoffs by any team of the past two decades. The Mavs won by 36 points, but the actual margin was even larger; if we adjust the final totals of both teams to the 100-possession standard, Dallas was actually 39.1 points superior on a pace-neutral scale. That’s an absurd, gaudy dominance that nears Bambi vs. Godzilla territory.
It was all possible because of the ball movement. Dallas did such an incredible job of finding open space and making the right passes in this series, and as I’ve noted on several occasions, it was that continued work toward the extra pass and the better shot that destroyed any hope L.A. had of mounting an effective defense. The Lakers embarrassed themselves with their inability to stick with the Mavs’ shooters, but they were only put in a position to fail because the passing was so crisp and the cuts were so perfect. Dallas — though they look absolutely brilliant at present — had fallen victim to their own stagnant offensive execution at various times during the regular season, but that’s not even a conceivable outcome with this team right now. Execution is playoff currency, and the way the Mavs created shots on offense was borderline magical. The Lakers were flummoxed by the sight of a moving ball, and incapable of defending pick-and-rolls, flare cuts, or really anyone at all.
Not that Dallas’ defense was anything to scoff at, either. Some of the same lethargy that haunted L.A.’s defense crept into their offensive game, but it’s not as if shots went up unchallenged or passes deflected themselves. The Mavs were true defensive aggressors, and forced the Lakers into a 17.4 turnover rate while holding them to a 40.9% effective field goal percentage. Kobe Bryant had a successful first quarter run, but that short burst aside, the Lakers had absolutely no continuity. They scored a bucket here and a bucket there, but the Mavs were scrambling so incredibly well in their half-court defense and demolishing one of the league’s most impressive offensive outfits in the process.
There should be no question that the better team won this series because frankly, when the Mavs play like this, they’re better than almost any team in the league. Dallas essentially played a perfect game to cap off an incredible four straight victories, and while there should be understandable doubt regarding the Mavs’ ability to sustain their current roll, the Dallas team of this series was a championship contender and then some.
Jason Terry (32 points, 11-14 FG, 9-10 3FG, four assists) was positively stupendous. This wasn’t “one of those nights” or the “hot hand”; on May 8th, 2011, Jason Eugene Terry activated his final Chakra. He reached out and touched the divine. He shifted into another state of consciousness, or was possibly existing simultaneously in two realms, his body a conduit for some greater power. This shooting display was a spiritual experience, the likes of which can change lives and convert men in their heart of hearts. The Lakers didn’t exactly put up much resistance, but the confidence and the consistency in JET’s jumper was otherworldly, or self-actualizing, or centering, or dimension-shifting. I’m not exactly sure which, but one simply knows when they’ve witnessed something miraculous.
Peja Stojakovic (21 points, 7-7 FG, 6-6 3FG, three steals) wasn’t too bad, either, and continued in his efforts to make me look like an absolute fool for wondering if he would bear fruit for the Mavs. Stojakovic was perfect from three-point range in six attempts, and like JET, his composure is admirable. He can fire off a corner three even against a hard close-out, and in those situations when he thinks the defense might get the better of him, he doesn’t hesitate to put the ball on the floor or swing it back to the top of the key. Stojakovic is a shooter, but he isn’t exactly consistent with the typical limitations spot-up shooter archetype.
The Maverick reserves scored 86 points, matching the Lakers’ collective total. Unreal.
Blowout losses do crazy things to people. Like Lamar Odom:
And Andrew Bynum:
I can understand the argument that Odom’s foul wasn’t quite deserving of the flagrant 2/auto-ejection, but Bynum’s is completely classless, uncalled for, and unacceptable. I’d be shocked if he doesn’t receive a multi-game suspension to kick off the 2011-2012 season for his momentary lapse into insanity. Bynum is typically a pretty reasonable, aware guy, but the sight of J.J. Barea getting yet another uncontested drive to the rim drove him into some kind of madness. Then again, he had mostly himself to blame for Barea’s previous effortless drives, so maybe he was just taking out his frustrations on a mini, Barea-sized avatar of himself. Or, y’know, he just lost his mind.
Bynum’s flip-out wasn’t wholly negative though, because it did help Barea (22 points, 9-14 FG, eight assists) — who shared the game’s tri-MVP honors with JET and Peja — score an elusive made bucket on a flagrant foul. Even after taking a huge forearm hit from Bynum, Barea’s floater went up and in, resulting in two points for Dallas, two subsequent free throws, and possession of the ball. Not exactly an everyday occurrence.
On a related note, it’s still baffling to me that the Lakers would commit so much pressure at the three-point line to the task of defending Barea with either Tyson Chandler or Brendan Haywood setting a screen. Is it so hard to roll under screens to encourage Barea to shoot jumpers while letting the big man sag in the paint? Chandler and Haywood aren’t going to catch at the free throw line and pop a jumper, and if J.J. concedes in order to take a three, that’s ultimately a good thing for the Laker defense considering the circumstances. Yet L.A.’s defenders got hung up on screens time and time again with Bynum hedging 20 feet from the rim and Pau Gasol unable to leave Dirk Nowitzki. I’m not sure who was responsible for the pick-and-roll blunders for the Lakers, but they empowered Barea as a creator and made him into a significant problem in this series.
But let’s take a moment to appreciate just how incredible Barea was in this game and this series. The pick-and-roll opened the door, but it was still up to Barea — who has often functioned as the Mavs’ built-in scapegoat, but has set that honorary title ablaze — to finish his looks and find his teammates. He scored over and around Bynum, he worked for creative passing and scoring angles, and had Terry not connected with an unseen power, he would have been the best guard for either team in Game 4, despite taking the court alongside two surefire Hall-of-Famers.
Also: attempting to defend Barea with Ron Artest was hilarious.
As were Artest’s offensive pursuits:
Gasol vs. Nowitzki used to seem like an actual argument, but that debate segued into Bryant vs. Nowitzki, and now Nowitzki vs. pretty much anyone. To the victor go the spoils of public opinion, and after championing the Mavs through their improbable sweep, Dirk is walking on sunshine.
I doubted the ability of Tyson Chandler and Brendan Haywood to defend against LaMarcus Aldridge’s versatility, and then doubted their ability to defend against Bynum’s sheer size. I was horribly wrong, and both players have been defensive rock stars. Bynum scored six points and grabbed just six boards in Game 4, his second game in this series where he had both under 10 points and 10 rebounds. Bynum still had a pair of successful performances, but that’s the expectation. He played up to par in two games, and was held far below his expected performance in two others, including the final outing of the Lakers’ season.
Oh, by the way: the Mavs happened to make 20 three-pointers (in just 32 attempts), setting a new playoff record. No big deal, just making history over here.
Sebastian Pruiti of NBA Playbook found one constant in the Mavs’ three-point shooting aside from the hard work of Terry and Stojakovic: the influence of Dirk Nowitzki. Yet another example of how the man makes things happen, even on a day where his statistical output isn’t quite what you’d expect.
Brendan Haywood made two consecutive free throws. That’s an omen of the apocalypse, right?
I’m still in disbelief over Gasol’s regression. Nowitzki did a fantastic job of defending him both on the perimeter and in the post, but even with that in mind, the degree to which Gasol was neutralized is startling. He’s been the most important Laker all season long, but throughout both of L.A.’s postseason series he’s failed to be aggressive, failed to execute, failed to make an imprint on the game in almost any regard. Basketball fans will again call him soft, but really, Gasol was just bad; it has nothing to do with his masculinity or his ability to grind in the post or something equally ridiculous, but simply an odd reluctance to assert himself. He was certainly too passive, but also underwhelming even when he did get touches down low or in the high post. I don’t mean to make the man a scapegoat — what ailed the Lakers went far deeper than Pau Gasol — but he was so unbelievably absent from this series.
32 assists on 44 made field goals is pretty insane, as was the fact that the Mavs had assisted on 10 of their first 11 buckets, and had notched 20 dimes by halftime. This is truly unparalleled ball movement.
Dallas’ worst quarter in Game 4: a 9-of-17 third frame in which they played L.A. to a draw at 23-all. The Lakers started out the second half with some defensive stops, and for a matter of moments, looked like they actually belonged on the court on Sunday.
Jason Kidd deserves a round of applause for 1) his well-publicized ability to impact the game in a variety of ways, and 2) his tremendous defense against Kobe Bryant in this series. Kidd didn’t even rack up all that many assists in Game 4, but he was a contributor during some big Maverick runs (the 10-0 sprint to close the first half, for example) and did those mythical little things.
However, it was the Mavs’ additional defensive pressure that really threw Kobe off of his game. Dallas was somehow able to pull off the feat of committing an extra defender against Bryant overtly at times (direct double team) or more subtly at others (a floating defender, waiting to help), and yet still scamper back to cover the open man. Kidd, Stevenson, Stojakovic, Terry, and Barea deserve a ton of credit — they managed to hound Bryant a bit and recover nicely to avoid weak side exploitation.
For the sake of finding a silver lining, L.A. did do one thing relatively well: rebound. The Mavs should have dominated the raw rebounding totals given the incredible number of Laker misses. Instead, they took just a 40-39 advantage, thanks largely to L.A.’s 30.6 offensive rebounding rate. I don’t want to glorify a series of missed put-backs in a game that the Lakers essentially forfeited, but at least there was a slight display of effort in creating extra possessions off the glass.
Stojakovic was an oddly effective defender in this series. He faced a series of tough assignments created by weird matchups or on switches, but held his own against Bryant, Odom, Artest, and even Bynum and Gasol (via denying entry passes) on occasion. I’d settle for Stojakovic not providing opponents with a clear point of attack, but at various times in this serious he made legitimately beneficial defensive plays.
The same is true of Marion, but due to his superior defensive ability, I don’t look at his performance in this series in such rosy terms. Dallas clearly didn’t need huge performances from Marion due to their hot shooting, but he ultimately took the back seat in defending Kobe Bryant to Kidd. Marion still had effective stretches, but just wasn’t quite as good as one may have expected given Marion’s track record in defending elite wing players. Even at this age, he can do better, and if the Mavs play the Thunder in the Western Conference Finals, he’ll have to.
The Lakers made five three-pointers in the entire game. The Mavericks made at least four pointers in each quarter, including seven in the second and five in the fourth.
I still don’t have the foggiest idea why we didn’t see more of Corey Brewer in this series. DeShawn Stevenson didn’t play all that well on either end of the court, and Brewer is definitely capable of shooting 1-of-5 from three but while providing better slashing, more energy, and better defense. Plus, when opponents are leaving Stevenson to double elsewhere, isn’t that enacting the fear of the offensive burden that Brewer might bring?
Haywood grabbed more rebounds in 17 minutes of action (eight) than every Laker except for Gasol (who also had eight).
Kudos to the folks running the entertainment at the American Airlines Center. During several rounds of the “BEAT L.A” chants that broke out in Game 4, the folks running the soundboard killed everything. They cut the music, the sound effects, the video clips — they let the fans unleash in support of their team with only silence as the backdrop. The AAC can be characterized by its non-stop audio-visual stimulation (sometimes to the detriment of the basketball experience), but these moments of unadulterated fan fervor were pretty awesome. I know it’s easy for fans to get psyched when their team is on the verge of sweeping the defending champs, but the MFFLs showed up on Sunday and the AAC entertainment staff let them scream to the rafters.
Terry’s rapport with the fans is tremendous. You know JET eats up the response to his antics, but the man makes a conscious, ongoing effort to keep the fans involved and energized, even when things like long TV timeouts take away some of the game’s natural momentum. Rather than loiter around the scorer’s table to wipe off his shoes an extra time or do a quick stretch, JET took the court solo to energize the fans. He stalked the sidelines and called to the Maverick faithful. Opposing teams, coaches, and fans may find him irritating, and I can understand their frustration with JET’s posturing. Yet there’s a reason he holds such a special place in the hearts of Mavs fans, and it goes beyond the timely shots and the fourth quarter performance.
More record fun: Terry’s nine three-point makes tied an NBA playoff record, but the lopsided nature of the game prevented him from securing that record-breaking three. Drat.
This was likely Phil Jackson’s final game as a coach, and it’s a damn shame that his players couldn’t have taken that into consideration when they were spacing on pick-and-roll coverage and practically rotating away from open shooters. Jackson’s the best there ever was, and though this loss likely won’t be even a footnote of a footnote of a footnote on his coaching career, it would have been nice to see his team go out with a bit more fight. For the record, I don’t think Jackson was a victim in this loss or this win-less series; there are a number of technical problems that held L.A. back, and that responsibility falls on the coaching staff. Still, Phil wasn’t supposed to go out like this, and even if the Lakers committed some strategic blunders, the biggest problem in Game 4 was the embarrassing lack of effort.
Predictable dynamic of the post-game press conferences: though plenty of questions were lobbed up for both Dirk and JET to answer (they took the podium together), Dirk remained silent while Terry offered his analysis and reflection. In several cases, Nowitzki didn’t even look up; he merely stared straight through the table in front of him during the question and the response both, allowing Terry — ever the talker — to handle every single question purposed for both of them to answer.