Do you need superstars to succeed? That is the question.
Outside Dallas’ magical one-superstar title run in 2011, many of the champions of the past decade have been littered with teams with more than one superstar or one with a platoon of super role players.
There is a team that emerged this season that had me wondering if they had a blueprint that the Mavs might want to look in to. That team was the Denver Nuggets. They were the most unrecognized team to have a 13-game winning streak in the history of the NBA. Unfortunately, they were streaking as the Miami Heat went on what turned out to be a 27-game winning streak. Miami had the second longest winning streak in NBA history, only surpassed by the Lakers’ 33-game winning streak in the 1971–72 season.
You know the drill. The Difference is a reflection on the game that was, with one bullet for every point in the final margin.
Kenneth Faried (nine points, five rebounds) is a good player and an incredibly active defender, but he had the incredible misfortune of being pitted against a most dominant Dirk Nowitzki (33 points, 12-19 FG, 11 rebounds, six assists). What, precisely, would you have any defender do against Nowitzki at the top of his game — much less one with relatively limited NBA experience and far less matchup-specific experience? Dirk maneuvered too well to be blanketed, shot too accurately to be stopped, and passed too effectively to be doubled. Faried was damned before he even had a chance to consider his options, as Nowitzki triggered his usual array of fades and jumpers en route to one of his most spectacularly efficient performances of the season.
Dallas’ 33 assists were a season high, and the furthest thing from an empty total; the Mavs’ ball movement was the most successful and consistent force in this game, and sustained even during the roughest offensive stretches. The shots didn’t fall, but to the Mavs’ credit, they never abandoned the process. That commitment is more important than any series of makes or misses, wins or losses — it’s the backbone of successful offense, and that the Mavs are relying on a replicable formula to generate points bodes well for their future this season.
This particular matchup made for a fascinating watch due to the fact that size was a uniquely irrelevant factor. Nowitzki demands a certain size and length in defensive response, but Dirk aside, both teams were free to play whichever players gave them the greatest chance for success, regardless of the opponent’s configuration or traditional positions. The Mavs largely stayed “conventional,” if you could really term their usual lineups so ridiculously. The Nuggets, on the other hand, toyed with all kinds of combinations, most of which used Denver’s army of wing players in a futile (in retrospect, anyway) effort to get the jump on Dallas. Faried split time with Al Harrington as the only big on the floor for long stretches of the game, and though Denver couldn’t use their wing-heavy lineups to create any in-game leverage, it was still a hell of a sight.
You know the drill. The Difference is a reflection on the game that was, with one bullet for every point in the final margin.
Give the Mavericks credit: they didn’t lose this game solely on offense or defense alone, but managed to clam up and crumble simultaneously. They turned the ball over on nearly a fifth of their possessions. They started with a well-intentioned transition defense, but spend most of the game lightly jogging in the Nuggets’ dust. They allowed 117.3 points per 100 possessions. These first two games have been ugly in a way this franchise hasn’t seen in a long time, and hopefully those universal struggles don’t persist for too long.
Delonte West (two points, four assists, three steals) grabbed his first formal start after becoming the de facto starter for the second half of the opener against the Heat. In theory, it was a good move; West is the hands-down best defensive option the Mavs have against Ty Lawson (27 points, 10-15 FG, 3-6 3FG, four rebounds, four assists, three steals). That theoretical decision didn’t do much good against the Nuggets’ outright fast breaks and transition-induced mismatches, but West was still the right call for starting responsibilities.
Turnovers aside, the Mavs actually looked much improved offensively in the game’s opening quarter. There were some productive sets, and various players worked well together in strong-side action. It wasn’t anything resembling the offensive sophistication that earned Dallas their first title, but in such dire times, Mavs fans should take what they can get.
The elusive regular season home-and-home series is perhaps the best way to artificially generate a playoff-like atmosphere. The two games may lack in post-season gravity, but by pitting two competitive teams against one another in consecutive contests, players are allowed to slide into their narrative roles while coaches make more detailed game plan adjustments than usual. It’s another regular season game in the grand scheme of things, but it’s hardly an independent entity; perhaps we could view the second game as vaguely episodic, but each outing only makes thematic sense when evaluated within the context of a two-part series.
The Mavericks are in the middle of such a series at this very moment, as they’ll take on the Nuggets this Saturday albeit on more familiar turf. I’ve already harped enough on the relevance of the Mavs’ defensive performance in Wednesday’s game, so naturally that’s a point of interest in the follow-up. However, just as important will be the sustainability of the Mavs’ offensive execution, and more specifically, the Nuggets’ response to a dominant performance by Dirk Nowitzki.
With Denver’s primary bigs sidelined, Nowitzki was free to score at will from the low block. In Dallas’ first concentrated effort to isolate Dirk in the post, Shawn Marion freed him up with a baseline screen that ultimately proved to be counterproductive; the 6’5” Arron Afflalo had previously been assigned to defend Nowitzki, but Afflalo switched with the more sizable Carmelo Anthony on the screen. Dirk was still able to draw a foul while battling for post position, but the play setup made Dirk’s post-up far more complicated than it had to be.
Dallas then ran a nearly identical set with one caveat: rather than having Marion set the baseline screen (and have Anthony switch onto Nowitzki as a result), the Mavs used Dominique Jones. Rather than having to wrestle with Melo to allow the entry pass, Dirk was free to catch and finish easily over venerable statesman J.R. Smith.
Next trip down, the Mavs executed the exact same play with the exact same result. Smith decided to chase the entry pass, but Nowitzki finished with the same easy two.
Following a timeout, Denver tries something a bit different. Anthony is designated to follow Nowitzki, and the Nuggets ditch their plan to switch on low screens. It didn’t matter much. Although Nowitzki would obviously have preferred going to work against Chauncey Billups rather than Carmelo Anthony, he faces up, his teammates clear out, and Dirk rains a jumper over Anthony, who can’t even make much of a play on the ball.
Which defender Denver opted to use was irrelevant to Dirk. He scored over and around everyone placed in front of him, and in the few instances when the Nuggets were caught doubling? Dallas’ shooters were ready and waiting on the weak side. In this sequence, a fast break matches Nowitzki against Billups, which urges Smith to cheat off of Marion. Dirk finds Shawn in the corner, who swings it to Terry, and the ball moves back to the strong side to J.J. Barea for a wide open three. He doesn’t convert, but that’s a quality shot created by moving the ball out of the mismatch.
Later, a side screen sets up Nowitzki with prime post position, and his subsequent back down draws three Nuggets defenders. Dirk kicks the ball out to Jason Kidd, who is relatively open at the three-point line, but the ball doesn’t stop there. Kidd swings the ball to an open Jason Terry — who actually triggered the initial screen action — in the corner. Boom, as they say, goes the dynamite.
I’m not sure there’s a proper counter for Denver. Nowitzki can abuse any one-on-one matchup the Nuggets throw his way, and he’s also smart enough to find the open man in the case of a double/triple-team. Terry, Kidd, and Caron Butler have been hitting their looks from outside, which means that the Nuggets merely have their choice of execution. It’s not a flawless offense (all it takes is an off-day from Dirk and the whole scheme dissolves), but considering the Mavs’ clear positional advantage, there’s no excuse for Dallas to have anything but sterling offensive efficiency come Saturday.
“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”
This was a game that the Mavs needed to win. This was not the way that the Mavs needed to win it. Denver provided the Dallas’ first real challenge on the schedule, and rather than prove that their defensive success in the first three games was indicative of a real and sweeping change, we’re now left wondering how many of the season’s first 144 minutes should be taken seriously at all.
Dallas was, statistically speaking, an excellent defensive team before last night. Yet when the Mavs had a chance to make a statement against a top-10 offense, they allowed an unpalatable 111 points per 100 possessions. The Mavs’ defensive performance in the first three games matters, but the value of that performance has withered under high heat. There are better offenses out there than the Denver Nuggets. There are surely better offenses out there than the Denver Nuggets sans Nene, Kenyon Martin, and Chris Andersen. And when those offense come, the Mavs may not get the lucky bounce they need to leave the floor as victors.
Dallas will have to be better. Luckily, we’re now a mere four games into the season, and the Mavs have innumerable opportunities to solidify their defense before the games stop meaning something and start meaning everything.
We shouldn’t let this win soak up too much gloom, though. Offensively, Dallas was pretty fantastic. That’s an idiomatic Maverick way of saying that Dirk Nowitzki was pretty fantastic. With almost all of Denver’s bigs sidelined, Nowitzki (35 points, 15-31 FG, 12 rebounds, three assists) went to work on a cast of undersized defenders. George Karl refused to throw any kind aggressive double teams Dirk’s way, and his team paid the price with each move on the low block, and each jumper dropped over the hand of a defender that could barely reach Nowitzki’s eye level.
Dirk dominated the game and the Maverick offense, and pushed Dallas’ offensive efficiency just far enough to overcome their deficiencies on defense and the glass. On a typical night this season, Nowitzki uses 24.7% of the Mavs’ possessions. Last night against the Nuggets, he used 47%. Forget alpha and omega, Nowitzki was the entirety of all alphabets of all times, all that had been and all that ever would be for the Mavs’ O.
Others thrived from Dirk’s resplendence. Jason Terry spotted up on the break beautifully and balanced the weak side when things slowed down. JET had 16 points and went 4-of-4 from three in the third quarter alone, keying a 14-4 run that gave Dallas the lead. Of those 14 points, Terry scored 11.
Kidd should also be credited, even if he scored just three points of his own. 83.3% of Terry’s field goals were assisted, and 100% of both Caron Butler’s (16 points, 7-14 FG, seven rebounds) and Shawn Marion’s (eight points, six rebounds, two blocks) field goals were set up by a teammate. Kidd’s 12 dimes don’t account for allof those FGs, but his execution of the offense was masterful. Kidd is just so unbelievably patient; Kidd is kind; Kidd is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. He does not insist on his own way; yada, yada, yada; He bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Nowitzki had the ball in his hands an astounding percent of the time, but it was Kidd who got it there. He was making perfect entry passes, waiting for plays to develop, and finding Dirk (and JET, and Caron…) when he leaked into open space.
When Kidd is functioning at this level, the Mavs are a rather brilliant offensive team. But when Nowitzki is left purely to his own devices to fuel the entire offense, the well-oiled machine tends to sputter. Both players are essential if Dallas is to have a top-shelf offense again, and games like these give us a glimpse — however stilted it may be in terms of usage — of the Mavs’ offensive potential with both Kidd and Nowitzki playing effectively.
Carmelo Anthony finished with 20 points and 15 rebounds, but had a pretty frustrating night overall. He shot 42% from the field on 19 attempts, and while I’d love to attribute some of Anthony’s rougher patches to Shawn Marion and the Mavericks’ defense, Melo didn’t do himself any favors. Dallas played him well, but it was a bit of an off-night.
A silver lining to the Mavs’ defense: Dallas utilized a match-up zone in the second and third quarters that was fantastically effective, but relied on it less and less as the game wore on. The Mavs shouldn’t want to be in a place where their defensive future hinges on the effectiveness of the zone (which, for all of its strengths, is still a bit gimmicky), but knowing that it can still be effective in spurts against rhythm offenses is valuable knowledge.
Speaking of: Nowitzki could probably stand to not hedge quite so heavily toward the middle when playing zone with Chandler. Tyson can cover plenty of ground on his own, and considering the potency of Denver’s three-point shooters, Dirk might be better served honoring the impact of the corner three. Dirk did what he could to close out, but sometimes he was just too far out of position. I realize that threes are a realistic concession of the zone, but in this case some of those attempts (and makes) might have been preventable.
This was not Brendan Haywood’s finest performance.
Gary Forbes is now an NBA player. Forbes started for the Nuggets, and drew the short straw on being the first defender to face Dirk Nowitzki. He did an admirable job, and the former D-Leaguer dropped 12 points on 50% shooting to boot.
Jason Kidd is doing a great job of giving up the ball early on the break and then spotting up as a three-point shooter. In traditional fast break situations, I’m always surprised that opponents pay so much attention to the threat of a Kidd layup. He’s not a very good finisher at all, and the thought of a pass always comes first, second, and third for him. But by giving up the ball early, Kidd turns himself into a fast-break weapon. No longer is he only looking to set up a bucket with a pass. Instead, he’s capable of completing transition opportunities of his own on both the primary and secondary break:
J.J. Barea’s three turnovers hurt, as did his defense at times. But does anyone dare discount the impact of his nine points in a game decided by a single bucket? Barea made mistakes, but he also drew offensive fouls and got to the rim when Dallas needed offensive help.
Arron Afflalo (known affectionately in some circles as “Spellcheck,”) is the real deal. Afflalo had a tremendous year last season with the Nuggets, but he’s become an even more versatile offensive player while continuing to groom a rather potent three-point stroke. Fans of every other NBA team are jealous.
Again: no Kenyon Martin, no Nene, no Chris Andersen. Yet the Nuggets nearly matched the Mavericks in offensive rebounding rate. Dallas has to do better work on the defensive glass. The Mavs’ offensive rebounding on the other hand, was fine. And, might I add, clutch:
All of this has happened before, and all of it will happen again. In games like these, it’s hard not to wonder if going small is a more viable option than Rick Carlisle and his coaching staff acknowledge. Brendan Haywood and Tyson Chandler are very good defenders, but in games like this one, they become strictly help defenders and rebounders. Taking on-ball post defense out of their job description leaves them slightly less useful, and I do wonder if running a lineup of Kidd-Terry-Butler-Marion-Nowitzki might have been more effective at times. It’s not the most intuitive way to get better defensive results, but having more natural match-ups could be a conceivable boon for the Dallas D.
GOLD STAR OF THE NIGHT: Come on. Dirk Nowitzki. The Mavs won with their offense, and their offense won with Dirk.