Being a NBA player is not an easy job. Expectations are high, the hours are rigorous, and the travel schedule does a nice job of isolating players from whatever friends, family, or life constants they hold dear. They are, of course, compensated with annual salaries well into six, seven, or eight figures, but there’s certainly a give and take to the process, and the take doesn’t always go down easy.
There’s also an immense amount of visibility when it comes to performance. In-game action is made available to the adoring (or more often, scathing) public, and millions of people that are completely unqualified to evaluate the NBA game will make all kinds of judgments based on what they see or what they think they see. They all know best, and are more than willing to let said player know all about it.
Then, there are trades. 95% of players in the league have no say whatsoever in where they’re traded, with the clear exceptions being Kobe Bryant (he of the no-trade clause), those who would be forced to forfeit their early Bird rights, and any player with a franchise willing to do right by them. Trades do a multitude of things. They significantly alter careers; Courtney Lee, who went to the Finals last year with the Magic, is now playing for the historically awful Nets. They relocate families; Wives and children are forced to relocate on a whim, largely to cities they had no role in choosing. And often, they destroy confidence; A trade is, in many ways, the ultimate sign of rejection.
What’s odd is that often by the time a player is finally traded, the damage has already been done. Rumors flying through newspapers, blogs, and message boards have been on the player’s mind for months. Depending on the player, it could have just about any kind of impact imaginable in terms of performance, and what else would you expect? These guys pride themselves on being the best at what they do, and to have a team exec (either in actuality or in the wacky world of the Trade Machine) say that it’s not good enough can be disheartening to say the least.
Trade rumors aren’t something that, say, Dirk Nowitzki has had to deal with, but they’re all too familiar to Shawn Marion and now, Josh Howard. Marion’s name was constantly in the papers as trade bait towards the end of his tenure with the Suns, largely in part because his importance to the team wasn’t as obvious as Steve Nash’s or Amare Stoudemire’s. Nevermind the fact that the coaching staff, the front office, and Marion himself were all acutely aware of his importance. But external rumors nevertheless wore on Shawn’s psyche, which Jack McCallum describes wonderfully in his book Seven Seconds or Less. If you’re somehow not familiar, McCallum’s book chronicles his time following the 2005-2006 Phoenix Suns, during which he was essentially a pseudo staff member. Here’s his analysis of the trade rumor effect in reference to Marion(p. 208-209):
Trades are a touchy subject, and a franchise, obviously, desires to keep speculation out of the media; just as obviously, trades are always a juicy subject, even outlandish trades that will never be made. Relationships have been irreparably harmed when a player learns he is on the block. The Suns are by no means “shopping” Marion, the term referring to a team actively making calls to get rid of a player, and the subject of a Marion trade rarely comes up in conversation. But it does surface from time to time, and is more liable to now without Bryan Colangelo around.
Trade speculation is a no-win situation for the franchise. Tell the player he’s not being mentioned in trade rumors, and you could be exposed down the road as a liar. Tell the player he is being shopped, and, understandably, he gets pissed off and maybe stops giving his all. Earlier in the season Spurs’ coach Gregg Popovich told Brent Barry that he was going to be traded, but the deal fell through and Barry remained. (Barry, one of the most down-to-earth guys in the league, played hard and well the rest of the year.) Marion was miffed that he had to come to D’Antoni to ask if there was any credibility to the trade rumors. D’Antoni told him no. But what if the Minnesota Timberwolves want to deal Kevin Garnett for Marion? The Suns would sure as hell take that call.
The current situation with Josh Howard could be entirely different. Maybe the Mavs are indeed “shopping” Howard to anyone with a solid piece to spare. But the rhetoric in Marc Stein’s report makes me think otherwise.
I’m not asking you to pity NBA players, nor am I asking you to pity Josh Howard. All I’m asking for is a little empathy.
Being the target of trade rumors isn’t easy, regardless of the potential return value. Some players lash out. Others don’t. Either way, it’s the team’s responsibility to respond in the appropriate way given the player’s personality type. This isn’t “babying” or “coddling,” but an employer knowing the best way to approach and treat an employee. It’s not a bad thing or a good thing, but just a thing. Not everyone can be a journeyman, a consummate professional, or a mercenary. There are far more complicated emotions at work here to assume otherwise.
Feel free to toss around trade ideas, just as you’re free to pick apart the minutiae of Howard’s game. Criticize him or his play whenever you feel necessary. But keep in mind that every player deals with trade rumors differently, and I’m not sure that any of them are “wrong.”
“Every act of creation is, first of all, an act of destruction.”
How do you even begin to make sense of a game like that? It was the largest win in franchise history. It was an on-court massacre unlike anything we’ve even dreamed of, and it was so violently actualized that children would probably have been best served covering their eyes. The Mavs didn’t even need Jason Kidd, who missed the game for personal reasons, to post their season best in offensive efficiency (140.7 points per 100 possessions). And they didn’t need Erick Dampier, who missed the game due to his knee effusion, to register their most effective defense performance since November 13th (85.7 points allowed per 100 possessions). The Mavs were shorted a critical piece on both ends of the court, and still went on to pillage Madison Square Garden and burn it to the ground.
The first quarter was competitive, but by the end of the second the Mavs had established a double-digit lead that would only grow and grow. They held the Knicks to just 13 points in the third frame, while pouring in an incredible 38 of their own. There was no specific dominance; Dirk (20 points, 6-12 FG, five rebounds) and Terry (20 points, 8-12 FG, 4-6 3FG, four assists) shared the honor for the team-high in points, but they were two of just seven Mavs in double figures. The real question isn’t which Mavs did well, but which ones didn’t. And the real answer is…well, no one. 11 Mavs logged minutes, each scored at least four points, and everyone but James Singleton shot over 50% from the field. Even the seldom used Matt Carroll finished with seven points on 3-4 FG, the highest total of his Maverick career.
It’s indisputable that the Mavs played fabulously on Sunday. You don’t win a game by 50 points playing so-so, good, or even great basketball. This was a once-in-a-something collision of white-hot offense, terrific defense, and an opponent that isn’t particularly great at either. But once we’re a day removed, what does this win even mean?
For one, it shows what the Mavs are capable of. This team isn’t offensively challenged, even if they’ve seemed that way throughout most of the season. And while I wouldn’t expect such ridiculous production every night, this collection of players has clearly been underachieving on that end of the court. Josh Howard and Jason Terry’s struggles are well-documented, but just as crucial is finding scoring elsewhere; Drew Gooden (15 points, 18 rebounds, two blocks), J.J. Barea, and the rest of the reserves are still a bit inconsistent, and though they don’t need to necessarily be dependable on an individual basis, there needs to be some accountability among the bench collective. Again, don’t expect them to reach this level of production or efficiency (and definitely not opportunity) on the regular, but when called upon, the reserves need to respond as they did on Sunday.
Also, it shows that the offense is capable of performing without the calming influence of Jason Kidd. J.J. Barea (11 points, four assists, three rebounds, two steals) and Rodrigue Beaubois (13 points, 5-8 FG, 3-6 3FG, five assists, six rebounds, five turnovers) did a tremendous job of keeping the ball moving, and the team totaled 25 assists without their primary facilitator and statistical leader in that category. That’s an impressive feat considering how many points the Mavs were able to put on the board, and an even more impressive one considering the substantial playing time and production of nontraditional offensive threats. Dallas was able to rest its starters plenty, and in doing so, should have experienced some a drop-off in offensive production; instead, a fourth quarter that prominently featured Beaubois, Matt Carroll, Quinton Ross, James Singleton, and Tim Thomas (a lineup that played the final eight minutes) actually managed to add to the lead by scoring 31 points in the fourth quarter to the Knicks’ 22.
Beyond that, it’s impossible to say. All we can hope is that team-wide production trends upward after such a dominant performance, and that the Mavs find themselves a way to level out and resolve their consistency issues.
Oh, and if you’ll allow me to step away from the season contrasts and the bigger picture for just a second: Your Dallas Mavericks just beat a team by 50 points. Fifty. Points. Despite how negative my assertions may seem in this recap, nothing on this planet can take away the fact that the Mavs completely obliterated another NBA team by an ungodly margin. They played what was probably the closest thing to flawless basketball I’ve seen out of a Maverick team ever. It’s almost unfair to expect more than that, but a game’s just a game and the Mavs have miles to go before they sleep.
As is to be expected in a game like this, the Mavs provided plenty of fuel for the highlight reel. James Singleton threw down a monstrous jam. Tim Thomas worked baseline for a contested throw-down. And Roddy Beaubois brought out the oooohs and ahhhhs with this.
Drew Gooden’s plus/minus for the night? +41. Unbelievable.
A fifty-point blowout, an empty-the-bench fourth quarter, and Eddie Najera still doesn’t play. Still waiting on Najera’s first minute on his second stint with the Mavs.
Josh Howard came off the bench again, with J.J. Barea taking the place of Jason Kidd in the starting lineup. Drew Gooden started in place of Erick Dampier, giving the Mavs a starting five of Barea, Terry, Marion, Nowitzki, Gooden.
Beaubois was getting playing time as early as the first quarter, and was clearly determined to make an impact. Sometimes that resulted in turnovers, but sometimes it resulted in spectacular plays (both offensively and defensively) for himself and his teammates. Roddy has a lot of growing up to do before he’s ready for a full-time gig, but this guy is still ready, and waiting, to contribute.
Josh Howard didn’t hav ea great game, but he had a tidy seven points on six shots, and played some nice perimeter defense. Howard still struggles to defend the post, though…which probably sounds worse than it is given the lack of small forwards with real skill down low.
Jared Jeffries, who is averaging 4.6 PPG for the season, dropped 12 points in the first quarter on 4-6 shooting. A little surprising to say the least, especially if you’re familiar with Jeffries’ limited offensive game. And somewhat predictably, he missed all of his field goals the rest of the way, and added just two more points off of free throws.
GOLD STAR OF THE NIGHT: The Gold Star of the Night goes to Rodrigue Beaubois. If you’re going to make me pick and choose between all of the Maverick contributors, I’m going to tag the guy who hasn’t played many meaningful minutes in the past month and a half. He’s a truly engaging player, and though his opportunity may not come today, games like these keep us looking forward to tomorrow.
“The fastest way to succeed is to look as if you’re playing by somebody else’s rules, while quietly playing by your own.”
You could easily look at all of the Mavs’ close wins this season and determine that they’re not getting the job done. There’s little separation on the scoreboard, and for a quality team against inferior opponents, that’s simply unacceptable.
On some level, I agree; the Mavs should certainly be winning games more decisively. They have the talent necessary to build up a big lead and rest their starters in the fourth quarter, but seem to much prefer slugging out a game in the final seconds. Great for drama, not so much for the point differential.
But I will say this: the Mavs have plenty of clutch experience this season. This team knows how to execute and win with the game on the line. Think that might make a difference in the playoffs?
Last night’s game was only the latest of the Maverick nail-biters, as Dallas surrendered consecutive three-pointers to the Wiz in the final 30 seconds. A safe seven-point lead had dwindled to just one, and then the unthinkable happened: Dirk Nowitzki committed a turnover with the game on the line. It’s one of the few blemishes on Dirk’s clutch resume, and it put Washington in control of the game with just six seconds remaining. They inbounded to Caron Butler in isolation, who measure the situation as he approached the three-point line. He attacked driving left, bumped to create contact, hung in the air, and was smothered by Shawn Marion.
One play hardly a win makes, but Marion and the Mavs are finishers in the truest sense. They may not always start the game strongly (although they had a perfectly respectable first quarter Wednesday night), but they close it with authority. Nowitzki is brutally effective in late-game situations, Jason Terry is one of the league leaders in fourth quarter scoring despite his disappointing performance overall, and the Mavs’ team defense has generally been superb in finishing games. It may not be enough to win by 20 every night, but it’s enough to win on most of them. Considering the pretty intense schedule the Mavs have had so far and the quality of opponents in the Western Conference, winning by a slim margin isn’t quite the sign of weakness it used to be.
The Mavs were certainly not without flaws in their win over the Wiz, but when the most glaring is simply the inability to build up a huge lead? I’ll take it. The offense performed well behind another terrific night from Dirk (28 points, 11-19 FG, five rebounds, three turnovers) and the welcome contributions of Jason Terry (21 points, 9-16 FG, one turnover). JET jumped into the starting lineup for just the second time all season, and he responded beautifully with eight of the Mavs’ 25 first quarter points. Starting Josh Howard has its perks (as does starting J.J. Barea), but it may be time for the Mavs to jump-start Terry’s offensive game with early shots. Despite his talents and his reputation, JET doesn’t play with blinders on. He’s likely to put up points early, but he’ll do so without handcuffing the rest of the offense. That’s the biggest difference between the offensive games of Jason Terry and Josh Howard right now, and though Josh missed the game due to illness, the notion of starting Terry is something the Mavs ought to explore.
On a night-in and night-out basis, those two should be the givens on offense. They should be putting up 20+, and the contributions of the rest of the Mavs provide the fudge, the whipped cream, and the cherry on top. On Wednesday it was Shawn Marion (12 points, 6-12 FG, 12 rebounds, two blocks) and Drew Gooden (14 points, seven rebounds, four assists, two blocks) who provided the trimmings, and they did so in a very efficient manner. Marion and Gooden combined for seven offensive rebounds, which is the ideal for them to provide on the offensive end. Marion can create a little off the dribble or in the post, but his primary offensive strengths come in moving without the ball and securing extra possessions for the Mavs off of rebounds. Drew is a bit more skilled in terms of shot-creation, but Dirk, Terry, and Kidd (in terms of setting up plays) remain superior options. If Gooden secures the offensive rebound and throws up an errant baby hook, it’s essentially a no-loss scenario; the Mavs could technically have scored on the additional possession they created, but Drew still had the opportunity to score based on an opportunity he seized by himself. That means he’s using up less of the possessions in the structured offense, but still contributing on the scoreboard. Tremendous.
The Mavs’ defense wasn’t especially notable, except for their inability to cover Randy Foye (26 points, 9-14 FG, three assists, three turnovers). If you’ll recall, Foye dropped 19 on the Mavs on opening night, and was a bonafide difference-maker with his scoring alone. There’s apparently something about Foye’s game that’s slippery enough to elude Jason Kidd, J.J. Barea, and co., and he’s taken full advantage of that fact this season. But other than that? Antawn Jamison had just seven points on 2-10 shooting with four turnovers. Caron Butler turned in a modest 20, while shooting 7-20 from the field. And though Brendan Haywood (13 points, 18 rebounds) and Earl Boykins (11 points, three assists) stepped up to fill the void, it wasn’t quite enough. This was by no means a marquee defensive performance, but the Mavs did force the Wizards’ best players into tough nights, and sealed the game by shutting down Caron Butler.
Jason Kidd only scored six points (2-10 FG), but contributed plenty to the offense as evidenced by his gaudy 15 assists…which matched the the Wizards’ team total. Kidd has topped 15 assists in the last two games, and he’s averaging 12.6 dimes over his last five. Bravo, good chap.
Even when the Wizards took a slight edge on the scoreboard in the closing minutes, the Mavs always seemed to have the game in control. They were the aggressors, and their primary scorers had established themselves as go-to guys. When in doubt, just get the ball to Dirk or JET. But the Wizards? Not having Butler or Jamison in rhythm, if only as a last resort, hurt their offense.
Matt Carroll logged a few minutes in the second quarter, and played about how you would expect. It’s tough to go into a situation like that and contribute; despite all the drills and practices, nothing can really prepare you for an NBA game except for other NBA games. Quinton Ross also played 15 minutes (and wasn’t all that impressive defensively), and James Singleton logged eight.
Erick Dampier threw down two alley-oop dunks from Jason Kidd with authority. Don’t worry, clips are on their way.
The Mavs are moving the ball beautifully right now. It’s not just Kidd, either — the team totaled 27 assists on 39 field goals.
GOLD STAR OF THE NIGHT: The Gold Star of the Night goes to Shawn Marion. The double-double is huge, but the game-saving block is even better. Shawn had another tough assignment in Caron Butler, but forced Butler into some bad shots throughout the night, and took any hope the Wizards had for a comeback win and stomped on it as time expired.
The Mavs have faced some pretty stiff competition this season, as the entire Western Conference has seemingly stepped up its game. But Dallas is still second in the conference standings, and the rest of the regular season schedule could smile on the Mavs. Via the excellent @mavstats (if you’re not following mavsstats on Twitter or RSS, do so immediately): “The Mavs have the weakest remaining schedule of any West team at .478 (3rd weakest in NBA). The hardest? Denver at .539.”
Kris Humphries is off to a hell of a start in New Jersey. After three games as a Net (which is an absurdly small sample size), he’s averaging 15 PPG (.517 FG%) and 7.7 RPG. Translate his numbers into their per-minute values, and it gets even more impressive: 22.8 points per 36 minutes and 11.7 rebounds per 36 minutes. That’s a PER of 26.1. I wouldn’t expect Hump’s numbers to be quite so gaudy at the end of the season, but still. Wow.
Josh Howard was anything but impressive offensively Monday night, but Rick Carlisle noted his second half defense against the Celtics. Which reminds me of something I forgot to mention in the recap: Ray Allen had a tidy 21 points on 9-15 shooting, but both Josh Howard and Jason Terry did a terrific job of chasing him around screens. Having to guard the likes of Allen (or Detroit’s Rip Hamilton) is not only unenviable, but physically draining. It takes incredible endurance to not only chase Ray, but fight through screen after screen, and both Josh and JET refused to be deterred.
Brendan Jackson of Celtics Hub: “These are mostly guys who fall under the “match up nightmare for any team” and “gonna get his” categories. Still, the C’s have a huge disadvantage when trying to defend more mobile power forwards like Dirk, Durant, and Stoudemire. I don’t even see this changing much when KG gets back.”
I like John Hollinger, but in his choices for All-Star starters, he jumps the shark a bit by naming Tim Duncan the starting power forward and Zach Randolph the starting center. Here’s his explanation: “How good has Duncan been? He leads all Western Conference big men in estimated wins added despite playing only 32 minutes a game and sitting out three games. It’s just unfortunate that he’s on the ballot at power forward, because we could have used Duncan as the starting center and listed Dirk Nowitzki (who likely will beat out Duncan in the fan voting) as a starter at forward. Instead we have to do this…” No problem whatsoever with Duncan getting a nod, but Hollinger’s positional reasoning is confusing at best, impossible at worst. He says that it’s a shame that Duncan is on the ballot as a forward, because otherwise he could have put Dirk at forward and Duncan at center. Instead, he selects Duncan at forward, and then anoints Zach Randolph, who is very obviously a power forward, as the center. Right.
“The unpredictability inherent in human affairs is due largely to the fact that the by-products of a human process are more fateful than the product.“
It’s getting to the point where the Maverick offense is almost impossible to predict. The Mavs were unable to get the ball in the basket for long stretches against the Toronto Raptors, who despite their improved play of late, are dead last in the league in defensive efficiency. In the first half last night, the Mavs were scoring relatively well, but were turning the ball over at an uncharacteristically high rate.
Then in the second half? A deluge. 58 points (which is notable considering the there were only 90 total possessions) dropped on the head of one of the league’s top defenses (currently ranked 3rd). The less surprising part was that Dirk Nowitzki (34 points, 14-22 FG, seven rebounds, three assists) was the primary bread-winner, scoring 22 of his 37 points in the second half on 9-15 shooting. He was 6 of 7 in the third quarter, when the Mavs scored 34 points on an insane 16 of 20.
Dirk was mismatched against the likes of Glen Davis and Brian Scalabrine, but he abused any defender Doc Rivers assigned to him. But honestly, as brilliant as Dirk was in getting open off of picks and the like, Boston’s defense had a complete breakdown. I’d imagine that Nowitzki takes up a pretty substantial part of the scouting report, and yet he was frequently wide open for mid-range jumpers. He is the undisputed best player in a Maverick uniform, and yet the Celtics were leaving him open to double in the post or sending two defenders to rotate due to miscommunication. Even great defensive teams are due for some mental errors once in awhile, but the second half (and the third quarter, in particular) was just mistake after mistake after mistake.
What’s scary is how good the Mavs could have been offensively if Jason Terry (eight points, 3-12 FG) and Josh Howard (three points, 1-5 FG, three rebounds, four assists) had been in any kind of rhythm. JET didn’t score a single point within 15 feet of the basket (0-4 from that range), as he was denied at the rim and forced into tough jumpers after prematurely killing his dribble. Terry caught the ball looking to score, but simply failed to convert. But he kept his turnovers down, played some decent defense, and deferred at the appropriate moments. Josh, to his credit, kept his shot attempts down. But his play continues to frustrate. His recent play should already have him on thin ice, and every missed layup and long, contested jumpshot is another step closer to the freezing water beneath his feet.
But Dirk wasn’t carrying the offense alone. Erick Dampier (11 points, seven rebounds, four turnovers, two blocks), Drew Gooden (10 points, four rebounds, two steals, two blocks), Jason Kidd (13 points, 5-7 FG, 3-3 3FG, 17 assists, three turnovers), and Shawn Marion (16 points, 7-9 FG, eight rebounds, two blocks) provided ample scoring support. Damp’s performance was especially notable for just how explosive of a scorer he was; all 11 of Damp’s points came in the third frame, where he also grabbed five rebounds and went a perfect 5-5 from the field. He was also surprisingly versatile, dropping a free throw line jumper and what I only know to describe as a runner (maybe a walker?) along with a few layups and some post work. That’s the closest thing you’ll ever see to an Erick Dampier offensive clinic, and it was against a pretty solid defender in Kendrick Perkins.
Gooden had a similar role in the first half, but in my mind Drew’s offensive contributions are far eclipsed by those on the defensive end. I’ll be blunt: Drew Gooden is not a strong defender. The rhetoric that he often “floats” on that end of the court is certainly true, and his concept of defensive spacing is certainly not in line with Coach Carlisle’s. But last night was a pleasant surprise, as Gooden combined excellent anticipation, great hands, and a high activity level to put together one of his best defensive performances of the season.
The shocking thing about Kidd and Marion’s performances was that there was really nothing spectacular about them. Kidd simply made the right plays, again and again, and his teammates finished inside. He displayed that incredible efficiency from the three-point line, which has become a staple of his time in Dallas. He played tough defense (even when switched onto bigger threats like Paul Pierce), pressured shooters, and initiated the offense. His numbers are absolutely stellar, but Jason Kidd only did what Jason Kidd does.
Shawn Marion’s outing was similar, with one notable exception: he finished. Marion’s time in Dallas has already seen him miss plenty of layups and several dunks, but Shawn maximized his opportunities last night. He was excellent in transition, but even more impressive with what he was able to do in half-court sets. Plus, his defense on Paul Pierce was admirable, even though it wasn’t totally effective. That happens when your primary objective on the court is to contain the league’s best players night in and night out. And though Pierce still scored 24 points while shooting over 50% from the field, Marion is putting in the effort to deny, bump, and challenge, and on the whole it’s working.
It was certainly an impressive win for the Mavs, but they hardly turned a corner. We’ve seen this team put up the occasional dominant offensive outing, and in truth, this was only half of one. It came against a quality opponent and a quality defense, but don’t misconstrue the Mavs’ third quarter brilliance for some sort of grand revelation. This team still only goes as far as Dirk can take them, and until Josh Howard and Jason Terry become more efficient and effective parts of the offense, Dallas will continue to struggle on that end of the court.
Rajon Rondo (seven points, 12 assists, two steals) is tremendously improved as a shooter. He was 3 of 5 from 16-23 feet last night, and he’s managed to virtually eliminate one of the holes in his game. That shot doesn’t need to be his bread-and-butter, but being able to hit from that range consistently can really complicate things for the defense.
Oh, and Rondo’s okay at passing, too. A lot of the Mavs’ defensive trobles came from collapsing too hard on Rondo’s lane penetration, which gave players like Kendrick Perkins (14 points, 12 rebounds, three turnovers, two blocks) all kinds of easy buckets. Not that Perk wasn’t a beast in his own right. The Celtics routinely sent him to work on the low block, and his array of turnaround jumpers was a clear homage to teammate Kevin Garnett.
GOLD STAR OF THE NIGHT: The Gold Star of the Night goes to Dirk Nowitzki. He scored 37 points on 22 shots…isn’t that good enough for you?
The Mavs have yet to present their magnum opus of home wins, but the formula for their nail-biting win over the Thunder as scribed a bit differently than their other near-letdowns. The effort level was not only consistent, but sufficient, and though the Mavs scored just 19 points in the first quarter while allowing the Thunder a nine-point lead, it was not for lack of trying. The level of execution was clearly sub-par, but in such instances, the Mavs must continue to run. They must continue to rotate. They must continue to drive, and help, and slash, and box-out. Too many teams have been discouraged by the ball refusing to go through the hoop, when effort level should exist in a vacuum.
On some nights, the Mavs would give in. The picks would be weaker, the moves less decisive, and the help defense a step slow. But to their credit, Dallas never ceded the competitive edge. This team knows that it can beat the Thunder, and just as importantly, knows that it can stop Kevin Durant.
Shawn Marion is the man for that unenviable task, and he clearly knows something that the rest of the world does not. How else do you explain KD’s 22.2% shooting against Marion and the Mavs this season, and his 6-18 performance last night? How else do you explain Durant’s seven turnovers, three above his season average? Durant was put on this planet to score the ball, but something in Shawn Marion’s defense has made that objective incredibly difficult. Yes, Durant still put up 30 points, thanks to his 16 attempts from the line. But I’m not sure that anyone in the NBA today is a better man-up defender of the Durantula than the Mavs’ own Shawn Marion, and considering KD’s ridiculous season thus far, that’s quite the compliment. If you’re having trouble with kids sneaking into your garage to steal a trinket or two, you might want to call Shawn. If you’re having trouble convincing a jury of your innocence, you might want to call Shawn. And if you need to close off and defend your borders from an incoming army of up-and-coming All-Star small forwards, you should really, really call Shawn.
Oddly enough, despite of the truly admirable job that Marion did on the defensive end, he probably wasn’t the Mavs’ defensive MVP for the night. That honor goes to Jason Kidd, who played the scouting report on Russell Westbrook to perfection in the first half…only to see Westbrook nail mid-range jumper after mid-range jumper. Naturally, Rick Carlisle and Jason Kidd adjusted, and in the second half, Kidd made defensive play after defensive play. Westbrook was six of nine from the field at halftime, to the tune of 12 points. By game’s end, he was eight of nineteen (that makes two of ten in the second half, for those not in the number-crunching mood) with just 18 points. Kidd’s two blocks tied Erick Dampier for a game-high, and his four steals put him in a class of his own. When the Mavs needed stops, it was Kidd that created possessions out of thin air. When Kevin Durant had a chance to tie the game with 30 seconds left, it was Kidd who challenged his shot, negating Durant’s height advantage with superior effort and technique. Oh, and in between the stops and deflections, Kidd managed to drop 11 points on 50% shooting while totaling 11 assists to just one turnover.
Then there was Dirk Nowitzki, who looked more or less unstoppable against single coverage. 32 points on 18 shots is a tad impressive. Though five rebounds and four turnovers isn’t what you’d like to see out of a star power forward, you take what you get with a guy who can score like hell and hit what was essentially the game-winning shot. Dirk had the Mavs’ final six points, icing the Thunder and putting up just enough to to eek out a victory.
Jason Terry was kind enough to join Dirk in the scoring column, as JET did went to work in the second half en route to a 21-point night on 9 of 17 shooting. It’s no surprise that the Mavs operate at a completely different level offensively when Terry’s shot is falling, and this win belongs to him as much as it does to Marion, Kidd, or Dirk. His looks ranged from obscenely open to closely contested, but JET is a shooter, and once his aim is properly calibrated for the basket’s sweet spot, he’s tough to deter.
Josh Howard had a horrible offensive night. He was not only shooting blanks but shooting plenty of them (2-14 FG), as the Mavs looked to him often in the absence of Dirk and JET. In theory, that approach is sound; Howard is the most natural wing scorer the Mavs have aside from Terry, and his ability to create his own shot trumps the rest of the rotation easily. But the Thunder were practically daring Josh to pull the trigger from mid-range, and though he was happy to oblige, the Mavs can’t be happy with the result. Howard’s shot selection remains his biggest flaw, and on a night where he simply can’t find the net, he’s not in a position where he can shoot himself into a rhythm. Those are shots that should be going to more efficient scorers, and while I’d very much like to see Josh scoring big in the flow of the offense, I’d rather he not make it his personal mission to chuck up jumper after jumper.
Rodrigue Beaubois and Byron (the artist formerly known as B.J.) Mullens, who were swapped for each other on draft night, logged a combined zero minutes. It’s a fun time to be a rookie.
Eddie Najera was suited up for the game, but did not play.
James Singleton logged seven minutes of action, grabbing two rebounds and…well, not much else. But he appears to be stepping into Kris Humphries’ role as a reserve power forward. I’d expect that to continue, particularly on nights where Shawn Marion is locked in to the three on defensive duties, as he was tonight against Kevin Durant.
Though Josh had a tough night, he did have a hand in saving the game. Jason Terry missed two free throws with four seconds remaining, leaving the door open for the Thunder to get one final shot. They had no timeouts remaining, and thus Nenad Krstic had to get the ball into the hands of a playmaker in a timely manner. Westbrook was ready and waiting, but when Krstic attempted the outlet, Josh Howard tipped the pass, wasting crucial seconds off the clock. It wasn’t an outright steal, but it was still a tremendous play at a crucial time.
J.J. Barea has definite value off the bench, and though that role prevents him from applying consistent offensive pressure over long stretchers, it may be his best with the team. He can step in, catch defenses off guard, and create some confusion for half-court defenses.
Dirk was able to get to the line at will, and his 15 attempts were a huge reason why the Mavs posted an absurd .557 free throws per field goal. That’s a nice parade to the free throw line for a team that sparingly, and oh, every single one of those free throws means a hell of a lot.
GOLD STAR OF THE NIGHT: The Gold Star of the Night goes to…I don’t know, man. Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Kidd, and Shawn Marion are all great candidates, with Jason Terry as a possible dark horse. You guys can decide this one; sound off in the comments with your choice for the Gold Star of the Night, with an explanation if you’d like.
Kurt from Forum Blue and Gold chimes in on the chances the Western Conference quasi-contenders have of challenging the Lakers. Here’s his take on Dallas: “They see themselves as close — they do have the second best record in the West — but serious questions remain if they could get out of the second round of the playoffs, let alone their match up issues with the Lakers. Last night was just another piece of evidence that the Lakers have their number.”
Rick Carlisle on the new starting lineup, featuring Josh Howard in his rightful place as the starting 2 (via Eddie Sefko): “Offensively, we’ve looked at a different lineup and that’s going to come…We did a lot more good things offensively than our final numbers indicate…That group hasn’t played together that much. During Josh’s second comeback period, he was playing a lot with the second group. This is another period we’re going to have to work through.”
The second is a piece from NBA.com’s Fran Blinebury. Kobe Bryant was asked to reflect a bit on Dirk Nowitzki in light of Dirk’s 20,000 career points, and he had plenty to say (forgive me for the lengthy quote, but it’s good stuff): “But who sees and understands more than an opposite number in a different color jersey, the player most often regarded as the fiercest competitor in the game today? ‘He’s tough,’ said the Lakers’ Kobe Bryant. ‘That’s what I like about him. He’s not a punk. A lot of superstar players don’t like to get touched. They’re kind of finicky about how they go about things. Dirk’s nasty and that’s what I like about him. He’ll take the gloves off and go at it.’ That’s a far cry from the early days of a career that had him labeled as “soft” and had Nowitzki known as Irk — no D. Over the course of his career, Nowitzki has developed into a solid team defender, become the Mavs’ unquestioned team leader and has staked his claim as the best international player to jump straight to the pro ranks in the NBA. Nigerian Hakeem Olajuwon spent three years learning the ropes at the University of Houston before stepping into the NBA and Argentine Manu Ginobili honed his game for two years in the Italian League before joining the San Antonio Spurs…’It’s tough to argue that he’s not the best international player ever,’ said Bryant. ‘We’re gonna try to make a case when it’s all said and done for [Spaniard] Pau Gasol years from now. But Dirk is phenomenal right now…If you look at some of the games that he’s had against great players, it’s amazing. I think his coming out party years ago was against [Kevin] Garnett. Garnett is a phenomenal player and Dirk was putting up 35 and 20 rebounds. That’s ridiculous. I’m looking at that like, ‘Whoa, Garnett’s one of the best defensive players ever and [Dirk] torched him.’ ‘…’Dirk’s not gonna back down. I like that,’ Bryant said. ‘He’s not soft. Oh, no.’…Though he grew up trying to emulate the all-around skills of Scottie Pippen, because he’s blond and tall and white and can shoot with either hand, from the time he entered the league Nowitzki has always drawn the comparisons to the legendary Larry Bird. ‘They’re very different actually,’ Bryant said. ‘The similarity is that they’re big guys that can shoot. But I think that’s where it ends. Bird with the Celtics, they ran a lot of things through him to facilitate things for others. In Dallas they use Dirk more as a striker…Hopefully the fans in Dallas can appreciate what they watch — a 7-footer that can put the ball on the floor, can shoot it from the outside, can post. Dirk’s a rare breed, man. A rare breed.’”
Josh Howard on the Mavs’ defense of late (via Eddie Sefko): “We’ve been slipping…It’s a matter of us willing it on ourselves and not just depending on the coaching staff to get us going. It’s all about us doing it.”
“They’re certainly not the protagonists.”
Each Maverick game this season has been but another installment in the team’s plotline. There are ups and downs, triumphs and failures, and hopefully, a terrific climax following the rising action late in the playoffs.
But tonight didn’t feel like a Maverick game. Dallas was merely the backdrop of the latest Laker adventure, with the Mavs thrown out of the spotlight in favor of the night’s true protagonists. They showed resolve. They showed savvy. They fought nobly in the face of adversity, displayed teamwork and fellowship, and prevailed. The Mavs were simply the extras in the background while the celebration ensued, a footnote in the epic being written to log the exploits of the reigning champs.
From the very beginning, it seemed as if Dallas was fighting an uphill battle. The Lakers found plenty of early success by jumping on the back of Andrew Bynum (22 points, 8-11 FG, 11 rebounds). Erick Dampier’s (five points, four rebounds, two turnovers) return was supposed to provide a defensive counter to Bynum’s inside presence, but to no avail. Damp couldn’t slow down Bynum, much less stop him, and the interior D went from bad to worse when Dampier picked up two early fouls. Drew Gooden (eight points, five rebounds) is an able big against second units and small lineups, but against a gifted conventional center like Bynum, he could offer little in the way of resistance. The center rotation couldn’t even balance their poor defense with a bit of offense, leaving the rest of the Mavs to counter Bynum’s efficient night.
The defensive problems hardly stopped there. Ron Artest (16 points, 5-5 FG, 11 rebounds) was a bull inside, exploiting Josh Howard in the post with decisive moves and superior size. But perhaps the biggest slap of all came with the Mavs inability to get stops against the Lakers’ reserves; how is that a team of starters for a would-be contender fails to gain ground against a lineup of Jordan Farmar, Shannon Brown, Luke Walton, Josh Powell, and Andrew Bynum? That’s one starter (albeit on this night, a terribly effective one) with two rotation players and two deep reserves, and yet stops were a rarity and easy buckets were nowhere to be found. That is not the kind of team that the Mavs are supposed to struggle against, and though the Lakers’ margin of victory is relatively small, that stretch is surely representative of a larger deficit. The Mavs are struggling.
Kobe Bryant (10 points, two rebounds, one assist) was a virtual non-factor in the first half, as back spasms rendered him an observer on the court. The ball stayed out of his hands, and the Mavs failed to attack him when in the half-court offense. Bryant was matched up Marion, and while Shawn does not have an expansive offensive repertoire, would posting up Bryant be too much to ask? It’s hard for players with hurt backs to guard mobile opponents, but it’s also difficult for them to establish a base, bump, and contest down low. That should have been the Mavs’ primary directive early in the game, but Marion was hardly a factor in Dallas’ first quarter offense.
By the second half, Kobe seemed to be more comfortable. Maybe it was the considerable rest (he didn’t play at all in the second quarter, giving him thirteen minutes of rest in addition to halftime) afforded him by the Laker bench, or perhaps a change in approach by L.A.’s training staff. Or perhaps a recovery of some supernatural nature, a divine right given to the heroes of our story so that they may rise above. Bryant didn’t do much of the heavy lifting, but he managed to suck the air out of American Airlines Center with a go-ahead jumper with 29 seconds remaining. Dirk had just hit the biggest shot of the night to tie the game 95-all, but we should have known that the Mavs were simply setting the stage for their opponents’ victory. Josh Howard later had a chance to send the game to overtime on an open three-pointer, but leather hit nothing but rim. And instead of thinking that the Mavs fell short, all I could think was that the Lakers held on. From the opening tip on, this was their game. It was their story, and they played like it.
Dirk Nowitzki (30 points, 11-22 FG, 16 rebounds, two assists) and Jason Kidd (11 points, 3-8 3FG, seven rebounds, 11 assists) were sensational. But Kidd’s timely threes and Dirk’s heroics couldn’t overcome the Mavs’ defensive shortcomings. It was one of those nights where Dirk reminds you of just how fantastic of a player he is, and fittingly so, because Nowitzki notched his 20,000th career point. He’s 38th on the all-time scoring list, and while it’s easy to say that the Dallas Mavericks have never seen another player or scorer like him, I’d venture as far as to say that the NBA hasn’t, either. Dirk is a truly unique talent, a revolutionary, a franchise savior, and one of the best to ever play the game.
Jason Terry (seven points, 2-12 FG, three assists) didn’t offer much support, and the offense stalled because of it. Terry is so crucial to the offensive game plan, and when he’s not providing a scoring punch from the bench (especially on a night where Josh Howard moved into the starting lineup), he doesn’t offer much at all. That’s painful considering just how close the Mavs were to a victory, and when considering that the Lakers’ bench outscored the Mavs’ bench by ten points (31-21).
Lamar Odom did exactly what the situation called for – he drove to the basket (nine attempts at the rim), set up his teammates (four assists) and hit his open jumpshots (four of five from 16-23 feet). With Kobe stepping into a minor offensive role, somebody needed to use up shots. To Lamar’s credit, he certainly wasn’t passive, and although his 9-20 shooting and three turnovers aren’t terrific in regard to efficiency, it was exactly what the Lakers needed on this night.
Early in the game, the Mavs made the decision to put Josh Howard on Ron Artest and Shawn Marion on Kobe Bryant. I don’t meant to beat a dead horse here, but the way that Artest was bullying Josh inside made me wonder if Marion couldn’t do a little better job of standing his ground. Shawn is bigger than Josh and a more adept defender in the post, and putting Josh on Kobe would create more transition situations where Kobe is forced to guard Josh. Even if you don’t buy into the idea of Marion being able to punish Kobe in the post, Howard could at least provide offensive pressure on an ailing Bryant.
Two crucial plays that Rick Carlisle highlighted in his press conference took place at the end of the second and third quarters. To close the second, Ron Artest had a look at a running three-pointer, but Dirk Nowitzki mistimed his jump and ended up fouling with .2 seconds on the clock. Ron sank all three free throws, and what could have been a one-point deficit at halftime was four. Then, to close the third, the Mavs gave up an uncontested three to Jordan Farmar, pushing a two-point deficit to five. Both were pretty glaring mental mistakes, worsened by the fact that the clock was working against the Lakers in those situations, and yet they still found ways to get points.
Kelly Dwyer on the Lakers’ rough night last night: “The Lakers are beat to hell – Ron Artest,Jordan Farmar, and a guy named Kobe Bryant are in pain; Pau Gasol didn’t even play – and they were on the road. Topping that, they’re the champs. The last bit means teams have it out for them. It means teams get up for the best. And while Tim Duncan has never needed an excuse to rule the entire half-court defensively, he easily turned in his best defensive performance of the season against Los Angeles. Every angle was covered.”
And just in case you’re not quite getting it, here’s Brian Kamenetzky with a laundry list of Laker injuries: “Start with injuries. L.A.’s entered the game dealing with the slow burn of Kobe Bryant’s fractured right index finger and Pau Gasol’s improving hamstring. Over the ensuing 48 minutes, they added Ron Artest’s right hand- one he spent most of the second half clutching before leaving the game with 4:11 remaining- a hamstring injury for Sasha Vujacic limiting him to 3:06 of playing time, a sore throat for Adam Morrison…oh, and did I mention Kobe spent the fourth quarter in the locker room getting treatment for back spasms? So easy to overlook the minor details, right?”
Josh Howard is expected to play tonight, but Erick Dampier and Tim Thomas are questionable. Dampier could be the biggest blow of all; we’ve had the distinct displeasure of seeing how the Lakers can dissect a Damp-less Maverick defense, and while the Lakers are even more banged up this time around (remember, that horrible loss was without Ron Artest and largely without Pau Gasol), I’d still much prefer it if Damp could find a way onto the floor. Knee effusions aren’t something you want to mess with, but the Mavs need Damp tonight.
The Mavs are projected to have a home record of 27-14, which would be among their worst of the decade. The players and coaches are saying all the right things, but this is one of those tricky psychological problems that’s easy to notice but far more difficult to solve.
John Hollinger, on Twitter (@johnhollinger): “Southwest Division: Five teams over .500. Entire Eastern Conference: Four teams over .500.” The Grizzlies and the Hornets are making a run at the playoffs, and from where I’m sitting, the Southwest is the best division inbasketball. The other two divisions in the West each boast some impressive teams, but they also have dead weight in the Timberwolves and the Warriors. The worst team in the West is a game over .500, and that’s beyond impressive.