The Dallas Mavericks are now in the midst of a full-on funk as they are on a six-game losing streak after suffering a 111-86 loss to the San Antonio Spurs. San Antonio began the game on a 14-2 run and never trailed at any point. While the game was much more competitive as opposed to the game a week ago, the Mavericks just couldn’t sustain enough energy and effort to withstand the Spurs.
In his fourth game back, Dirk Nowitzki had another rough outing as he had eight points while shooting 3-of-9 from the field. He simply hasn’t looked like the same Dirk everyone knows and loves as he has made 11-of-34 shots (32 percent) since his return. He is averaging 7.5 points a game. His situation, trying to get back into basketball shape, definitely makes the challenge that much more difficult for the Mavericks as they try to find their way.
Elton Brand recorded his third double-double of the season (399thcareer) with 14 points and a game-high-tying 10 rebounds in 24 minutes off the bench. He scored in double figures for the sixth time this season and grabbed 10-plus boards for the fourth time this year. Darren Collison recorded a team-high 18 points to go along with five rebounds and a team-high eight assists in 33 minutes. He’s averaging 18.8 points per game over his last four games and has led the team in scoring in three of Dallas’ last four contests.
Here is the quoteboard for the loss to the San Antonio Spurs.
You know the drill. The Difference is a reflection on the game that was, with one bullet for every point in the final margin.
What began as a great offensive performance by Dirk Nowitzki (who finished the first half with 19 points) turned into a wonderful overall performance by the Mavs’ offense. Nowitzki (27 points, 9-19 FG, six rebounds, four assists, four turnovers) was absolutely brilliant in both a one-on-one capacity and as a spot-up shooter, but when San Antonio began to throw hard doubles at Dirk on the catch, he wasted no time in finding open shooters on the weak side. Throwing a pass to a shooter in the opposite corner off of a double team is a bit of a risk, but Nowitzki’s height and experience with this kind of swarming coverage make him uniquely suited for that kind of play. Nowitzki was only able to notch three points in the fourth quarter (when the Spurs made their defensive shift), but Dallas shot 5-of-9 from three-point range to the frame, with many of those makes coming off of double-team exploitation.
Another thing that’s abundantly clear: Nowitzki takes his matchup with Stephen Jackson — he of that infamous 2007 playoff letdown — incredibly seriously. Gregg Popovich wasted no time in getting Jackson acclimated, and pitted him against Nowitzki almost immediately, despite the fact that more conventional Nowitzki foes (Matt Bonner, Tiago Splitter) were also on the floor. From that moment, Nowitzki’s entire approach shifted; he sought to back down Jackson relentlessly, and noticeably increased the physicality of his pre-shot maneuverings. Jackson did what he could to deny Nowitzki early position and fight him for every inch, but, well, it’s not 2007 anymore.
Rodrigue Beaubois (16 points, 8-16 FG, eight rebounds, three turnovers) will naturally receive praise for the quality of his performance, but in truth this was a nice outing for the entirety of the Mavs’ guard core. Jason Kidd lived up to everything that could possibly be expected of him and more, as he connected on four threes out of five attempts, racked up double-digit assists, and played great help defense to indirectly force a few turnovers. Jason Terry put up 17 points on just 10 shot as a continuation of one of his strongest stretches of the season. Vince Carter, too, put up 10 points on 50 percent shooting, just to complete the picture. The fact that all four of these players were able to positively influence the game is a wonderful sign for the resurrection of the Mavs’ depth, particularly considering how heavily the Mavs were leaning on this group in the absence of both Delonte West and Shawn Marion.
For several Maverick veterans, last year’s championship run was the final component in cementing a legacy. It verified Dirk Nowitzki as a legitimate Hall of Fame candidate and a top-five NBA player (I’m looking at you #NBARank). It was the capstone on Jason Kidd’s claim as one of the best point guards in NBA history. It helped shift the focus from Tyson Chandler’s injury history to his status as an every-night warrior and his strong defensive foundation. It validated the years of specialized and all-around production provided by Peja Stojakovic and Shawn Marion respectively. And, although it hasn’t been mentioned nearly as often, I believe it also established Rick Carlisle as one of the game’s elite coaches.
After his ninth season as a head coach, Carlisle has won a total of 443 games with a 0.600 win percentage. He’s led his team to the playoffs in eight of his nine seasons and has posted a playoff win percentage of 0.535. He’s achieved a great deal, but has also had the benefit of coaching some great players. In evaluating the worth of a coach, how do you examine team success and separate the contributions of coach from player?
During one his NBA Finals recaps, John Hollinger mentioned that one of the reasons the Mavericks pursued Carlisle was that their statistical studies showed he had a tendency to give the most minutes to the most effective lineups. This idea struck a chord with me. The biggest stumbling block in using statistics to analyze the performance of coaches is simply finding numbers which can be directly attributed to the coach. The idea Hollinger mentions seems to me to be the one domain where just such a set of statistics exist. Coaches decide which players are on the floor and in what combination at any given moment. The effectiveness of those choices provides us with one quantitative measure of a coach’s effectiveness.
With this first technique, Carlisle came out looking very good, but not necessarily great. His individual season correlations ranged from 0.488 in 2009 to 0.645 this past season, none of which ranked in the top 25 of the seasons I looked at. Carlisle did stand out somewhat for his consistency. Many coaches showed volatility in their numbers from season to season, possibly a result of injuries, roster changes or even an irrational infatuation with a particular player or configuration. Carlisle’s cumulative correlation over the last three seasons was 0.585. Of coaches who worked multiple seasons over the last four years, that number ranked 8th, trailing only Doc Rivers, Phil Jackson, Stan Van Gundy, Flip Saunders, Alvin Gentry, Byron Scott and Gregg Popovich.
In my second piece, I started with the same set of data but used a slightly different technique. This time I calculated the percentage of the team’s lineups that finished the season with a positive Net Rating, and then compared that percentage to the number of minutes those positive lineups were allotted as a whole. For the purposes of the study the difference between those percentages — positive or negative — is what we’re considering the coach’s ability to manipulate their lineups. This second technique may be a more blunt measure than the first, but I think it helps solve some of the inflation from stacked rosters that occur with the first technique.
With this second technique, Carlisle again stands out: not for his superior performance, but for his consistency. None of his individual seasons made the top 25. Over the past three seasons, 50.4% of the Mavericks lineups which played at least five minutes together have had a positive Net Rating. Those positive lineups have played 65.5% of the possible minutes, an increase of 15.1% over a random distribution of minutes. That number ranks fifth among coaches who worked multiple seasons over the last four, trailing only Jackson, Van Gundy, Rivers and Gentry.
The two techniques I’ve put together are not exact and not comprehensive. However, I think they do give us some quantitative information, general though it may be, about a coach’s ability to optimize their lineups. As with any question of basketball analysis, if we are left with questions after an initial look, the task is to find more data and narrow the focus. The numbers I’ve put together show that Carlisle has been among the league’s best at managing his rotations. For the skeptics out there, I was able to find some more specifics on how those rotations shake out.
I started by combining all of the lineups Carlisle has used during his three-year tenure in Dallas, trying to find some natural groupings for them based on the number of minutes played. I settled on these categories and general (subjective) classifications:
Over 145 MP – This group represents the primary starting lineups for each season and the go-to bench rotations.
Between 82 and 145 MP – This group represents the deeper bench rotations, and situational lineups.
Between 40 and 82 MP – This group represents deep, deep bench rotations, extreme situational lineups, and some accommodations for injuries.
Less than 40 MP – This group represents garbage time lineups, minutes scraped together for rookies, and strange experiments.
For each of those categories I counted the total number of lineups Carlisle has used in Dallas. I also calculated the cumulative Net Rating for all the lineups which fit into each category.
Number of Lineups
The way his numbers worked out are unique on several fronts. The first is how many lineups were found in each of the first two categories. With 12 lineups in each category over 3 seasons, we find the Mavericks under Carlisle using an average of 8 lineups a season which play more than 82 minutes. There is absolutely no pretense of riding a formidable starting lineup into the ground. The Mavericks’ most played lineup last season, Barea-Terry-Marion-Nowitzki-Haywood, logged just 350.45 minutes. That mark was eclipsed by 25 lineups from 21 different teams. Instead of relying on one dominant lineup, Carlisle is able to spread the minutes around in many combinations. But the most important factor is how effective those combinations are. With cumulative Net Ratings over +10.0 for both lineup categories above 82 minutes played, Carlisle is able to maintain a first tier level of performance among several lineups.
As the advanced statistics movement trudges forward, there will continue to be a vocal segment searching for a one-size, fits all, comprehensive measure, a number which says definitively that one player is better than another. To be honest, I find that search to be counter-productive. A visual observation can usually tell us who the best players are. For me, the benefit of advanced statistics is the increased ability to delve into details. I don’t want one number to explain everything. I want all the numbers. When it comes to looking evaluating coaches with statistics, I see similarities everywhere. A single numeric representation of a coach’s ability is certainly out of reach at this point, and to be honest, I’m not sure it’s needed. The fun is in the thin slices, in digging into the specifics and unique situations to try and find some answers. These techniques I’ve put together aren’t meant to be a step toward that single unifying theory of evaluation, they are meant to be another thin slice. They are meant to answer a few questions, and hopefully raise just as many.
The 2007 Mavericks were dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that.
Yet now that those Mavs aren’t the only top-seeded team downed improbably by their eighth-seeded opponents in a seven-game series, the retrospective view of Dallas’ failure should be a bit different. Only it isn’t — the San Antonio Spurs, upon their premature dismissal from the postseason, have largely been met with knowing nods and tips of hats. That’s not an inappropriate response given the franchise in question, but it’s certainly a startlingly different response than the one the Mavericks faced in ’07.
In both cases, superior teams were defeated due to the pesky complications of specific matchup problems. Lost amidst all the “better team won” cliché of the San Antonio-Memphis series is the fact that the Spurs lost the series despite their objective superiority. According to Basketball-Reference.com’s series preview, the four most probable results of the series — based on the regular season exploits of both teams — were as follows:
Spurs in 5 (25.4%)
Spurs in 7 (19.7%)
Spurs in 6 (13.3%)
Spurs in 4 (12.9%)
Granted, the series projections based on the post-deadline data alone paint a different picture. But if we view San Antonio’s 82-game season as their total body of work, there was no reason to expect that they might lose in the first round. A 75.7% chance of taking the series is a fairly dominant mark, and yet one that made sense considering the statistical profiles of both clubs. All signs pointed to the Spurs being the better team, just as they pointed to the Mavs being the better team in 2007. The two teams are more kindred in spirit than the response to this latest upset would suggest. The decidedly rosier reaction to the Spurs’ first round flub a bit confusing, to be honest.
San Antonio didn’t lose to a better team, merely one that — when playing within the context of this particular series – looked like the better team. Yet their first round demise has inspired more mourning than mocking, more admiring lament than schadenfreude. Again, these responses are not inappropriate so much as incongruent; I have no qualms with the respectful reaction to the fall of San Antonio in itself, merely with the fact that another damn impressive franchise wasn’t given the same benefit back in 2007.
The Spurs and the Mavs are, sadly, two franchises defined by their echoes. It doesn’t have to be that way, but sports fans make it so with every time they mock the ringless or fetishize the exploits of a former champion. San Antonio has won four titles in the Tim Duncan era, and as such, is generally considered immune to all criticism. They’ve somehow achieved the ends that justify all means and erase all flaws — past, present, and future. Dallas, needless to say, has not been as fortunate. But what separates these two franchises isn’t an ocean. It’s 58 pounds of hardware. It’s memories of seasons four years ago at most recent, 12 years ago at most distant. The Spurs that were eliminated from the playoffs on Friday weren’t champs at all, but the bare remnants of a team that has, throughout its lifetime, accomplished great things.
Over the years, San Antonio has garnered universal respect through the consistent rebuking of public doubt. Every time a new season or playoff series began, the Spurs had to prove themselves all over again. They were too old. They didn’t have the depth. They were too limited on offense. Some of those points were valid, but over the years that hardly mattered; the Spurs answered their critics with great regular season marks and long playoff runs, even though they were often presumed to be defeated before they even had a chance to compete. As odd as it was, we were all waiting for the day the Spurs would finally fall, and their refusal to abide by the limits of mortal teams only fueled the legend of their excellence.
Only this time, basketball fans have relented. They’ve abandoned the adversarial framework that built up San Antonio’s mythical empire in the first place, and though that concession may benefit the Spurs’ public image, such a shift is of no good to the general discourse.
We know that the Mavs’ 2007 loss to the ‘We Believe’ Warriors is viewed as chokery. Dallas has the unfortunate characterization of being a “regular season team,” as a decade’s worth of work has not resulted in a single championship ring.
I’m also quite certain that had this year’s Lakers — the reigning back-to-back NBA champs, mind you — lost in 6 games to the Hornets in the first round, it would be universally regarded as an embarrassing and derisible failure. They would be considered “soft,” and everyone from Pau Gasol to Kobe Bryant to Phil Jackson would be questioned.
The team that “hasn’t won anything,” was mocked for continuing their ringless trajectory, and the team that has won everything (including those affirming championship rings) would be ripped to pieces for their inability to make it out of the first round. So where, exactly, does that put the Spurs? They’re somehow given the full respect of a champion but without any of the baggage, perhaps the only No. 1 seed in the modern era capable of losing a first-round series with minimal heckling. Many readers and writers of the narrative seem to have things jumbled; highly successful regular season teams are otherwise taunted for the playoff shortcomings regardless of a championship pedigree, yet San Antonio remains untarnished.
To reiterate one final time: as an organization, a team, and a basketball concept, the Spurs deserve respect. I just see no compelling reason why their failures exist on a different plane from those of all other teams, or why the context of this loss is so unique as to be treated with reverence. Sports fans have nothing if not the selective enforcement of their own personal rules, but all I ask for is the slightest bit of logical consistency.
Mark Cuban, when asked by Howard Beck of the New York Times if being willing to go above and beyond as an owner (in terms of spending) can be beneficial in the NBA: “Yes. Not because he/she can spend more on players, or even facilities, but rather because of the opportunity to invest in analytics and other nontraditional means that give a team an edge. Other nontraditional means could be something like a free-throw shooting coach. Right now, I think the Mavs are the only team with a full-time free-throw coach, because of the expense. I think we are the only team with a full-time team psychologist. Those are things that don’t show up on rosters but are very expensive and can impact a team significantly.”
Andrew McNeil of 48 Minutes of Hell on the fate of the series and the rivalry: “It’s not far-fetched to think that this could be the last time the Spurs and Mavericks meet as rivals. If the Spurs win tonight, no one knows what Mark Cuban might do to his roster. And the possibility that these two franchises might not meet in the playoffs in the near future is a very real possibility.So enjoy it. Enjoy the passion of both fan bases and the (hopefully) respectful hatred directed at one another. Enjoy the greatness of Dirk Nowitzki, no matter how much you may like to insult him. And if the Mavericks win tonight? Well, we’ll do it all over again on Thursday night.”
A few lasting images from Game 4, courtesy of Kyle Weidie (normally of Truth About It) writing at Hardwood Paroxysm, as well as a Mark Cuban GIF that I hope I don’t need to re-use here later tonight, and this memorable line: “If Dallas was looking for Butler to be a maverick from his past inept wizardry, they should look somewhere else.”
Gregg Popovich finds the presumption of pep talks with these two teams to be a bit ridiculous (via Art Garcia writing for Sekou Smith’s Hangtime Blog): “These guys are grown. The Mavs guys are grown. Jason and Dirk don’t need speeches. Timmy and Manu and Tony, they don’t need speeches. We’d probably put them to sleep if we said, ‘Now guys, this is a big game. Guys, it’s going to be loud.’ That’s a little silly to do with grown men.”
Caron Butler still views his trade to Dallas as a “blessing,” even after going down 1-3 to the Spurs and being benched for the entirety of Game 3′s second half. Michael Lee of the Washington Post: Butler said Pollin’s widow, Irene, called to inform him a week before the trade that the organization planned to move him and Antawn Jamison and would place them in good situations. ‘They could’ve just sent me anywhere, but obviously, Mr. Pollin was still working and it’s a blessing. The Pollin family really took care of me. But, you know, Washington was really home for me. Coming to a new city and having to invent yourself all over again, it’s mind-boggling to think about that on the fly, but at the same time I understand the nature of the business. Players get recycled in this game all the time.’”
Eight teams have come back from a 1-3 deficit to win a playoff series.
Tons of quotes here from the locker room and post-game press conferences, so dig in. I’ve bolded items of interest for various reasons, but if nothing else, at least check out Damp’s comments about the officiating.
“Wait until the next big rain, you will see the trees fall down.”
Teams become the things they do. So it shouldn’t surprise you that after an entire season of climbing out of substantial holes, the Mavs were going to make a run at some point. After giving up plenty of ground in the second and third quarters, Dallas’ deficit hit rock bottom at 20, was whittled down to 10 in three minutes, and was brought within five points in the fourth. It just wasn’t enough. The Mavs have had so many comeback victories this season that it’s easy to forget about the nights where they came up a little bit short, and this game serves as a bit of a heartbreaking reminder. All of those regular season games counted, just like this one did, and all of the habits and tendencies formed during those games invariably resurface at some point. Though Dallas is certainly improved, they can’t escape who they are or who they’ve been, and unfortunately that’s a team that’s given up leads to their opponents before attempting to claw back.
It almost worked, but the Mavs’ defense was too accommodating early, the shooting was too bad for too long, and Tim Duncan clubbed Dallas’ comeback hopes repeatedly with improbable shot (floating baseline hook while leaning out of bounds) after improbable shot (deflected hook shot that ended up back in his hands, allowing Tim to train a push shot from close range just before the shot clock expired).
Dallas finished the game shooting 36.5% from the field, which makes the fact that they were within five points of San Antonio in the fourth quarter all the more impressive. Some of that is shot selection: the Mavs are still a jump-shooting team, and Dirk Nowitzki, Caron Butler, and Jason Terry missed their fair share of jumpers. That doesn’t even come close to telling the full story, though, as Dallas had a lot of good looks that simply couldn’t find the bottom of the net. This was an absolutely frigid shooting night for the Mavs, who were only able to stay competitive thanks to their 19 makes on 20 free throw attempts and a huge night from Terry (27 points, 9-of-19 FG, 3-of-7 3FG, three assists).
Aside from Terry, the Maverick offense was stagnant and ineffective. Solid ball movement still created plenty of open looks, but there wasn’t enough in the way of player movement. There were far too many isolation plays even for Dallas’ iso-heavy offense (I’m looking at you, Caron), far too many passes caught while standing still. Guys like Butler, Marion, and Terry are good enough to make plays in those situations, but they really shouldn’t have to. Not to the magnitude they were asked to do so on Wednesday night, and that’s a big reason why Dallas finished the evening with just 88 points (104.4 offensive efficiency). The Spurs defense was solid, but not suffocating. The worry isn’t that San Antonio is going to lock down the Mavs, even if they were far more successful on Dirk in Game 2 than they were in Game 1. The worry is that Dallas will freeze up offensively like they did last night, and that when the shots stop falling the defense won’t be able to hold ground.
The defense really didn’t. Dallas finally increased their defensive intensity over the game’s final 15 minutes, but it wasn’t enough to make up for plays like this one:
Or this one, that happened just moments later:
That’s pretty much exactly what happened in Game 2. The Mavs made their own mini-runs in the first and second quarters, but flurries of offensive success could only barely cover up for how dismally Dallas performed the majority of the time. The Spurs’ lead had already hit double-digits going into halftime, and the Mavs were really struggling to put points on the board with Dirk Nowitzki (24 points on 24 shots, 10 rebounds, four assists) suddenly mortal.
There were a number of differences between Game 1 and Game 2, but the most notable was the play of Richard Jefferson. If I didn’t know better, I’d think he’s an NBA player. After putting up a four-point (on 1-of-4 shots), two-turnover stinker on Sunday night, RJ finished with the same two turnovers, but a far more palatable 19 points (7-of-12 FG) and seven rebounds. Throw in another nice performance from each of the Spurs’ three stars (a combined 64 points), and that’s a tough game to win…especially when the Mavs are only making 36.5% of their shots. The first question that should come to mind over Jefferson’s performance is a valid one: can it be replicated? Based on RJ’s inconsistency this season, it’s hardly a given. I wish this was an area in which I could offer insight, but how could anyone say with any certainty what Jefferson will do in Game 3?
Jefferson will justly get his due as the game’s difference-maker, but San Antonio doesn’t pull out this victory without their breadwinner. Tim Duncan (25 points, 11-of-19 FG, 17 rebounds) was fantastic, and even though Brendan Haywood made Duncan’s looks as difficult as possible in the fourth, sometimes that’s not good enough. Tim is, at absolute worst, the second most effective “traditional” offensive post player in the league, and one of the best of all-time. There are going to be nights where he’s blocked by Erick Dampier (especially as Duncan gets older and older), but there are certainly going to be nights where he wins games outright with his ability to score down low. Erick Dampier and Brendan Haywood worked hard defensively, Duncan was just on another level last night.
Dallas just didn’t play very well on either end. The Mavs couldn’t stop Duncan, gave Jefferson too many opportunities to get to the rim, and allowed Parker and Ginobili to make an even bigger impact than their already impressive box score contributions suggest. On offense, Dallas just couldn’t connect on their open looks, played sub-par (but not irredeemable) defense, and were completely Duncanized in the middle of their crucial fourth-quarter surge. A bit more could have gone wrong for the Mavs, but so, so much more should have gone right. Chin up, Mavs fans; Dallas displayed flukey, Stormtrooper-like accuracy, JET is alive and kicking, and all the Mavs have to do is win a best-of-five series starting on Friday. It’s not going to be easy, but you shouldn’t have expected it to be.
San Antonio’s spot-up shooters are quite important. In Game 1, Matt Bonner, Richard Jefferson, George Hill, Keith Bogans, and Roger Mason combined for nine points and made just one three-pointer between them. In Game 2? Bogans received a DNP-CD and Mason went scoreless in six minutes, but Bonner, Jefferson, and Hill combined for 31 points (12-of-25 FG) and four made three-pointers. That’s a huge difference in role player production, and in truth, it could have been much worse. Dallas wasn’t contesting San Antonio’s three-pointers particularly well at all, and dodged a few bullets on completely uncontested Spur threes that just didn’t go down. On the occasions that Dallas did contest, they were pretty successful. For comparison’s sake, take a look at this first clip, in which George Hill gets a wide open look at a corner three:
And this one, in which Jason Terry scrambles to deter Hill from taking the shot. George ends up settling for a tough, two-point leaner, which is a micro win for the Mavs’ defense:
Dirk shot 4-of-7 from within six feet of the basket, but once he stepped outside that six-foot radius, he was 5-for-17. Ouch.
I’ve read in several places that Popovich’s defensive strategy entailed maintaining one-on-one coverage on Dirk, but I’m not sure that’s entirely accurate. San Antonio also seemed to be doubling Nowitzki when he put the ball on the floor, just like Dirk saw in the 2007 series against Golden State. Video on that to come later.
J.J. Barea isn’t doing to well defensively, but his five points and three assists in 10 minutes of play weren’t too shabby. The Mavs’ net production with him on the floor was +1, which tells us what we already know: Barea is a decent stop-gap point, and his marginal offensive contributions can help to balance his defensive lapses. Related: another DNP-CD for Rodrigue Beaubois.
Brendan Haywood looked pretty bad on pick-and-rolls, though a more thorough analysis should be made before giving a declaration one way or another. Whereas most of the other Mavs were still showing strongly on screen-and-rolls, Haywood simply hung back to cover a potential roll man. I’m not sure whether that was a Duncan-specific assignment or Haywood botching the game plan, but either way it opened up opportunities for Tony Parker to penetrate into the lane and for Manu Ginobili to hit the dagger three. Otherwise, his help defense was excellent in halting penetration, and his D on Duncan, while ultimately unsuccessful, was still solid.
A rough shooting night for Jason Kidd, who went 1-of-4 from three and 1-of-7 overall. A few of those threes go down, and we’re looking at an entirely different game.
DeJuan Blair had another empty night with four rebounds and no points in 11 minutes. Spurs fans should be thankful that Antonio McDyess (four points, but nine big rebounds) has been playing some effective minutes at center.
Caron Butler is a hard guy to criticize sometimes, because he plays extremely hard. From his first game as a Maverick, effort has never been a question. The downside is that he often is so focused on trying to score on his man that he puts blinders on. It’s something we saw often from Josh Howard, as well. Sometimes Butler’s focus ends up with him hitting a tough step-back jumper or getting to the rim for a layup, but often he ends up hoisting up a tough, contested jumper when he should have passed to the open man.
Not only was Jason Terry shooting the ball much more efficiently last night, but he was much more aggressive. Freeing up JET was clearly a Carlisle point of emphasis between Game 1 and Game 2, and you could tell from early in the first quarter that Terry was looking to attack the San Antonio defense:
A seven-game series between two closely matched teams is one of the most fascinating spectacles in all of sports. Like in any epic tale, the plot thickens with every quarter of every game as the dynamic between the two teams shifts and the tension rises. The battle for series supremacy does not stop between games as even now, each coaching staff works furiously in a battle of wits. What plot lines did we see in Game 1 and what adjustments can we expect to see in the games to come?
Usually it’s the losing team that is most in need of strategic adjustments so we’ll start with the Spurs. Coming into the game, the biggest question faced by Spurs coach Gregg Popovich defensively was how to stop the unstoppable force known as Dirk Nowitzki. Pop only has two options. He can play ball denial and rush an extra defender to double-team Dirk every time he touches the ball or he can play Dirk straight-up with the likes of Matt Bonner or Antonio McDyess. In last season’s playoffs, Popovich went with the first option, double-teaming Dirk throughout the series, limiting him to 19 points per game. However, as the defensive attention shifted to Dirk, the supporting cast stepped up as the Mavericks rolled over the Spurs in 5 games. In Game 1 of this series, Popovich elected to cover Nowitzki with a single defender for the most part, allowing Dirk to erupt for 36 points on just 14 shots in one of the most efficient scoring performances in the history of the NBA playoffs. When a solitary Spur was left alone on an island, Dirk showed that he would bully them, steal their lunch money, and then drain the shot after for good measure. On the flip side, Popovich might be thinking that it’s unlikely that Dirk Nowitzki will continue to shoot 86% for the rest of the series, so the unanswerable question remains. In Game 2, I expect to see more double-teams mixed in, challenging the Mavericks’ supporting cast to hit open shots. Realistically, I don’t think there is a strategy in the world that can stop Dirk right now, but if there is, trust Coach Popovich to find it.
Carlisle also elected to play the Spurs straight-up, for the most part. The Spurs’ Big Three of had an impressive scoring night for a combined 71 points, but that’s something Rick Carlisle can live with when the teams other 7 players scored only 23 points on 41% shooting. While Duncan and Ginobili put up big scoring numbers, they also turned the ball over at an alarming rate with six and five turnovers, respectively. Credit goes to Jason Kidd and Caron Butler here for great anticipation in jumping into passing lanes and deflecting balls. The only adjustment I can see for the Mavericks defensively is how they play the pick-and-roll. The Mavericks, obviously concerned with containing Ginobili and Parker, showed hard on every pick and roll. While this helped stop penetration, it led to open rolls to the basket by the Spurs big men. For the most part, I expect the Mavericks to stick to their game plan: Ginobili and Duncan will get their points but they’ll have to work for them against quality defenders in Marion, Butler, Dampier, and Haywood and the rest of the Mavericks will stay at home on the Spurs supporting cast.
Offensively for the Spurs, Manu Ginobili took on the ball-handling and playmaking duties as Tony Parker took a backseat. This strategy produced mixed results as Ginobili recorded 26 points and six assists but with six turnovers. Parker had a decent scoring night with 18 points but was nowhere near the dominant offensive force he was in these teams’ previous playoff series. I expect to see Tony Parker having a larger role in dictating the offense when these teams come together for Game 2. Of the Spurs’ role players, only Antonio McDyess can be said to have played a quality game; Popovich was understandably upset and criticized his players for “playing like dogs”.
Young guard George Hill was essentially useless, perhaps because of a sprained ankle, but Pop clearly went away from him in the second half. It’ll be interesting to see what Pop does with the guard rotation. Richard Jefferson, Roger Mason Jr., and Matt Bonner continue to be Spurs fans’ favorite whipping posts as they contributed little or nothing to the Spurs’ cause. Coach Popovich is notorious for his distrust in rookies in the playoffs, and it showed with DeJuan Blair only receiving eight minutes even after his spectacular game against Dallas in the regular season finale. Still, if the other Spurs reserves (particularly Bonner) continue to “play like dogs”, expect Blair to get some extra burn in the upcoming games.
On the offensive side for the Mavericks, things went well for the most part. Carlisle has to be happy with the way his superstar dropped 36 and second banana Caron Butler took over (22 points) when Dirk needed a rest. The biggest concern is Jason Terry, who scored only five points on 2-of-9 shooting. Terry, however, came through in the fourth as usual, hitting two big shots after being held scoreless through the first three quarters. J.J. Barea was held scoreless in 15 minutes. If Barea is not effective, I (along with every other Mavericks fan in the world) would like to see Carlisle give Rodrigue Beaubois a legitimate chance. You have to believe that Beaubois will be given a chance to contribute in this series, and given the way he’s played this season, I think he earned it.
And so the story continues. With one chapter done, what should turn out to be an amazing series is underway and although we can guess at the twists and turns, unexpected heroes, and devious villains, nobody will know for sure until the final page. The only thing we do know is that it’s going to be good. Stay tuned.