The elusive regular season home-and-home series is perhaps the best way to artificially generate a playoff-like atmosphere. The two games may lack in post-season gravity, but by pitting two competitive teams against one another in consecutive contests, players are allowed to slide into their narrative roles while coaches make more detailed game plan adjustments than usual. It’s another regular season game in the grand scheme of things, but it’s hardly an independent entity; perhaps we could view the second game as vaguely episodic, but each outing only makes thematic sense when evaluated within the context of a two-part series.
The Mavericks are in the middle of such a series at this very moment, as they’ll take on the Nuggets this Saturday albeit on more familiar turf. I’ve already harped enough on the relevance of the Mavs’ defensive performance in Wednesday’s game, so naturally that’s a point of interest in the follow-up. However, just as important will be the sustainability of the Mavs’ offensive execution, and more specifically, the Nuggets’ response to a dominant performance by Dirk Nowitzki.
With Denver’s primary bigs sidelined, Nowitzki was free to score at will from the low block. In Dallas’ first concentrated effort to isolate Dirk in the post, Shawn Marion freed him up with a baseline screen that ultimately proved to be counterproductive; the 6’5” Arron Afflalo had previously been assigned to defend Nowitzki, but Afflalo switched with the more sizable Carmelo Anthony on the screen. Dirk was still able to draw a foul while battling for post position, but the play setup made Dirk’s post-up far more complicated than it had to be.
Dallas then ran a nearly identical set with one caveat: rather than having Marion set the baseline screen (and have Anthony switch onto Nowitzki as a result), the Mavs used Dominique Jones. Rather than having to wrestle with Melo to allow the entry pass, Dirk was free to catch and finish easily over venerable statesman J.R. Smith.
Next trip down, the Mavs executed the exact same play with the exact same result. Smith decided to chase the entry pass, but Nowitzki finished with the same easy two.
Following a timeout, Denver tries something a bit different. Anthony is designated to follow Nowitzki, and the Nuggets ditch their plan to switch on low screens. It didn’t matter much. Although Nowitzki would obviously have preferred going to work against Chauncey Billups rather than Carmelo Anthony, he faces up, his teammates clear out, and Dirk rains a jumper over Anthony, who can’t even make much of a play on the ball.
Which defender Denver opted to use was irrelevant to Dirk. He scored over and around everyone placed in front of him, and in the few instances when the Nuggets were caught doubling? Dallas’ shooters were ready and waiting on the weak side. In this sequence, a fast break matches Nowitzki against Billups, which urges Smith to cheat off of Marion. Dirk finds Shawn in the corner, who swings it to Terry, and the ball moves back to the strong side to J.J. Barea for a wide open three. He doesn’t convert, but that’s a quality shot created by moving the ball out of the mismatch.
Later, a side screen sets up Nowitzki with prime post position, and his subsequent back down draws three Nuggets defenders. Dirk kicks the ball out to Jason Kidd, who is relatively open at the three-point line, but the ball doesn’t stop there. Kidd swings the ball to an open Jason Terry — who actually triggered the initial screen action — in the corner. Boom, as they say, goes the dynamite.
I’m not sure there’s a proper counter for Denver. Nowitzki can abuse any one-on-one matchup the Nuggets throw his way, and he’s also smart enough to find the open man in the case of a double/triple-team. Terry, Kidd, and Caron Butler have been hitting their looks from outside, which means that the Nuggets merely have their choice of execution. It’s not a flawless offense (all it takes is an off-day from Dirk and the whole scheme dissolves), but considering the Mavs’ clear positional advantage, there’s no excuse for Dallas to have anything but sterling offensive efficiency come Saturday.