You know the drill. The Difference is a reflection on the game that was, with one bullet for every point in the final margin.
To those struggling to find the fine line between the acknowledgment of Miami’s excellence and the hope provided in the Dallas’ missed opportunities, I empathize. Game 1 has to be viewed in terms of all that the Heat accomplished, but I can’t shed the thought of Dirk Nowitzki’s missed layups, J.J. Barea’s botched runners, Jason Terry’s poor decisions. Credit Miami’s D for their impressive contests — and even for the impact of their potential contests, which clearly had Barea shaking in his boots — but the Mavs can play much better…as long as the Heat defense doesn’t improve yet. We knew this would be a competitive series, but I’m not sure anyone quite expected such an odd start. To credit the Mavs’ offensive failures or the Heat’s defensive successes would be a terrible oversimplification, and yet somewhere in that relationship is the dynamic that could decide the series.
The Dallas zone had its moments, I suppose, but its start to the series was anything but exemplary. Mario Chalmers was able to burn the Mavs with a pair of wide open threes from the corners, but it was the play of Chris Bosh that made things particularly painful for Dallas when in their zone coverage. Bosh finished with five offensive boards in capitalizing on the displacement of the Mavs’ defenders, and his passing from the high post provided a terribly effective counter to the Mavs’ zone look. Rick Carlisle didn’t seem too distressed about the zone’s performance, so I’m curious as to what he saw in Dallas’ Game 1 zone execution that we didn’t; how much zone the Mavs run in Game 2 should provide a more authentic appraisal than anything Carlisle said postgame.
Udonis Haslem and the Heat’s double teamers did a credible job defending Dirk Nowitzki (27 points, 7-18 FG, eight rebounds) by playing passing lanes and limiting Dirk’s attempts. In terms of challenging, the Heat defenders can only do so much; Haslem and Joel Anthony just don’t have the height or length to really alter Nowitzki’s shot, which leaves their means of defending him a bit more reliant on prevention. Anthony couldn’t quite pull that off, but Haslem — with help from Mike Miller and others — was able to put enough pressure on Nowitzki to make him pass out of doubles and rush through many of his possessions against single coverage. Nowitzki needs to get settled in, but Erik Spoelstra is too good of a coach to maintain a static approach against Dirk; he may see the same basic defensive look in Game 2, but the specifics of its implementations (the timing of the double, etc.) will likely change. Nowitzki was able to adjust and attack, but he may have to start that process all over again in Game 2.
Shawn Marion and DeShawn Stevenson were able to have some success in man-to-man coverage against LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, but then the Mavs shifted into zone, the zone failed, and the final product was flawed man-to-man execution that allowed the Heat do do as they willed. James and Wade didn’t have their most aggressive driving games, but they were certainly assertive scorers; the two stars combined to shoot 6-of-9 from three-point range, and several of those attempts came against pretty good defense. The prospect of defending Wade and James is always predicated on concession in some form. Teams often cede long jumpers — both twos and threes — to both James and Wade in the hopes that it lures two of the league’s best creators off the dribble into taking decidedly less efficient shots and stalling their team’s offense in the process. That’s still a semi-effective strategy against Wade (particularly due to his poor shooting from three-point range), but James has somehow become even more unguardable by hitting threes with consistency. Defending against either player is a miserable assignment, defending against both at the same time is just brutal, and defending against both at the same time when they’re hitting 67 percent of their three-point attempts is something I’m not sure the basketball world is — or will ever be — quite ready for.
Nowitzki tore a tendon in his left hand (or on his middle finger, to be more precise) while trying to strip the ball from Bosh on a drive. Had the tear been in his right hand, we’d be looking at a series ender; Dallas needs Dirk producing at an elite level to compete in this series, and a legitimate injury to his shooting hand would be a painful blow. However, the fact that Dirk injured his left hand isn’t exactly irrelevant, consider how crucial his handle and driving ability are to his overall game. It’s no secret that Nowitzki prefers to drive left, and considering how many driving lanes he had in Game 1, a limitation on his handle and finishing ability strikes me as rather significant.
Mike Bibby played 14 minutes, which was probably 14 minutes too long. Mario Chalmers wasn’t perfect, but he was far more productive than Bibby, and the Heat’s no-PG lineups even better than those involving Chalmers. I doubt there will be much of a change in Spoelstra’s rotation at this point in the playoffs, so Dallas needs to take advantage of the time that Bibby sees on a nightly basis.
James actually defended JET to close the game, a matchup that, while stifling and impressively creative, opens up an interesting opportunity. Marion had a fantastic offensive game, but could have been even more involved in the fourth quarter offense by going to work against Miller in the post. Any time that Marion can shed James, he’ll have an offensive advantage on the low block, and while he was able to create from the post a few times throughout the game, I think Marion can be used as an instigator of change. If Marion can be efficient enough in the post against Miller, Spoelstra could be forced to give up on assigning LeBron to chase JET and disrupt the Mavs’ two-man game, which would ultimately open up one effective offense by way of another.
Tyson Chandler and Brendan Haywood aren’t deserving of scapegoat status, but they have to be better on the glass. Their job (of anchoring the defense, challenging the shots of stretch bigs like Bosh and Haslem, and still hitting the boards) isn’t ideal, but it’s the task placed in front of them. I don’t see how the Mavs win this series without Chandler and Haywood pulling off something of a minor miracle in that regard. Best of luck to ‘em.
As a Finals matchup between the Mavericks and the Heat appeared possible, then probable, then certain, the story of a chance at redemption rose to the surface. The Heat’s victory over the Mavericks in 2006 has been The Elephant in The American Airlines Center the past five seasons, and a Finals rematch against the Heat would seem to give the Mavericks a chance to atone for previous shortcomings. If this redemption becomes reality, it will mostly be at the organizational level; only four players from that 2006 series — Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Terry, Dwyane Wade and Udonis Haslem — will be returning for their original teams. The legacy of each has continued to build on the foundation of the 2006 Finals, and will be, in large part, determined by what happens in this year’s Finals. However, the later chapters of several other NBA stories will be written in this series, stories that have little or nothing to do with the initial Finals matchup between the Mavericks and Heat.
Caron Butler is unlikely to play in this series after recovering from a gruesome knee injury. Tat injury seemed cruel at the time, but as the season has unfolded, that cruelty has taken on an entirely new meaning; Butler served as a crucial contributor in each of the Mavs’ regular season wins against the Heat, and yet a single bad fall has robbed him of the ability to participate in this series. Butler’s defensive presence will be particularly missed against LeBron James and Dwyane Wade on the wing, and his absence puts a lot of pressure on DeShawn Stevenson, Shawn Marion, and Jason Kidd to hold their defensive ground.
In addition, Butler has a personal history with Wade and the Heat. He was drafted by the Heat in 2002, and spent two seasons with the team. His second season was Wade’s rookie year and saw the team win 42 games and a playoff series against the New Orleans Hornets. Committed to Wade as the team’s centerpiece, the Heat saw Caron Butler as an inadequate complimentary piece. He was traded the following summer in the deal that brought Shaquille O’Neal — and ultimately, the 2006 title — to Miami. For someone who didn’t participate in the 2006 Finals, his fate is still greatly intertwined in those events.
Brendan Haywood and DeShawn Stevenson came to Dallas by way of the Washington Wizards, and while neither player has any particular history with the Heat, both have had their share of conflict with Miami’s shiniest new toy, LeBron James. In both 2007 and 2008, the Wizards were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs by LeBron and the Cavaliers. Both series were heavy on trash talk and technicals, and featured some heated one-on-one matchups between LeBron and Stevenson. I have to believe that each relishes the opportunity to go through LeBron in their pursuit of this title, even as they publicly say otherwise.
Dallas also has a veritable who’s-who of “Close, but no cigar,” guys. There are 34 active players who have played at least 80 playoff games. 14 of those 34 have never won a championship. 4 of those 14 play for the Dallas Mavericks. In addition to Nowitzki, we find Jason Kidd, Shawn Marion and Peja Stojakovic on that list. It’s worth noting that in LeBron, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Mike Bibby, the Heat have three players on that list as well.
Kidd is finishing his 17th season in the NBA. Among his other remarkable achievements, Kidd has played in 136 playoff games. 10 of those 136 games were played in the NBA Finals, over two separate trips with the Nets. The results are a disappointing 2-8 record. Marion has played 86 playoff games but never participated in an NBA Finals. He lost twice in the Western Conference Finals with the Suns. Stojakovic has played in 91 playoff games. That includes a crushing loss in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals to the eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers.
The Mavericks are a stunning collection of the league’s disenfranchised and overlooked. This series offers many chances for redemption, not just for missed opportunities in the 2006 Finals. A victory over the Heat could provide closure for heartbreaking trades and soul-crushing playoff exits, for years of dominance by the Lakers and Spurs, for odiferous officiating, and for a body slam and a three-pointer from Robert Horry. The ghosts of this playoff series won’t just be wearing the uniforms of the Mavericks and Heat.
Five different Mavericks’ lineups have played at least 30 minutes together in the playoffs. Of those, the most effective has been the Kidd-Terry-Marion-Nowitzki-Chandler combination. In just under 100 minutes, this group has posted an Offensive Rating of 122.51 and a Defensive Rating of 89.56, for an absurd Net Rating of +32.95. They’ve outscored their playoff opponents by 71 points in 96 minutes, meaning they’ve added a point to the Mavericks lead, on average, every 81 seconds.
This has been one of the Mavericks’ strongest and most consistent units all season. Unfortunately, it’s one that may be difficult to keep on the floor for extended periods of time against the Heat. To use this lineup against any Heat unit with both LeBron and Wad means that either Terry or Kidd will likely have to guard Wade. Obviously, this is a less than ideal defensive matchup. Using their zone is an option, but committing to using it consistently with this lineup will make them very predictable. To deal with these matchup problem, the Mavericks may need to rely a little more heavily on a lineup that has been generally ineffective in the playoffs this far: their starters.
Dallas’ starting lineup (Kidd-Stevenson-Marion-Nowitkzi-Chandler) has played the most minutes of any of their five man units in the playoffs. It’s also the only unit they’ve used for more than 25 minutes which has a negative Net Rating. Kidd, Marion, Nowitzki, and Chandler have all played well in other units, and most of the struggles with the starting lineup can be traced to Stevenson. Make no mistake, Stevenson has been bad in these playoffs. He’s shooting 27.1%, and his PER his fallen all the way to 2.2 (with 15.0 being indicative of league average production). Still, I think he the chance to be an impact player in this matchup against the Heat.
When we look at the lineups used by the Mavericks in their two regular season matchups with the Heat, we see they struggled mightily with Terry and Wade on the floor together. The Mavericks had an Offensive Rating of 108.24 and a Defensive Rating of 124.71 in the 44 minutes they were both in at shooting guard. However, in the 29 minutes Stevenson was matched up with Wade at shooting guard the Mavericks posted an Offensive Rating of 126.16 and a Defensive Rating of 71.93. As this was early in the season, and both teams are in a much different place then they were the last time they met, those numbers should be taken with a grain of salt.
But Stevenson does have some things working in his favor. Unless Rick Carlisle is interested in finding minutes for Corey Brewer, Stevenson is the one Maverick with the size and mobility to challenge Wade. His offense is mostly of the one-dimensional spot-up shooting variety, and that single dimension has mostly abandoned him in the playoffs. Still he’s a much better shooter then what he has shown the past few weeks. At some point you would expect his percentages to rebound, moving closer to his averages. As I mentioned above, Stevenson has a history with LeBron, and by association, the Miami Heat. He’s always been a player who thrived on an emotional challenge, and perhaps that connection with James provides just such a challenge. There is a path cleared for him to step up and make a difference in these Finals. It will be up to him to walk it.
“Enthusiasm is excitement with inspiration, motivation, and a pinch of creativity.“
That’s two huge wins this week, each arguably the greatest of the season. But while the win over L.A. on Wednesday was notable for the quality of the opponent and the in-conference ramifications, this victory goes down as not only the most spectacular Mavs win of the season, but a true candidate for game of the season.
Jason Kidd’s (19 points, 16 rebounds, 17 assists) performance was dominant. It’s rare that we get to see Kidd put on a show of such direct magnificence, but his fingerprints were all over just about every big play Dallas made in the fourth quarter and in overtime. It wasn’t just a perfectly placed feed to Dirk in the post; Kidd flooded the endgame with highlight reel assists, clutch shooting, and incredible work on the glass. The shocking thing: the numbers look good, but it’s possible that the tape looks even better. He was that good.
Then again, the numbers are rather impressive. Not only were Kidd’s box score totals impressive in their own right, but they’re even more so if you dig a bit deeper. According to ESPN Stats and Information, Kidd was responsible for 56 of the Mavs’ 111 total points, and 27 of 34 in the fourth quarter. Nice.
For some historical perspective: only three players in the three-point era have put up a 15-point, 15-rebound, 15-assist game? Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, and Jason Kidd. Kidd was actually the last to accomplish the feat, as he put up a 21-16-16 game with Dallas in 1996. Tonight’s 19-16-17 game makes Kidd only the second player to do it twice, with Magic being the other. And FYI, Shaquille O’Neal once completed the 15+ trifecta, although by registering over 15 points, 15 rebounds, and 15 blocks. Or more specifically, 24 points, 28 rebounds, and 15 blocks. Not bad, right? (Hat tip to Tyler for hitting the record books.)
This game was quite the roller coaster, with each team going on some pretty significant runs to completely change the outlook of the game. The Mavs started out strong, but the Hawks took the lead behind a 6-0 run. Then Dallas opened up a 16-0 run to close the first quarter behind some hot shooting and great defense. Atlanta rattled off two separate 9-0 runs to pull within striking range in the second, before Dallas closed 7-0 to take back the lead. The Hawks owned the third quarter, outscoring the Mavs 26-15, largely behind the power of a mid-quarter 13-2 run. The Mavs trailed by as many as 15 points in the fourth, but outscored the Hawks 28-13 over the final eight minutes of regulation. And then they went into overtime.
The play of the game has to be Jason Kidd’s incredibly bizarre decision to draw a technical foul…on Hawks head coach Mike Woodson.
Strange to be sure, but it was quite the heady play and something that most players (Kidd included, in most scenarios) would never think to do. If Woodson’s on the court, he’s fair game — especially when the opposing team is pushing the ball in a transition situation. Now, was Woodson on the court? I’ll leave that debate up to you guys. He definitely made an attempt to slide past the sideline to avoid Kidd, but Jason’s path was still blocked (thanks to an extended left arm) by Woodson. Either way, Woodson was assessed a technical foul, and what was a two-point deficit with 1:37 left in regulation was cut in half. The game eventually went into overtime; you shouldn’t need me to tell you how huge that one point was.
There was a near-footnote in yesterday’s game preview about the Hawks’ ability to switch on every pick. In some situations it makes a ton of sense; Joe Johnson, Josh Smith, Al Horford, Marvin Williams, Jamal Crawford, and Maurice Evans are all capable, mobile defenders that can cover a variety of positions. But the Mavs’ late-game strategy was a direct exploitation of that philosophy. Dallas ran the two man game with Dirk and whichever guard was matched up with Mike Bibby. Once Bibby was switched onto Dirk, the Mavs isolated him at the top of the key — a move which necessitates an Atlanta double-team. If the double came slowly or not at all, Dirk got a great look from one of his most comfortable spots on the floor. If the double did come (the double man was typically Josh Smith, who was originally matched up with Dirk), Nowitzki quickly passed the ball out to the open guard on the perimeter, who was met with a wide open three or an assist opportunity to the shooter in the corner. It worked like a charm, and the Hawks refused to adjust.
Dirk (37 points, 15-26 FG, nine rebounds, four assists) had a terrific night, and won’t get the credit he deserves because of the way Kidd stole the show. But it was Nowitzki’s shooting that jump-started the Mavs in the first, his play that facilitated the offense in the fourth, and his points that iced the game in overtime. How sick is it that Nowitzki can put up 37 and still not make the headlines? Part of that is Kidd playing at an out-of-this-world level, but it’s also because this is what we expect from Dirk. Maybe not 37 night-in and night-out, but that level of efficiency, and those types of plays. This is a truly phenomenal player that we have the privilege of watching on almost a nightly basis.
J.J. Barea also deserves a bit of praise, despite the fact that he didn’t contribute much in terms of scoring. But Barea’s presence on the court skewed the match-ups in favor of the Mavs, as Rick Carlisle leaned heavily on the three-guard lineup. Kidd, Barea, Terry, Nowitzki, and Haywood played the games final 13:22. Barea only had four points on 2-of-5 shooting over that span, but he had three assists to just one turnover (despite Jason Kidd having seven assists in the same stretch) and played wonderful defense on Joe Johnson. Yes, I said J.J. Barea on Joe Johnson.
Barea on Johnson is very, very far from an ideal match-up, and would never be Carlisle’s first choice in normal man-to-man situations. But when he decided to close the fourth quarter using the zone, Rick was clearly willing to embrace the possibility that J.J. would be exploited defensively (something we saw Golden State do against Barea in the zone earlier in the season). To his credit, Barea not only contested Joe Johnson’s shot attempts without fouling, but bodied him up and made Johnson’s life quite difficult. Joe had zero points in the fourth quarter and in overtime, despite scoring 27 in the first three quarters.
The zone was effective on pretty much every front, though. According to ESPN Stats and Information, Atlanta shot just 1-for-9 from the field against Dallas’ zone. That might have something to do with how effectively Dallas played to finish regulation.
More great all-around play from Brendan Haywood (11 points, 5-6 FG, 11 rebounds, four assists, three blocks), who can pretty much do no wrong at this point. Haywood had five offensive rebounds to boot, and made two huge buckets during the Mavs’ comeback rally. At this point, he can essentially do no wrong.
Josh Smith’s line also goes down in the “Incredibly awesome, but completely obscured by Jason Kidd” category: 18 points, 11 rebounds, eight assists, seven steals. Crazy good.
In the battle of Sixth Man of the Year candidates (not quite the same as an MVP match-up, eh?), Jason Terry scored 17 points on 50% shooting with six assists and Jamal Crawford scored 18 points on 31.3% shooting with four assists. The two are certainly comparable, and though Crawford is having a nice season in the perfect role for his ability and skill set, the numbers between the two are strikingly similar.
Shawn Marion’s first quarter deserves mention, mostly because he went 5-for-5 in the frame and was finishing with some serious authority. The Mavs were great in transition throughout the game, and Marion’s ability to convert layups and throw down some huge dunks was a big part of that.
That’s six wins in a row, which is the Mavs’ longest winning streak of the season and the longest active streak in the NBA. Boosh.
The Atlanta Hawks are one of the most watchable teams in the league not because of one must-watch player (a la LeBron or Wade), but precisely because they don’t have such a player. They’re a quality team on the verge of true contention (and share that standing with the Mavs, in some regard), and they’ve done so with a team-wide embrace of on-court versatility. Mike Bibby may be penciled in as the point guard, but I’m not sure he’s a point guard. Joe Johnson may be penciled in as the shooting guard, but I’m not sure he’s the shooting guard (although the guy certainly does love to shoot). Josh Smith may be penciled in as the power forward, but I’m not entirely unconvinced that Smith isn’t a futuristic warrior from the year 2183 to prove to us how futile the notion of gravity really is. The personnel in Atlanta allows for such a system to thrive, and the best Hawks team of all time is not a product of individual dominance, but of incredible parity:
With just about every competitive squad in the league, you can isolate a player that stands at the heart of everything the team hopes to accomplish. More often than not, that player is simply the team’s most talented (Chris Paul, LeBron James, Brandon Roy), but in some cases, it’s a secondary star who compensates for shear production with massive on-court influence (Chauncey Billups, Brandon Jennings, one of the Boston Celtics).
Or, in slightly less frequent and more bizarre circumstances, a team is left with no focus at all, depending on a balance of power, production, and personality to turn what could be a tornado into a whirling dervish neatly dressed in a tuxedo and a bow tie. The Atlanta Hawks are a team without a singular focus, without an anchor. That type of situation could be a cause of trouble for any number of rosters throughout the league, but somehow, someway, Atlanta makes parity look easy.
You can read my full piece on the Hawks here at HP.
Have you had enough of the decade rankings yet? If not, check out John Hollinger’s top ten players of the decade (Insider only), in which Dirk takes top 5 honors: “Nowitzki’s résumé lacks only an NBA title for validation; the Dwyane Wade Show in 2006 and a knee injury in 2003 eliminated his best chances. (Side note: Don’t forget that fadeaway he hit over Shaq in Game 5 in Miami before the foul call on Wade). Otherwise, he won one MVP award and had three other seasons that were MVP-caliber. He also made the All-NBA team nine years despite a surplus of quality players at his position. Additionally, Nowitzki’s teams won at least 50 games every full season this decade, capped by 67 in 2006-07; that’s a feat only Tim Duncan can match.” Hollinger also notes Jason Kidd as an honorable mention.
Could Dirk have taken a three to potentially tie the game last night? Sure. But swinging the ball to Jason Kidd, who pump faked his way to an open look, is hardly a settling for a “contested, desperation 3.” And given the way Dirk shot the ball to close the game (Dirk had missed his last six jumpers; his last made jump shot came with 9:59 remaining in the third quarter), I was completely comfortable with his decision to give up the rock.
Jeff “Skin Wade” voiced his concerns over Kidd’s minutes, and while I don’t have any fears about Kidd’s durability (he’s played 80+ games over each of the last four seasons while averaging 36.4 minutes per game) I completely agree with Mike Fisher’s suggestion: “The headless-chicken nature of the Dallas offense when Kidd isn’t on the floor has occurred when [Barea] is running the point and it has occurred when Jet is running the point. But because the bulk of Roddy Beaubois’ playing time (back in the good ol’ days when he played) came at the 2, alongside Kidd. So we really haven’t seen Roddy at the 1, imposing his potentially precocious will on a defense. So are we trying to shave just a few minutes off of Kidd’s load? I’m never quite able to quantify what happens positively to a guy’s body if he plays 34 minutes a game instead of 35, but for the sake of argument. …If we’re trying to shave just a few minutes off of Kidd’s load … and if we agree that the Dallas offense doesn’t quite click when JJB or Jet are in charge … are we sure there aren’t one or two spots in occasional games in which [Beaubois] wouldn’t be helpful for one or two minutes?”
Dirk Nowitzki disagreed with my assessment of the zone defense’s effectiveness. I wouldn’t say that the zone was “really, really effective,” but a video review could be in order.
Rick Carlisle, diagnosing what went wrong when (via Eddie Sefko): “I thought our undoing was a sluggish first quarter…They hit us with transition points and 3s, and the rest of the game was even, maybe even in our favor.”
In 1998, the Mavs completed one of the great fleeces in NBA history by trading the draft rights for Robert ‘Tractor’ Traylor to the Milwaukee Bucks for Pat Garrity and the draft rights to a certain lanky, German power forward. The Mavs flipped Garrity in a package for Steve Nash, and the rest, as they say, is history. As for Traylor? Well, a lot has happened between then and now, but he’s currently having a rough go of it playing professionally in Italy. (Also: a Travis Best sighting!)