The Difference: Dallas Mavericks 100, Oklahoma City Thunder 87

Posted by Rob Mahoney on January 2, 2012 under Recaps | 2 Comments to Read

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Box ScorePlay-by-PlayShot ChartGameFlow

TeamPaceOff. Eff.eFG%FT/FGORB%TOR
Dallas87.0114.951.921.327.513.8
Oklahoma City100.043.526.028.614.9

You know the drill. The Difference is a reflection on the game that was, with one bullet for every point in the final margin.

  • This game was a prime demonstration of Vince Carter (14 points on nine shots, three assists) as a post-up option. It’s not about the buckets scored, but the opportunities created; Dallas ran their offense through Carter on the block in the second and third quarters, and VC was able to respond by drawing fouls, getting to the rim, and attracting plenty of defensive attention. Carter was such a convincing post threat that the Thunder left Dirk Nowitzki wide open in the opposite corner in order to blitz him down low. That kind of rotation barely seems possible, but mismatches like the ones Carter was able to create often force opponents into drastic measures.
  • Nowitzki (26 points, 10-16 FG, 1-5 3FG, six rebounds) may not have matched last year’s playoff performance in magnitude, but Monday night was a return to normalcy. The last time these teams met, Dirk looked rushed and uncomfortable. He hesitated before shooting open jumpers, and didn’t put much effort into establishing position at “his spots” on the floor. This performance was “vintage” Nowitzki, if they do indeed make months-old vintages. His footwork, ball fakes, and spins were all in playoff form, and though Dallas didn’t lean on Nowitzki’s offense as heavily as they did in the postseason, he was every bit as efficient as the Mavs could have expected him to be. I hope you enjoyed the first of what will undoubtedly be many brilliant showings for Nowitzki this season.

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The Difference: Oklahoma City Thunder 104, Dallas Mavericks 102

Posted by Rob Mahoney on December 30, 2011 under Recaps | 7 Comments to Read

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Box ScorePlay-by-PlayShot ChartGameFlow

TeamPaceOff. Eff.eFG%FT/FGORB%TOR
Dallas95.0107.447.218.930.412.6
Oklahoma City109.563.538.120.027.4

You know the drill. The Difference is a reflection on the game that was, with one bullet for every point in the final margin.

  • Moral victories may be the panacea of foolish NBA fans, but I have a very hard time classifying this absurd 48 minutes of Mavericks basketball as anything but. Just days removed from getting trounced by the Miami Heat and Denver Nuggets in back-to-back home games, the Mavs were right back where they were last May: fighting down to the wire with an impressive Oklahoma City Thunder team, scraping together runs for a chance to take the game.
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Now in Session

Posted by Rob Mahoney on December 22, 2011 under Commentary | 6 Comments to Read

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This year’s preseason campaign may be more important than the lead-in exhibitions of a standard season, but there’s still only so much that can be digested from a mere prologue. Still, we can glean hints of the year to come, even in the context of games that don’t matter. With that, here are eight observations from the Mavs’ two preseason games against the Oklahoma City Thunder, laced with a nice balance of optimism and gloom:

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The Difference: Dallas Mavericks 112, Oklahoma City Thunder 105

Posted by Rob Mahoney on May 24, 2011 under Recaps | 10 Comments to Read

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Box ScorePlay-by-PlayShot ChartGameFlow

TeamPaceOff. Eff.eFG%FT/FGORB%TOR
Dallas104107.748.142.012.512.5
Oklahoma City101.047.821.141.724.0

You know the drill. The Difference is a reflection on the game that was, with one bullet for every point in the final margin.

  • If you’re one for hyperbole, then you just witnessed the greatest playoff comeback in Dallas Mavericks history. If you’re not, well, you still witnessed the greatest playoff comeback in Dallas Mavericks history. To say this was an all-timer is no exaggeration, as the ridiculous 17-2 run the Mavs used to create a competitive game where there ought be none was shot on pre-aged celluloid, ready to be used in a hundred NBA commercials and playoff specials and retrospectives. This was a performance of immediate historic importance, and Dirk Nowitzki’s spins and fakes will become inseparable from the spine of playoff lore. The Mavs continue on their long, steady march through this season’s playoffs and toward their ultimate goal, but just four games into the Western Conference Finals, they’ve already reached immortality.
  • Nowitzki (40 points, 12-20 FG, five rebounds, three assists) was obviously the mover, the shaker, the game-taker, the back-breaker, but the box score was populated by the influence of the often overlooked. Dallas doesn’t win without combined — and I do mean combined, as their play was often in tandem — defensive efforts of Jason Kidd (17 points, 5-9 FG, 3-6 3FG, seven assists, five rebounds, four steals) and Shawn Marion (seven points, 1-5 FG, four rebounds, four steals). They swarmed and switched against Kevin Durant (29 points, 9-22 FG, 15 rebounds, four assists) and Russell Westbrook (19 points, 7-22 FG, eight rebounds, eight assists), and Marion’s game-saving block on Durant at the end of regulation and his tandem stop with Kidd against KD in overtime were only the tip of the iceberg. These two played exquisite floor D the entire night; they doubled at the right times, contested shots, deflected anything that went over the top, helped in transition, and created a dynamic front for a scrambling defense that threw Oklahoma City for a loop. Kidd’s 17 points were huge, but it’s the four steals apiece from Kidd and Marion that really set their performances apart.
  • On the Thunder side, the Mavs’ aggressive defense on Durant and Westbrook opened up plenty of scoring opportunities for Thabo Sefolosha, Serge Ibaka, and Nick Collison. They were able to convert layups, dunks, and open jumpers during the bulk of Game 4 — as evidenced by their 42 combined points — but when OKC’s offense wilted late (as it so often does), those three couldn’t offer the solace of a made J or a strong cut. Everything the Thunder had built turned to dust, ground into an unrecognizable ash by way of the unnecessarily arduous reality of OKC’s endgame offense. There’s no question that Sfealosha, Ibaka, and Collison were instrumental in the victory that almost was for the Thunder, but their contributions were notably absent during one of the biggest playoff meltdowns in modern NBA history.
  • Dallas used a 10-2 run to close the second quarter, a 7-0 run to close the third quarter, a 17-2 run to close the fourth quarter, and a 7-0 run to close overtime. “Always Be Glengarry Glen Rossing,” as they say.
  • The Thunder more than tripled the Mavs in offensive rebounding rate, but that advantage can be — and was — negated with the right combination of elements. Still, it shouldn’t be lost on anyone that offensive rebounding, a product of positioning and effort, nearly brought this series to a 2-2 tie. The opportunity to take a 3-1 lead is substantial, but the Mavs’ inability to box out through a majority of Game 4 very nearly gave the Thunder the most commanding win of the series. OKC was so close to sprinting away, and Dallas so close to all of the self-analysis that come following losses of lethargy.
  • In further efforts to comprehend the fourth quarter shift aside from simply praising Nowitzki’s phenomenal shot-making: the Thunder committed a number of costly, foolish backcourt fouls that allowed the Mavs scoring opportunities with a stopped clock. That’s real currency in a comeback attempt, and perhaps the greatest proof that Dallas couldn’t have won this game without Oklahoma City’s help. It took makes and miracles and defensive execution, but the Mavs were only put in a position to remain competitive by way of the Thunder’s miscues. Kevin Durant took some horrible shots down the stretch. Russell Westbrook has a million voices in his head, all with the assured confidence of sages, telling him to drivepassshootkickgyregymblepickrolldribble; he’s playing like a man preoccupied with silencing critics, without the confidence in his game to assert his own voice and his own will. Scott Brooks is throwing out some odd lineups and doodling aimlessly on a clipboard. The Thunder’s problems are perhaps a bit richer and more complex than these sentences will have you believe, but they stem from the team’s stars and coach, and trickle down accordingly.
  • I’d be remiss to not reflect a bit on Jason Terry’s odd night. JET’s lows were perilous; his first half was uncharacteristically Magoo, and he nearly blew the potential for a comeback by attempting to draw a foul on a late-game fast break rather than actually attempt a legitimate shot. Yet in spite of all of the weird passes and near-turnovers, Terry was invaluable as a scorer and opportunistic defender. His 16 points spanning the second and third quarters helped keep the team afloat when the Thunder lead could have exploded, and JET scored as many points in overtime as OKC did as a team. There was plenty worth criticizing in Terry’s Game 4 performance, but this is why you stick with him, even when he starts slow. Dallas needs that scoring, and JET is far more capable of playing through his own poor play than most give him credit. He’ll have off nights and will be exploited defensively at times, but for better and worse the Mavericks need Jason Terry.

The Difference: Dallas Mavericks 93, Oklahoma City Thunder 87

Posted by Ian Levy on May 22, 2011 under Recaps | 6 Comments to Read

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TeamPaceOff. Eff.eFG%FT/FGORB%TOR
Dallas89.0104.548.217.121.413.5
Oklahoma City97.737.243.230.015.8

Box ScorePlay-by-PlayShot ChartGameFlow

You know the drill. The Difference is a reflection on the game that was, with one bullet for every point in the final margin.

  • The Mavericks’ offense was magnificent in the first half. Every movement was crisp and precise, whichmade the Thunder’s stagnation even more apparent. By my count the Thunder attempted just five shots at the rim in the 1st Quarter, with two coming on offensive rebounds. Everything else was on the perimeter. Both sides had plenty of movement, but the Mavericksdisplayed a prescient awareness of where space would be, moving there as it opened up. The Thunder seemed to be seeking open space, and in most cases it eluded their desperate chase. On offense, the Thunder players were looking for opportunities to score; the Mavericks were waiting for opportunities to score. One Dallas offensive possession, in particular, stood out to me. Their second possession of the 2nd Quarter started with a Jason Terry steal. Within 12 seconds, the ball had crossed half-court, at least four passes had been made, three different Mavericks had touched the ball, nearly every Thunder defender had been forced to make a rotation, and Dirk Nowtizki had knocked down an open 16 footer.
  • In the 4th Quarter the Mavericks’ offense came off the rails. They scored enough to hold on and win, but gave up quite a bit of ground. Instead of the movement and passing that helped them build their lead, which had gone as high as 23 points, there seemed to be a concerted effort to “Get the ball to Dirk.” This resulted in isolation after isolation. A few tough defensive possessions from Nick Collison and the Thunder were back within striking distance.
  • Kevin Durant had a tough night, as Stevenson and Marion hounded him into a 7 of 22 performance. Durant certainly helped them out by staying on the perimeter. Just 4 of his 22 shot attempts came at the rim, and just one of those 4 was taken before the 4th Quarter. Some may point to his 0 of 8 shooting on three-pointers as a fluke. However, most of those long jumpers were contested and he struggled all game long to find enough space to operate comfortably.
  • Tyson Chandler completely out-Perkinsed Kendrick Perkins. Chandler finished with a game high 15 rebounds, and stated clearly that the paint belonged to him from the game’s outset. The physicality and nastiness that Chandler has brought to the Dallas back line is what Perkins was supposed to give Oklahoma City. Kind of makes you wonder what would have happened if the Chandler to Oklahoma City trade, of two years ago, hadn’t been voided because of his toe injury.
  • I’m a basketball nerd so I see references and connections everywhere. ESPN’s time out feature during the 1st Quarter, on notable playoff beards was clearly paying homage, intentionally or incidentally, to the now-defunct FreeDarko and the “Hair up There” section in their Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History. Well done, nameless ESPN segment producer.
  • The biggest storyline going into this game was Thunder coach, Scott Brooks, holding Russell Westbrook out for the entire 4th quarter of Game 2. The narrative coming out of Game 3 will likely continue to focus on Westbrook; but I’m curious to see what shape it will take. Westbrook was 8 of 20 from the field, and scored 30 points, thanks to 14 free throw attempts. His critics will likely focus on his 7 turnovers and 4 assists. I would be happy to offer criticism of Russell Westbrook for his play tonight, but none of it would focus on the ratio between his shot attempts and Durant’s. A comparison of their shot attempts as an evaluation of his effectiveness misses the point completely. Despite how it’s been framed this week, the problem is not a trade-off between Westbrook forcing the action or Durant getting open looks. It’s a trade-off between Westbrook forcing the action or Durant forcing the action. The Thunder offense created next to nothing in terms of open looks for Durant tonight. That’s an indictment of the entire team and everything leading up to the culmination of each possession, not just Westbrook’s ability and willingness to deliver the ball.

Ian Levy is the author of Hickory High, a contributor to Indy Cornrows, and a part of The Two Man Game family. You can follow Ian on Twitter at @HickoryHigh.

The Difference: Oklahoma City Thunder 106, Dallas Mavericks 100

Posted by Rob Mahoney on May 21, 2011 under Recaps | Be the First to Comment

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TeamPaceOff. Eff.eFG%FT/FGORB%TOR
Dallas85.0117.649.426.332.614.1
Oklahoma City124.760.730.028.116.5

Box ScorePlay-by-PlayShot ChartGameFlow

You know the drill. The Difference is a reflection on the game that was, with one bullet for every point in the final margin.

  • The most glaring problems in this game for Dallas weren’t that Jason Terry finished with just eight points, that Shawn Marion shot 4-of-13 from the field, or even that the Mavs had trouble at times getting the ball to Dirk Nowitzki in his most comfortable spots on the floor. This one’s on the defense. Terry and J.J. Barea had particular trouble containing the dribble penetration of Eric Maynor and James Harden, but Dallas’ trouble containing aggressive drives goes well beyond those players. When the Mavs defend, they’re the superior team in this series. If Dallas plays defense like they have in the first two games of this series, then every contest in these Western Conference Finals will be a shootout — or worse. Dallas can still win under those circumstances, but why lean so heavily on the offense when given the choice to diversify? Why allow Oklahoma City to post an effective field goal percentage of 60.7 when this defense is clearly capable of being much more limiting?
  • Nick Collison and Eric Maynor did a much, much better job of containing the Barea-Nowitzki high pick-and-roll, effectively neutralizing that sequence in Game 2. Nowitzki and Barea obviously found other ways to generate buckets, but Collison and Maynor did a great job of denying Barea those free drives to the rim while still deterring a pass to an open Nowitzki. Defending these two at the top of the floor can be pretty brutal for opposing defenses, but the Thunder adjusted well to take away this particularly effective aspect of the Mavs’ Game 1 offense. This is a bit more in line with what we should expect from Barea for the remainder of the series; he’s capable of contributing double-digit scoring, but the Thunder’s pick-and-roll D is much better than they let on in the opening game of the Western Conference Finals.
  • How Kendrick Perkins was able to play even 24 minutes is legitimately curious to me. The notion that trading for Kendrick Perkins would make the Thunder into contenders was understandable, but in this series he has no practical role whatsoever. Perkins can’t effectively defend Dirk Nowitzki, the Mavs’ only interior scoring threat. He can’t stick with Tyson Chandler, as evidenced by TC’s frequent alley oops in transition, semi-transition, and even in a half-court setting in Game 2. Perkins doesn’t rebound particularly well, isn’t defending an Andrew Bynum or Pau Gasol type, and is legitimate dead weight on offense, despite what his bizarre make on a contested mid-range J in Game 2 would have you believe. He’ll likely maintain his starting role, but as this series trudges on, I’d expect Perkins’ minutes to diminish even further in favor of Collison, Serge Ibaka, and the small lineup OKC ran for stretches in Game 2.
  • DeShawn Stevenson and Jason Kidd have done the best work defending Kevin Durant in the first two games of this series, but I’m sure we’ll continue to see plenty of Marion matched up against KD, if only because the other options are so horrible.
  • James Harden is doing an incredible job of exploiting whichever defender is put in front of him, and making me eat my words in the process. He’s been significantly better off the dribble than I thought he’d be (or really, Terry has been significantly worse in defending him off the dribble than I thought he’d be), but it’s the pick-and-roll play and flat-out shot making ability that have elevated Harden’s production. He’s been completely fantastic, and I’ve been completely wrong about his potential to make an impact in this series.
  • Appreciate your patience — been a weird past few days. Ian will be taking care of recapping duties for Game 4, and I’ll be back to regular posting after the weekend.

The Difference: Dallas Mavericks 121, Oklahoma City Thunder 112

Posted by Rob Mahoney on May 18, 2011 under Recaps | 5 Comments to Read

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Box Score Play-by-PlayShot ChartGameFlow

TeamPaceOff. Eff.eFG%FT/FGORB%TOR
Dallas91.0133.059.646.625.013.2
Oklahoma City123.152.151.430.614.3

You know the drill. The Difference is a reflection on the game that was, with one bullet for every point in the final margin.

  • Perfection, thy name is Dirk Nowitzki. Dirk’s Game 1 showing was dominant and poetic, an awkward exercise of mismatch exploitation that can be matched by none. His skill is something to behold in itself, but it was Nowitzki’s versatility that set him apart on Tuesday night; Dirk worked against Serge Ibaka, Nick Collison, Kevin Durant, Kendrick Perkins, Thabo Sefolosha, ‘Stonewall’ Jackson, Buckminster Fuller, Frankenstein’s monster, Joe Montegna, and Rube Goldberg. He varied his approach depending on the coverage — pump faked bigs, backed down guards, shot over the geodesic dome — but the results were always the same. 48 points on 15 shots isn’t a level of efficiency that can be comprehended by the human mind. It’s a transcendent performance, one which we can’t fully grasp by looking at a stat sheet or even watching the game film. Somewhere under the layers and layers of that video is an otherworldly white noise, an aura surrounding Nowitzki that we’re unable to precisely detect but is impossible to ignore. It’s just there, and while puny simpletons like you and I can’t come to a complete understanding of what happened in a game like this one, we’re perceptive enough to know that something special is going on that, frankly, goes beyond our existential pay-grade.
  • This series was branded as a shootout, and lived up to its billing in Game 1. Kevin Durant (40 points, 10-18 FG, 2-5 3FG, 18-19 FT, eight rebounds, five assists, three turnovers) may not have matched Nowitzki shot-for-shot, but he came as close as his own limits (and the Dallas defense, for whatever it was worth) allowed. His was a remarkable performance as well, but feats of basketball strength are forever boosted and obscured by the power of context. On any other night, Durant’s incredible production would have been the story, and the ordaining of a young star in the biggest game of his life would have grabbed national headlines. Those in the know don’t need a strong performance in this series to know that Durant is great, but performances like this one certainly don’t hurt his repute. Shawn Marion and DeShawn Stevenson defended Durant for most of Game 1, but Jason Kidd — primarily through switches on 1-3 pick-and-rolls — got his chance, too. It didn’t matter. Durant was fantastic from all over the floor, and though Tyson Chandler did an excellent job of contesting his attempts in the paint, KD was awarded with enough free throws to keep the Thunder competitive in the face of a Nowitzki onslaught feat. J.J. Barea. Yet Durant’s problem is exactly that which I addressed in the preview; while he holds distinct advantages over Marion and Stevenson, he lacks the means to attack as consistently as Nowitzki. That won’t stop him from putting up huge point totals with efficient percentages, but if the dynamic of this series really is to be centered around Dirk vs. Durant, then the slight limitations of the application of Durant’s offensive game could prove costly.
  • The Mavs’ collective defense against Russell Westbrook went precisely according to the expected plan, with one small change: Stevenson started on Westbrook, and Dallas employed even more zone than one might have thought. Both of those elements worked out swimmingly; while Stevenson wasn’t notably great on the defensive end, he did his job and executed the game plan, while the match-up zone seemed to create some serious problems for Westbrook. The problem isn’t that Westbrook isn’t a “true point guard,” merely that he is particularly vulnerable to defensive coverage that grants him any shot he wants while defending the rim. The results speak for themselves, and though Westbrook is due for a big game at some point during this series (his talent alone should allow for that much), I don’t see how he combats this defensive strategy aside from making more jumpers. Chandler gives Westbrook a lot of problems inside, and while the young Thunder guard was able to compensate for those problems by drawing fouls and getting to the line (he attempted 18 free throws), it’s hard to object with any particular aspect of the Mavs’ defensive execution in this regard.
  • If it hasn’t already become pretty clear, this game turned into a bit of a free throw fest. Dallas’ 46.6 free throw rate is a bit ridiculous, but Oklahoma City’s 51.4 mark is flat-out bonkers. The whistles were quick on both ends of the court (beginning with a bizarre double-technical on Chandler and Kendrick Perkins just a minute and a half into the game), and played a significant role in the efficiency of both Durant and Nowitzki, as well as whatever semblance of efficiency Westbrook was able to muster. I’d expect OKC to continue shooting free throws at a high rate, but it’s no such certainty for Dallas.
  • The fundamental obstructions to the Dirk vs. Durant narrative were a pair of reserve guards. J.J. Barea (21 points, 8-12 FG) was again insanely effective as an initiator of the pick-and-roll, and Jason Terry (24 points, 8-16 FG, 4-8 3FG) continues his run of the gauntlet in an effort to restore his postseason reputation. Both produced as necessary, though the performance of the former may not have the same sustainability as Dirk’s; Barea looked unstoppable running the pick-and-roll with Dirk from the top of the key, but the Thunder are a better defensive team than they showed in Game 1. They may not have an answer for Nowitzki, but they can certainly tweak their approach to contain Barea, as even a single body between J.J. and the rim would limit the impact of that particular sequence. Of all of the areas of adjustment for the Thunder, I’d expect this to be the most significant.
  • Several observers on Twitter wisely pointed out the disconnect between the feel of the game and the scoring margin, and it’s something to consider. Nowitzki was amazing, Barea astounding, and the interior defense excellent, and yet the Thunder were within seven points with just a few minutes remaining. Dallas is good, but this is going to be a fiercely competitive series, regardless of how many games it goes on.
  • On the bright side for the Mavs: Shawn Marion’s performance has plenty of room for immediate improvement. His finishing totals and percentages were pretty decent, but Marion fumbled away many a scoring opportunity in Game 1, with some resulting in turnovers and others mere missed opportunities. If he’s a bit crisper on the catch and off the dribble in Game 2, his slashing and curling around the rim gives Dallas another dynamic offensive contributor.
  • James Harden’s 12 points and four assists weren’t back-breaking, but he did create some problems for the Mavs with his work in the pick-and-roll. I still see this as a directly addressable problem, and though Harden made some terrific passes after getting into the lane, Dallas can do better to prevent that initial penetration. Rest assured: the Mavs are well aware of the problems that Harden can create, and will look to make explicit changes in their execution to account for him.
  • Again: Dallas is the better shooting team in this series, even with both teams’ defenses taken into account. If the Thunder are to win, they’ll need either a sudden drop in the Mavs’ shooting from all over the floor, or a significant advantage on the offensive glass, in the turnover column, or in free throw attempts. They secured modest advantages in two of those areas on Monday, and it still wasn’t enough — Dallas won with a 9.9 efficiency differential.

Without Fear

Posted by Rob Mahoney on May 17, 2011 under Commentary | 2 Comments to Read

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It didn’t take much of a discerning eye to pick out the one name conspicuously absent from the full Mavs-Thunder series preview. James Harden is a legitimate NBA difference-maker, and yet he was swept under the rug in the preview treatment, set aside as a virtual non-factor in a battle of supporting casts that I believe Dallas is set to win. On the surface level, that’s a pretty clear disservice to Harden’s skill and production; he’s not a player that should be discounted without reason, and he’s been instrumental to the post-Jeff Green Thunder’s success.

Yet in this series, I just don’t see where Harden moves the needle.

Potentially, Harden has the capacity to act as something of a mediator for OKC — a Manu Ginobili to the occasionally disrupted balance of the offense created by the Durant-Westbrook dynamic. He doesn’t need to ever reach Ginobili’s level of production or efficiency in order to function effectively in this role, but merely provide the skill set in order to bring everything to a stylistic middle; he can spot up to space the floor, initiate the offense and find the open man, and slash down the lane for easy scoring opportunities. Creating an offensive flow centered around the perimeter positions may not be ideal to most coaches, but it can — and has — worked for the Thunder, and has the potential for further growth as Harden, Durant, and Westbrook mature as players. Essentially, Harden can actually be the player that Sam Presti had hoped Jeff Green would turn into, only with greater individual skills and a better fitting game.

He’s just not quite there yet. The Thunder offense is potent, but the equilibrium between OKC’s top perimeter players isn’t perfect. When Harden handles the ball, Westbrook is often reduced to a non-factor, stuck in the no man’s land of exiled point guards who can’t shoot but lack control of the possession. When Westbrook handles the ball, Harden is strictly a cutter and a shooter, an effective role but one that doesn’t encompass the entirety of his abilities. The balance can work for stretches, and sometimes the two-man approach of Westbrook-Durant or Harden-Durant is so effective that the third wheel hardly matters, but the lack of a fully actualized attack makes the Thunder very beatable. There are elements that need to be considered and countered, but a score doesn’t seem imminent on every possession.

The Mavericks defenders need to be aware of Harden’s presence, but the lack of overwhelming synergy between Durant, Westbrook, and Harden opens a window for him to be addressed directly. When Harden controls the ball, Dallas can treat him as they do Westbrook, albeit with more respect for his jumper. He doesn’t have Westbrook’s explosiveness, which allows the Mavs to play him closer on the bounce while still having Tyson Chandler as a safety net at the rim. When he’s playing off the ball, he’ll have to contend with Dallas’ strong close-outs. The Mavs are among the best in the NBA at getting a hand in the face of spot-up shooters (they ranked sixth in that regard during the regular season, and currently boast the second best points per possession allowed on such attempts in the postseason, per Synergy Sports Technology), and they’ll run at Harden (and Durant, for that matter) in particular to contest his three-point opportunities. Harden still has the capacity to put the ball on the floor and attack the basket or make a play in those instances, but Dallas holds the capability to take away Harden’s spot-up opportunities and much of what he accomplishes off the dribble. There’s no certainty that Harden will be kept under wraps for the entirety of the series, but his influence will likely be limited.

Harden is a fantastic player, but he won’t see the same opportunities in this series that he did against the Grizzlies. Dallas is a far more conservative defensive team, and while that results in less direct pressure on ball handlers and the like, it also keeps those playing off the ball in check, forcing them to convert a difficult shot from a neutral position rather than constructing every possession as a distinct scenario of advantage vs. disadvantage. Memphis is fantastic at jumping passing lanes and attacking the dribble, but the result is either a forced turnover or an open man on the weak side. Dallas grabs steals from time to time, but their system puts emphasis on denying the paint and contesting already difficult shots rather than forcing turnovers with aggressive ball pressure. The style of the Mavs’ defense just isn’t as accommodating to players like Harden, and while he still demands attention in the scouting report, the preventative means are in place to contain him.

The Official Two Man Game Official Dallas Mavericks Versus Oklahoma City Thunder Official Western Conference Finals Preview for the Official 2010-2011 Official NBA Post-Season

Posted by Rob Mahoney on May 16, 2011 under Commentary, Previews | 22 Comments to Read

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I never expected to be writing series previews for the Mavs this deep into the post season, but here I am, and here are the Mavs, playing some absolutely fantastic two-way basketball. Dallas played through the first two rounds as well as any team in the playoffs, but in the Conference Finals they’ll face their toughest opponent yet. Oklahoma City has neither Portland’s obvious flaws nor L.A.’s crippling defensive issues, and contending with Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and the Thunder’s brilliant supporting cast will require more incredible execution from the Mavs. There was little room for error during this playoff run to begin with, but Dallas must continue to walk the fine line of passing without overpassing, pressuring on D without fouling, and committing to a team defensive front without sacrificing the means to grab defensive rebounds.

Reducing this series to a “who guards Dirk/Durant?” bullet point may be oversimplifying things a bit, but I understand the temptation to determine the victor of this series by way of defending an opponent’s star player. Nowitzki and Durant are both fantastic offensive players without clear cross-team matchups; Shawn Marion* and DeShawn Stevenson will get the call for Dallas and Serge Ibaka and Nick Collison for OKC, but none of those four should be expected to do a stellar defensive job, even on the basis of an individual game. All four defenders will work like crazy to defend their man, but there’s only so much you can do against Nowitzki’s array of jab steps and fakes and Durant’s combination of size, speed, and shooting.

*Marion actually didn’t spend much time at all defending Durant this season. Caron Butler logged a lot of time against Durant the first two times the teams met, and Marion spent the last game of the season series filling in for an injured Nowitzki. In both contexts, Marion ended up covering Jeff Green during many of his minutes, but should see a lot more of Durant in the games to come.

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The key in either matchup is the minimization of losses — which team can manage to get torched for less. With that in mind, I think the Mavs have a bit of an advantage on the superstar front. Whether Nowitzki or Durant is the superior player hardly matters. What does is the fact that Nowitzki has more easily initiated ways to attack defenders (low post, high post, iso on the wing, pick-and-roll, pick-and-pop) than Durant. KD’s alleged troubles to get open and receive passes are very real; he may be one of the most brilliant scorers in the league, but against heavy defensive pressure, his touches can be limited. He’s more susceptible to double-teams. His influence can be hindered by encouraging Russell Westbrook to shoot. Dallas simply has more avenues to derail Durant than OKC does to limit Nowitzki, a point which gets lost in the Durant vs. Marion and Nowitzki vs. Ibaka framework.

As far as individual defense goes, I think Marion is perhaps a bit slower than the Mavs would like, but he’ll have to be their best first line of defense against Durant. Stevenson doesn’t have the size, strength, or athleticism to pull off a Tony Allen-like (or even Tony Allen-light) defensive performance, and Jason Kidd isn’t really an option in this series. Corey Brewer could see the court for a few minutes, but Rick Carlisle clearly prefers the rotation regulars. Marion is the most logical choice at this point, even if the speed advantage he surrenders to Durant could be a recurring problem. Still, Marion will make Durant work for every point he gets, and doesn’t often surrender free cuts to the rim nor bite on shot fakes. Marion is excellent at staying down while getting a hand in a shooter’s face — an advantage afforded him by his height and length — and that ability to challenge Durant’s jumper without allowing KD to draw a cheap foul is incredibly important.

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Dallas is the better shooting team in this series, which puts OKC at a disadvantage to begin with; in order to win, the Thunder will need to defend like crazy in order to bring the Mavs’ shooting down to a reasonable level, create a considerable advantage on the offensive glass (akin to Chicago’s Game 1 rebounding dominance against Miami on Sunday night), win the turnover battle by a significant margin, or get to the free throw line at an incredible rate. Marion’s defense can help on a number of fronts, as he can limit Durant’s impact on the glass, create turnovers with deflections, and limit Durant’s free throw attempts. KD may still drop 29 a game in this series, but his full impact across the four factors should be diminished if Marion does his job correctly.

Across the sky, Collison won’t be exploited in his attempts to cover Nowitzki, just overwhelmed (Ibaka may be a different story; he’s a strong defender in most contexts, but this matchup is not one of them). He’ll do a serviceable job against Nowitzki, but I see no way for the Thunder to even hedge on this particular weakness, no way to limit Dirk from doing exactly what he wants to do virtually every time he gets the ball in a position to score. Nowitzki will be bound by his own natural misses and errors, but I don’t see any defensive coverage that can rattle Dirk at this point, and no individual who can truly claim an ability to limit him. With Dirk on the floor against the Thunder this season, the Mavs have posted an offensive efficiency of 131.74. Fish in a barrel, my friend. The Western Conference Finals are the fish, the Thunder defenders are the barrel. Fish in a barrel.

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Beyond Nowitzki and Durant, Russell Westbrook is the best player in this series, though with the regular season as precedent, I wouldn’t expect him to play like it. On paper, Jason Kidd seems like a horrible cover for Westbrook; the Thunder point man is among the most impressively physical perimeter players in the league, and can run circles around any defender with the misfortune of covering him. Dallas, however, lets Westbrook be. Kidd doesn’t try to go chest-to-chest with him, but backs away, affording Westbrook all the opportunity to give into temptation and fire off his pet pull-up jumper. Westbrook isn’t a horrible shooter, but this is far and away the preferred result of any Thunder possession. Not only does it often result in a low-percentage shot, but it creates a scenario in which Westbrook has to turn down open shots on every single possession** in order to get the ball to Durant or any other Thunder player. That’s tough for any player to resist, and particularly so for one with an occasionally destructive tendency to fire at will.

**This is as true of the Mavs’ man-to-man defense as it is the zone. Regardless of the coverage, Westbrook will be given room.

In reality, this matchup is less about Kidd vs. Westbrook than it is about Westbrook vs. his own decision making, and subsequently Westbrook vs. Kidd and Tyson Chandler. Westbrook will need to be incredibly patient in order to properly initiate the Thunder offense, and the Mavs will attempt to goad him into shooting by going under every screen and playing several feet off of Westbrook when he has control of the ball. If Westbrook chooses to shoot, he’ll halt the Thunder offense, miss more than he makes (Westbrook converted 29 percent of his mid-range jumpers against the Mavs in the regular season), and generate transition opportunities for the Mavs. If he chooses to drive, he’ll have Kidd bothering him along the way and Chandler lying in wait. In the season series, Westbrook converted just 44 percent of his shots at the rim and 29 percent of his shots in the paint when Chandler was on the floor (according to NBA.com’s StatsCube), and TC will continue to aggressively challenge Westbrook’s drives; leaving offensively limited bigs like Kendrick Perkins and Nick Collison doesn’t create much of a disadvantage for Dallas, so utilizing Kidd and Chandler as a two-man front against Westbrook is only a logical choice. It may be a bit hyperbolic to say that Westbrook will be neutralized in this series as a result, but he’ll certainly be tested and likely be limited.

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If much of Westbrook’s positive impact is taken out of the picture, the advantages held by Nowitzki and the Mavs’ supporting cast (which is more versatile and productive than the Thunder’s crew, even if the difference in efficacy isn’t glaring) become even more vital. That could easily be negated if OKC does particularly well on the offensive glass or gets out into transition frequently, but I see the Mavs taking care of business in both of those regards. The Thunder will naturally get theirs on the break and with second chance points, but not to a degree that will significantly affect the series. Marion, Jason Terry, Peja Stojakovic, and J.J. Barea, on the other hand, seem poised to consistently outscore OKC’s supporting cast thanks to the opportunities granted by Dallas’ offensive system. The Thunder will play much better defense than the Lakers did, but the production and efficiency of the Mavs’ complementary scorers was no fluke.

That’s why I predict that the Mavs will win in six games. The Mavs haven’t won back-to-back series because of hot shooting, but because their commitment to offensive execution in these playoffs has no equal. Contending with their ball movement is a difficult feat, and an incredibly difficult one if Westbrook is side-stepping the offense to pull up for mid-range jumpers. There isn’t a terribly compelling reason why the Thunder will be able to disrupt the most beautifully structured and productive offense remaining in the playoffs, and the strength of the Mavs’ offense should power them through to their second ever NBA Finals appearance, prediction jinx permitting.

The Most _________ Player Award

Posted by Ian Levy on April 8, 2011 under Commentary | 2 Comments to Read

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Ian Levy is the author of Hickory High, a contributor to Indy Cornrows, and a part of The Two Man Game family. He’ll be bringing his intelligent brand of — mostly quantitative — analysis here on a weekly basis. You can follow Ian on Twitter at @HickoryHigh.

The MVP debate has heated up with detailed defenses offered for several players, as well as plenty of commentary on the amorphous, shifting, and individualistic parameters used to define this award. Earlier this week, I shared my opinion on the MVP race at Hickory-High; my thought is that, with no consensus on the criteria for determining an MVP, there can be no definitive right or wrong answer. The discussion itself is then the crux of this whole affair. People from all sides seem to be wailing at the heavens over potential injustices yet to be meted out, instead of enjoying an opportunity for a rich and passionate exchange of ideas.

Towards the end of my piece, I admitted that I’m still not sure who I would vote for, were I lucky enough to be a part of the official process:

I don’t have a problem with Rose winning MVP. I’m not entirely convinced he’s the best choice, but it’s certainly not a travesty if he wins. I do have a problem with the vocal minority who have been arguing it’s a travesty if he doesn’t win. There is a reasonable argument to be made for Rose. I think there is also a reasonable argument to be made for Dirk, LeBron and Howard.

Argue your belief, passionately and completely. However, acknowledge that someone else may do the same and reach a perfectly reasonable, albeit different conclusion from your own. Enjoy the discourse and exchange of ideas. There is no wrong answer in this discussion. Except, of course, for Kobe Bryant. That guy is terrible.

Putting my money where my mouth is, I’m going to shamelessly pander to this audience and argue the case for Dirk Nowitzki. Respecting the spirit of my previous statements, I’m not here to say he is THE Most Valuable Player, rather that he is one of many valuable players with a legitimate claim at being the Most. I’ll lay out his case, and you can decide for yourself.

MVP profiles seem to fall into one of three categories, or occasionally, an amalgamation of some of the three. The first is a player with an overwhelming statistical profile (Think Shaquille O’Neal’s 29.7 PPG, 13.6 RPG, 3.8 APG, 3.0 BPG campaign in 2000). The second is a player who represents the defining storyline of the season, (Think Steve Nash and the “Seven Seconds or Less Suns” of 2005). The third is a player who, in apparent single-handed fashion, drags a collection of sub-par teammates to a spot among the league’s elite. The best recent example of this third type of candidate would be Allen Iverson in 2001.

Nowitzki’s season definitely doesn’t fit into the first category. The table below shows his per game averages from this season compared to the averages for the last 20 MVPs:

Pts/GReb/GAst/GStl/GBlk/GFG%FT%
Average MVP 1991-201026.68.75.41.51.350.6%79.2%
Dirk Nowitzki 201123.07.02.50.50.651.8%88.9%

Looking at these numbers, Nowitzki gets his foot in the door, but just barely. Clearly his MVP claim can’t be based on individual statistical achievements alone.

Nowitzki also isn’t going to win the award this season for sentimental reasons, or the nature of his narrative. Voters hungry for compelling storylines will find more sustenance with LeBron James struggling to overcome the negative backlash of his move to Miami, Derrick Rose pushing his game and his team to new heights and Dwight Howard holding the Magic together through a merry-go round of roster and lineup changes. I’d even wager that, a decade from now, more fans will remember what Kevin Love accomplished this season than the play of Dirk Nowitzki.

Nowitzki’s claim then, is based on the way he has pushed the Mavericks to achieve this season. In this regard, he is, at worst, on par with any other player in the league. The most commonly quoted statistic accompanying any mention of Nowitzki as an MVP is the team’s 2-7 record in the nine games he’s missed this season. Preferring instead to look at things in a positive light, I’ll rephrase that statistic and point out that the Mavericks have gone 51-17 with Nowitzki on the floor. That’s a win percentage of 75% — the highest win percentage of any of the MVP candidates’ teams in games they’ve played in.

  • Dirk Nowitzki – 75.0%
  • Kobe Bryant – 72.7%
  • Derrick Rose – 72.3%
  • LeBron James – 72.0%
  • Dwight Howard – 65.3%
  • Chris Paul – 57.3%

Every one of those players makes a huge impact for their team, but by win percentage, Nowitzki’s impact would seem to be the largest.

That’s not the only statistic that shows him as the most valuable to his team’s success, out of that group of players. The Mavericks have outperformed their Pythagorean Win projection by 5 games this season. The Spurs are the only other team in the league to outpace their Pythagorean Projection by at least 5 games. This fact is a testament, in part, to Nowitzki’s ability to make plays when they matter most. If I may indulge in an incomprehensible arrangement of words, Nowitzki’s performance in clutch situations has helped the Mavericks outperform their performance.

Nowitzki also has the second best Unadjusted On/Off Net Rating (the difference between the team’s Net Rating (ORtg-DRtg) when Nowitzki is on the floor vs. when he’s off the floor) in the league this season. In this category, he trails only Paul Pierce, but has a significant edge on each of the players we mentioned above.

  • Dirk Nowitzki: +16.00
  • Chris Paul: +12.77
  • LeBron James: +10.62
  • Dwight Howard: +7.87
  • Kobe Bryant: +5.62
  • Derrick Rose: +1.90

This statistic is certainly influenced by the quality of competition and the abilities of teammates and backups. Nowitzki is a starter and plays the majority of crunch-time minutes, so a bias based on quality of competition is a non-issue. The matter of the his teammates’ contributions actually seems like it helps Nowitzki’s case. The common argument against this type of measure is that a player’s numbers can be inflated by the play of inferior teammates. However, if Nowitzki’s numbers are inflated, it should only serve to decrease our opinion of his supporting cast — and make what Nowitzki has done this season that much more remarkable. Helping the Mavericks accomplish what they have with less than ideal help from teammates should increase our opinion of Nowitzki’s importance.

The arguments against Nowitzki are fairly obvious; people who favor individual statistical achievements or compelling storylines in their MVP evaluations will dismiss Nowitzki out of hand for not fitting into either. Additionally, those who disagree with Nowitzki’s candidacy (even based purely on impact) will argue that almost all of his damage is done at the offensive end of the floor. It’s a common refrain. It’s also wrong, and a bit irrelevant. Nowitzki wouldn’t be the first MVP — nor the last — whose contributions come primarily at one end of the floor. Plus, Nowitzki’s offensive contributions are among the most valuable in the league, and the idea that he is a non-factor at the defensive end is raking an extremely narrow view.

There are 13 players with a usage rate of at least 28% this season. Among them, Nowitzki has the lowest turnover rate, a full percentage point below Kevin Durant, at 9.2%. This means a greater portion of his possessions are used on scoring opportunities than anyone else in this group. That’s a good thing for the Mavericks, because he also leads this group in true shooting percentage (TS%) at 61.4%. In fact, Nowitzki is the most efficient offensive player of this group overall. I used the totals from Basketball-Reference to calculate the points per possession average for each player. The table below shows that information alongside each player’s usage and TS%:

MVP Offensive Efficiencies

PlayerUsg%TS%PPP
Kobe Bryant34.9%54.7%0.98
Derrick Rose32.9%54.4%0.96
Carmelo Anthony32.0%55.6%1.00
Dwyane Wade31.8%57.9%1.03
Russell Westbrook31.6%53.4%0.91
LeBron James31.4%59.4%1.04
Amare Stoudemire30.9%56.8%1.00
Kevin Durant30.5%58.7%1.07
Kevin Martin29.6%60.4%1.10
Monta Ellis28.2%53.7%0.95
Dirk Nowitzki28.2%61.4%1.13
Michael Beasley28.1%50.7%0.97
Andrea Bargnani28.1%53.3%0.90

Nowitzki has turned in an elite offensive campaign, possibly the league’s best this season. That alone has been good enough, in some years, to lock up an MVP.

I also find this idea that Nowitzki’s contributions are one-sided completely absurd. Dirk is obviously no Dwight Howard, but he’s also not a Bargnani-like sieve. The Mavericks’ defensive rating is 6.23 points better with Nowitzki on the floor. He doesn’t offer much in the way of blocks or steals, but he still has the 17th best DRB% among forwards who have played at least 2,000 minutes despite some age-related decline. I’m willing to accept that Nowitzki doesn’t provide a ton of help at the defensive end, but we also need to acknowledge that the Mavericks’ have built a scheme around him, where his shortcomings don’t hurt them all that much either. His length, experience, and understanding of the system hamper the opponent’s ability to score, even if he isn’t swatting shots into the twentieth row. Perhaps, instead of thinking of Nowitzki as a one-way player, it’s most fitting to think of him as a one-and-a-half-way player.

The one other unavoidable piece of this discussion is the fact that Nowitzki has already won an MVP. He took home the award in 2007 and I’ll save Mavs fans the reminder of how exactly that particular season ended. Suffice it to say that events which took place four seasons ago have a bearing on his chances this year. There are certainly people who have allowed Nowitzki’s — and the Mavericks’ — performance in the playoffs that season to color their opinion of his regular season accomplishments. This strikes me as unsavory for two reasons, both of which  revolve around the one piece of this MVP debate that does seem to be defined by the league. The MVP award covers the accomplishments of one, and only one, regular season. This is hardly the first time the entirety of a player’s career has bled into the MVP voting, but the Mavericks’ prior failings seem to be the one piece which clearly has no place in this discussion. It likely won’t get this far, but should it come to it, I feel confident in saying that what happened in 2007 would act as a final barrier, preventing Nowitzki from winning this season.

Like each player under consideration, Nowitzki’s case for MVP has strengths and weaknesses. As I noted above, the glory of this discussion is that each individual gets to decide their own definition of the words “Most Valuable,” and specify the optimal technique for measuring that definition. If your definition includes an elite offensive player, who has done as much as anyone in the league to push their team to exceed its limitations, then Dirk Nowitzki just might be your man.