In an effort to keep the discussion going, I sought out ESPNDallas.com’s Tim MacMahon for his opinion on pressing issues for the Dallas Mavericks. You can view MacMahon’s coverage of the Mavericks at ESPNDallas.com. You can also follow him on Twitter @espn_macmahon. Periodically, we have touched base and discussed topics with our own unique point of view. It’s been a while, so it was necessary for us to reconnect and agree and disagree on a few subjects.
MacMahon likes to call it like he sees it. That perspective can hover on the other end of the spectrum from my optimistic viewpoint on things. You could say it’s a classic case of good cop, bad cop. Our different perspectives should make for an interesting conversation on hot topics revolving around the Mavs.
This round of bloom and doom analyzes if Rick Carlisle is having the coaching performance of his career, which 2011 departure would fit best this year and other topics.
For several Maverick veterans, last year’s championship run was the final component in cementing a legacy. It verified Dirk Nowitzki as a legitimate Hall of Fame candidate and a top-five NBA player (I’m looking at you #NBARank). It was the capstone on Jason Kidd’s claim as one of the best point guards in NBA history. It helped shift the focus from Tyson Chandler’s injury history to his status as an every-night warrior and his strong defensive foundation. It validated the years of specialized and all-around production provided by Peja Stojakovic and Shawn Marion respectively. And, although it hasn’t been mentioned nearly as often, I believe it also established Rick Carlisle as one of the game’s elite coaches.
After his ninth season as a head coach, Carlisle has won a total of 443 games with a 0.600 win percentage. He’s led his team to the playoffs in eight of his nine seasons and has posted a playoff win percentage of 0.535. He’s achieved a great deal, but has also had the benefit of coaching some great players. In evaluating the worth of a coach, how do you examine team success and separate the contributions of coach from player?
During one his NBA Finals recaps, John Hollinger mentioned that one of the reasons the Mavericks pursued Carlisle was that their statistical studies showed he had a tendency to give the most minutes to the most effective lineups. This idea struck a chord with me. The biggest stumbling block in using statistics to analyze the performance of coaches is simply finding numbers which can be directly attributed to the coach. The idea Hollinger mentions seems to me to be the one domain where just such a set of statistics exist. Coaches decide which players are on the floor and in what combination at any given moment. The effectiveness of those choices provides us with one quantitative measure of a coach’s effectiveness.
With this first technique, Carlisle came out looking very good, but not necessarily great. His individual season correlations ranged from 0.488 in 2009 to 0.645 this past season, none of which ranked in the top 25 of the seasons I looked at. Carlisle did stand out somewhat for his consistency. Many coaches showed volatility in their numbers from season to season, possibly a result of injuries, roster changes or even an irrational infatuation with a particular player or configuration. Carlisle’s cumulative correlation over the last three seasons was 0.585. Of coaches who worked multiple seasons over the last four years, that number ranked 8th, trailing only Doc Rivers, Phil Jackson, Stan Van Gundy, Flip Saunders, Alvin Gentry, Byron Scott and Gregg Popovich.
In my second piece, I started with the same set of data but used a slightly different technique. This time I calculated the percentage of the team’s lineups that finished the season with a positive Net Rating, and then compared that percentage to the number of minutes those positive lineups were allotted as a whole. For the purposes of the study the difference between those percentages — positive or negative — is what we’re considering the coach’s ability to manipulate their lineups. This second technique may be a more blunt measure than the first, but I think it helps solve some of the inflation from stacked rosters that occur with the first technique.
With this second technique, Carlisle again stands out: not for his superior performance, but for his consistency. None of his individual seasons made the top 25. Over the past three seasons, 50.4% of the Mavericks lineups which played at least five minutes together have had a positive Net Rating. Those positive lineups have played 65.5% of the possible minutes, an increase of 15.1% over a random distribution of minutes. That number ranks fifth among coaches who worked multiple seasons over the last four, trailing only Jackson, Van Gundy, Rivers and Gentry.
The two techniques I’ve put together are not exact and not comprehensive. However, I think they do give us some quantitative information, general though it may be, about a coach’s ability to optimize their lineups. As with any question of basketball analysis, if we are left with questions after an initial look, the task is to find more data and narrow the focus. The numbers I’ve put together show that Carlisle has been among the league’s best at managing his rotations. For the skeptics out there, I was able to find some more specifics on how those rotations shake out.
I started by combining all of the lineups Carlisle has used during his three-year tenure in Dallas, trying to find some natural groupings for them based on the number of minutes played. I settled on these categories and general (subjective) classifications:
Over 145 MP – This group represents the primary starting lineups for each season and the go-to bench rotations.
Between 82 and 145 MP – This group represents the deeper bench rotations, and situational lineups.
Between 40 and 82 MP – This group represents deep, deep bench rotations, extreme situational lineups, and some accommodations for injuries.
Less than 40 MP – This group represents garbage time lineups, minutes scraped together for rookies, and strange experiments.
For each of those categories I counted the total number of lineups Carlisle has used in Dallas. I also calculated the cumulative Net Rating for all the lineups which fit into each category.
Number of Lineups
The way his numbers worked out are unique on several fronts. The first is how many lineups were found in each of the first two categories. With 12 lineups in each category over 3 seasons, we find the Mavericks under Carlisle using an average of 8 lineups a season which play more than 82 minutes. There is absolutely no pretense of riding a formidable starting lineup into the ground. The Mavericks’ most played lineup last season, Barea-Terry-Marion-Nowitzki-Haywood, logged just 350.45 minutes. That mark was eclipsed by 25 lineups from 21 different teams. Instead of relying on one dominant lineup, Carlisle is able to spread the minutes around in many combinations. But the most important factor is how effective those combinations are. With cumulative Net Ratings over +10.0 for both lineup categories above 82 minutes played, Carlisle is able to maintain a first tier level of performance among several lineups.
As the advanced statistics movement trudges forward, there will continue to be a vocal segment searching for a one-size, fits all, comprehensive measure, a number which says definitively that one player is better than another. To be honest, I find that search to be counter-productive. A visual observation can usually tell us who the best players are. For me, the benefit of advanced statistics is the increased ability to delve into details. I don’t want one number to explain everything. I want all the numbers. When it comes to looking evaluating coaches with statistics, I see similarities everywhere. A single numeric representation of a coach’s ability is certainly out of reach at this point, and to be honest, I’m not sure it’s needed. The fun is in the thin slices, in digging into the specifics and unique situations to try and find some answers. These techniques I’ve put together aren’t meant to be a step toward that single unifying theory of evaluation, they are meant to be another thin slice. They are meant to answer a few questions, and hopefully raise just as many.
Even with two days to process the end of the NBA Finals, I’m still in amazement. I’m amazed at what happened and how it happened. Most of all, I’m amazed at the composure displayed by the Mavericks’ throughout the series. At no point did they allow the circumstances to change what they intended to do or how they intended to do it. Inserting J.J. Barea into the starting lineup was not a rash decision or a frantic pushing of buttons. It was a calculated move that changed nothing except when certain player combinations were utilized. In a moment of weakness, I told my wife before Game 6 that I thought Dirk Nowitzki would need to score 40 for the Mavericks to win. Even after all I had watched the Mavericks accomplish this season, by constantly moving the ball until an open shot materialized, I still felt that at some point said formula would fizzle out, that it wouldn’t be enough to push them to their ultimate goal. The Mavericks were able to win, because for several stretches, Dirk Nowitzki was clearly the best player on the floor, and accomplished it without dominating the ball. I kept waiting for the “Dirk needs to touch the ball on every possession” offense, but it never happened. The Mavericks’ attack never wavered from their template, and they consistently got the job done.
Equal to my amazement at what the Mavericks were able to accomplish, has been my frustration at how the series is being described by many in the media. I was particularly infuriated by a post-game discussion between Magic Johnson and Mike Wilbon; both described the Mavericks’ victory as 10 players beating 3. Even as a Mavericks’ fan, I find that characterization incredibly offensive. In the most literal sense, this was a case of 11 beating 10, the actual number of players used by each team. To describe the Heat as a three-man team is unbelievably demeaning to the efforts of their entire roster. It’s true that their team is constructed so that the majority of their offensive production will come from LeBron, Wade and Bosh. It’s true that the Mavericks received greater contributions from a larger variety of players. But there is more — much more — to the Miami Heat than just those three players. Mario Chalmers and Udonis Haslem both had strong performances across the Finals. The Mavericks victory was an example of one team beating another. Every player, on both teams, had a hand in pushing their team to the NBA Finals.
The thing I think is most important to understand, is that this is true, independent of the outcome. Even if Miami had won the series, it still would have been a case of one team beating another, not a case of three star players overwhelming a patchwork arrangement of very good players. The Heat and the Mavericks were each built in different ways, but they are both teams, with five players on the floor at a time and seven reserves on the bench. The Mavericks’ victory is a victory for their players, organization and fans, not a victory for a template of roster assembly. They won because, for six games, they were the better team; not that their methods or motivations were more pure or virtuous.
Before the Finals started I wrote that this series represented a chance at redemption for several Mavericks players, ones who had no personal involvement with the letdown in 2006. Jason Kidd, Shawn Marion and Peja Stojakovic each achieved a goal they’ve been chasing for years. I hope that this championship was made sweeter for each by the way the playoffs unfolded and the title was earned. A championship on a player’s resume is often viewed as tainted if it was won in mercenary style by an aging veteran. Kidd, Marion and Stojakovic each earned their jewelry; they didn’t sign with a team only to provide vocal support from the end of the bench. They may have had to change teams (in some cases several times) to win their first championship, but they didn’t tag along or catch a ride on anyone’s coattails. The Mavericks simply aren’t in the Finals, let along raising the Larry O’Brien Trophy, without the contributions of those three.
Most of my contributions to The Two Man Game this seen have been statistical in focus and flavor. I’ll leave you with a few statistical nuggets to chew on over the summer.
DeShawn Stevenson was absolutely lights out in the Finals, making 13 of 23, or 56.6% of his three-pointers. Who could have possible seen that coming? Oh, that’s right. I did.
Brendan Haywood’s injury opened up a hole in the Mavericks’ frontcourt rotation — a hole that was filled admirably by Brian Cardinal. He gave Dallas 30.3 minutes in the series, over which they outscored the Heat 71-68.
Tyson Chandler has received plenty of well-deserved praise for his efforts in the Finals. His performance, particularly on the offensive glass, was remarkable. When he was out of the game Dallas rebounded just 18.6% of their own misses. When Chandler was on the floor that number jumped to 27.0%.
One of John Hollinger’s Finals recaps mentioned that one of the reasons the Mavericks pursued Rick Carlisle was that statistical studies showed he had a tendency to give the most minutes to the most effective lineups. Seems like an obvious idea, perhaps one someone should have shared with Jim O’Brien. I wanted to see if that held true for the Finals. The easiest way to do this was to a run a correlation between the Net Rating for each unit and the number of minutes they played together. However, this creates some sample size problems for units that only played together briefly. To weight the totals I just multiplied the Net Rating for each unit by the minutes played, then ran a correlation between that total and the minutes played. The Mavericks had a 0.692 correlation between the effectiveness of the unit and their minutes played. For the Heat it was a -0.177. Saying Carlisle managed his rotations well is a huge understatement.
On a personal note, it’s been a pleasure to write about the Dallas Mavericks this season at The Two Man Game. I’m a Pacers’ fan at heart, and adopting the Mavericks with Rob’s invitation to start contributing here, felt strangely unnatural. However, watching a team on a nightly basis gives you an appreciation and attachment that can be gained no other way. I’m thrilled for the Mavericks organization. They earned everything they’ve accomplished this season, and it was a joy to watch. I’m also thrilled for Mavericks’ fans, a group of which I am proud to be a part of.
You know the drill. The Difference is a reflection on the game that was, with one bullet for every point in the final margin.
Rick Carlisle tweaked his rotation, and the three Mavs involved — J.J. Barea (eight points, 3-9 FG, four assists), DeShawn Stevenson (11 points, 3-7 3FG), and Shawn Marion (16 points, 7-12 FG, four rebounds) — each had their best games of the series as a result. Not only has Carlisle done a great job of balancing a micro-managing style with the release of control (when he lets the Mavs “just play basketball,” or execute their “flow game,”), but he’s pressed the right buttons in every damn series thus far. Starting Barea as a means to eliminate Peja Stojakovic from the rotation while still keeping Brian Cardinal’s minutes down was actually rather inspired, and though Barea hadn’t really played well in the first three games of the Finals, he was able to accomplish some good things in Game 4 — even as he shot just 3-of-9 from the field. If Carlisle was given the option for Barea to get the same looks and same penetration again in Game 5, I think he’d take it in a heartbeat; Barea worked to create quality shots, but makes just weren’t in the cards this time. Stevenson played an effective game, too, so long as we forget about his horrible, bone-headed foul on Chris Bosh. His 11 points and ability to space the floor were invaluable considering Dirk Nowitzki’s limitations, and Stevenson was an active participant in the zone defense that shut Miami down in the fourth quarter. And then we come to Marion, who had his third game in the series with 16 or more points, and accomplished that much in just 26 minutes — by far his lowest minute total for the Finals. Dallas had leaned too heavily on Marion in the first three games of the series, and while 26 minutes will hardly be the norm from here on out, we should expect more reasonable levels of playing time than the 41+ minutes Marion played in Games 2 and 3.
Dallas continued in their remarkable defense against LeBron James (eight points, 3-11 FG, nine rebounds, seven assists, four turnovers), but what of Dwyane Wade ()? There’s only so much one can do to curtail scorers in isolation, especially those with the handle, speed, and vision that Wade almost unfairly possesses. He can get himself out of trouble so quickly that overt doubling presents serious problems, and yet the Mavs’ man defense can only do so much to contain him. I don’t feel like Marion, Stevenson, and Kidd did a poor job against Wade in Game 4; in many cases they played him well, and Tyson Chandler was there with the help. Wade is just too damn good at what he does, and he torched the Mavs to the tune of 32 points on 20 shots. Wade very nearly deflected some of the ill will aimed at LeBron for his horribly underwhelming performance, but a loss is a loss, and when the Heat are downed it’s often James that’s left to answer for it. I’d be very interested to see how the shift in the narrative had Wade made a single free throw or made a few more buckets, but Dallas winning with clutch execution while Wade shorts a freebie comes with its own narrative power.
Tyson Chandler (13 points, 16 rebounds, nine offensive boards) was a monster, and while plenty will praise him for his relentlessness, I’ve come to praise him for his restraint. Dallas has only remained competitive in this series because of Chandler, and more specifically, because Chandler has avoided foul trouble. The offensive rebounds and put-backs are fantastic, but they’re products of Chandler being on the floor in the first place, something which should in no way be assumed. Carlisle will play Chandler if he can, but foul trouble placed an artificial limit on Chandler’s minutes all season long, and was expected to play a role in one playoff series or another. It hasn’t. Whether defending LaMarcus Aldridge, Andrew Bynum, or Pau Gasol — or somehow protecting the rim from the likes of Wade and James while guarding Bosh — Chandler has kept his fouls down and stayed in the game. Chandler played 43 minutes of fully charged basketball on Tuesday night, and though his motor deserves unending praise, I’m more impressed than ever with Chandler’s ability to cut down on those tempting cheap fouls that got him in trouble so often.
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.
You know the drill. The Difference is, under most normal circumstances, a reflection on the game that was, with one bullet for every point in the final margin. These are not normal circumstances.
Jason Terry is holding court in the Mavericks’ locker room, just as he always does, but the swath of reporters that typically surrounds him is not a swath. It’s a sea. It feeds endlessly into waves of cameras and recorders. Ian Mahinmi can be seen across the room, clad in only a towel, holding his arms up above it all as he attempts to pass through — literally wading through the gulf that now stands between him and his own locker.
It’s not surprising that such a contingent has flooded around Terry. He’s become a mouthpiece of sorts for the organization, a quotable commodity that has become even more valuable to soundbite-seekers with Mark Cuban uncharacteristically silent. JET’s statements come pre-packaged for journalistic use, with just the right amount of bravado, insight, and cliché. He’s a talker. This is just what he does. The regulars that follow the team know it, and apparently so do all of the other reporters and cameramen who have seemingly come up through the woodwork. Terry sits, fielding question after question after question, and responding with the punch of a veteran politician. Or maybe just a veteran ballplayer, but with all of the noncommittal responses, who can tell the difference?
Terry, J.J. Barea, and Brendan Haywood comprise the first wave of available Mavs. Barea draws his own sizable crowd of English and Spanish-speaking media, but one media member can be heard telling her cameraman partner to get in position for “Barrera.” Picking apart defenses en route to the NBA Finals may have earned Barea nation-wide respect (or detest, depending on your point of view, I suppose), but it does not, apparently, ensure the correct pronunciation of his name. This might be the first time he’s been called “Barrera,” since being crowned a Western Conference champion, but it’s only a precursor for the frequent pronuncial butcherings to come.
Oddly, Brendan Haywood doesn’t have all that much going on around his locker, despite the fact that he’s perhaps every bit as quotable as Terry. The distinction may lie in the fact that Haywood is more truth-teller than politician; his words draw interest when they’re seen as having the potential to incite conflict, but otherwise, he’s just a back-up center doing what he can to dissect and explain the world around him.
Haywood has been characterized by perceived sulking or brooding over his last season and a half in Dallas, but he’s understandably easy in moments like this one. He talks about wanting to be the back-up center on a team headed to the Finals rather than relishing in a role with more playing time or more touches. He jokes candidly about his words being taken out of their original context prior to Game 5, words which he notes as being more light-hearted than they appeared in text. He’s not just a flagrant fouling machine, but an interesting — if occasionally abrasive, for better and worse — voice within the team. He’s just buried beneath Terry’s charisma, Dirk Nowitzki’s quiet charm, and Jason Kidd’s veneration. Haywood may not always give some writers exactly what they want to hear for their pre-penned stories, but if you ask the right questions and listen closely, Haywood has a lot to offer.
But his smaller scrum naturally drifts into a group waiting for Tyson Chandler — the bigger star, the bigger name, the bigger personality. Haywood waits in his chair to answer the questions of the stragglers, but what may have once belonged to him now belongs to Chandler. Dozens of media members wait around Chandler’s empty locker, chattering amongst themselves in lieu of chatting with Haywood, or DeShawn Stevenson — who stands shirtless at his locker speaking with media members, wearing a scowl of sorts until the word “Finals” lets escape a slight smile — or Brian Cardinal — who dresses in front of his locker undisturbed save one man with no recorder — or Peja Stojakovic — who has a smirk plastered to his face, perhaps making him as one-dimensional in the locker room as he is on the court. The boxing out around the locker of a prominent player isn’t so different from what goes on in the regular season, but it’s all a bit more deliberate; rather than float aimlessly in the vicinity of a particular locker, now the camps are set. Ladders are deployed and cameras are at the ready, all positioned around an empty locker.
Shawn Marion field questions while wearing shades with orange lenses, and talks of the Mavs’ stomachs being “three-fourths full.” Whether he knows it or not, LeBron James is already in and on his mind, even as he goes on to mention that he doesn’t care who Dallas will face in the series to come. Regardless, Marion sees a world in warm tones and unintentionally borrowed analogies.
He politely answers the same question, posed repeatedly with only slightly altered structure. One would think that there are only so many ways to ask Marion about the significance of the Mavs’ experience, but a few tweaked words apparently qualifies as an entirely new question to some. Marion tries his best to make each answer unique, but all of his words begin to bleed together. Even a character like Marion is made a bit repetitive by way of an absurd, redundant media presence.
Marion lifts his glasses as he talks about the Mavs’ belief in themselves, a trust in a system and team that he says has never wavered. He doesn’t stare into space as he dispenses canned confidence, but looks at virtually each media member directly. He wants you to know this. He wants you to know that the Mavs believed, through the regular season and Caron Butler’s injury, through the sprints and slogs, through the first and second rounds that they weren’t supposed to win. The shades will eventually come back down, but Marion’s insistence on that belief does not.
Nothing has changed…in a sense. Dallas believes in their championship hopes as much now as they did on Media Day. Yet to ignore the fundamental difference in the atmosphere both on the floor and within the belly of the American Airlines Center is foolish. There is a discernible difference, even if it exists most obviously in the cosmetics of media prevalence. The players don’t just talk of big games, but have lived them. We all dispense of hypotheticals, because in a most improbable scenario, the Dallas Mavericks are the first team in the NBA Finals. Things aren’t the same. They can’t be, and never will be again. There is a fundamental difference between today and yesterday, between the playoffs and the regular season, between this Mavericks team and the one we saw over 82 games. It may not be drastic, but this is more than just a step in a process for those same Mavs that started the season so full of hope.
Jason Terry still fields questions roughly a half-hour later, and the ocean across the locker room remains. But Dirk dresses quietly — the space around his locker is perhaps the only few feet without a recording device or probing reporter. He prepares for his press conference facing his locker, and more poetically, facing the picture of the Larry O’Brien trophy that hangs within it. Terry, Nowitzki’s locker room neighbor, has the same picture hanging in his, undoubtedly as a reminder of what was nearly theirs, and now what nearly is again.
Haywood remarks about Dirk’s black shirt — “Johnny Cash!” — and then Nowitzki departs to a walk of waves and nods on his way to the interview room, which is naturally full to the brim with even more cameras and recorders and media members. What came from the sea has returned to the sea.
At the stand, Nowitzki rambles a bit, launching into the exhaustive answers that have practically become his trademark. Nowitzki is many things to many people, but after games he is hardly pithy. The hyper-efficient Dirk and the one sitting, leaned back and clutching the mic as he stares through the table and rattles off answers, are somehow one in the same.
With his press conference duties fulfilled, Nowitzki finally escapes…to one more set of media members, though this group speaking his native tongue. Nowitzki and his counterpart walk the halls of the AAC, as Dirk pushes the hair behind his ears. He probably tugged at the upper left side of his imaginary jersey, too, completing the routine for this one last free throw. I imagine it’s hard to keep gait with toes pointed inward and knees bent ever so slightly, but there’s no question that Dirk’s eyes are focused on completing this one final task before he can breathe easy.
Dirk finally makes his way toward the garage, where only he and his police escort will go. His walk is slow, but not heavy; there’s no lightness, but only deliberation. He marches, but somehow does so without the slightest rigidity. As they trail off down the hall, talking and laughing along the way, Nowitzki finally finds respite. In that moment, he offers himself the slightest concession. To this point, nothing in Nowitzki’s actions or words has suggested celebration. He answered questions with the same standard tone, acknowledged fans with the same humility, and even escaped before the presentation of the Western Conference Championship trophy had fully concluded. Yet as he and the officer round the corner into the garage, Nowitzki indulges in a single and final celebratory act: a subtle high five, a prize worthy of a conference champion looking to accomplish so much more.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
You know the drill. The Difference is a reflection on the game that was, with one bullet for every point in the final margin.
That, ladies and gents, was one of the most dominant performances in NBA playoff history. Dallas posted an effective field goal percentage of 74.0% — seventy-four percent! — which, according to Kevin Pelton of Basketball Prospectus, was the highest mark in the playoffs by any team of the past two decades. The Mavs won by 36 points, but the actual margin was even larger; if we adjust the final totals of both teams to the 100-possession standard, Dallas was actually 39.1 points superior on a pace-neutral scale. That’s an absurd, gaudy dominance that nears Bambi vs. Godzilla territory.
It was all possible because of the ball movement. Dallas did such an incredible job of finding open space and making the right passes in this series, and as I’ve noted on several occasions, it was that continued work toward the extra pass and the better shot that destroyed any hope L.A. had of mounting an effective defense. The Lakers embarrassed themselves with their inability to stick with the Mavs’ shooters, but they were only put in a position to fail because the passing was so crisp and the cuts were so perfect. Dallas — though they look absolutely brilliant at present — had fallen victim to their own stagnant offensive execution at various times during the regular season, but that’s not even a conceivable outcome with this team right now. Execution is playoff currency, and the way the Mavs created shots on offense was borderline magical. The Lakers were flummoxed by the sight of a moving ball, and incapable of defending pick-and-rolls, flare cuts, or really anyone at all.
Not that Dallas’ defense was anything to scoff at, either. Some of the same lethargy that haunted L.A.’s defense crept into their offensive game, but it’s not as if shots went up unchallenged or passes deflected themselves. The Mavs were true defensive aggressors, and forced the Lakers into a 17.4 turnover rate while holding them to a 40.9% effective field goal percentage. Kobe Bryant had a successful first quarter run, but that short burst aside, the Lakers had absolutely no continuity. They scored a bucket here and a bucket there, but the Mavs were scrambling so incredibly well in their half-court defense and demolishing one of the league’s most impressive offensive outfits in the process.
There should be no question that the better team won this series because frankly, when the Mavs play like this, they’re better than almost any team in the league. Dallas essentially played a perfect game to cap off an incredible four straight victories, and while there should be understandable doubt regarding the Mavs’ ability to sustain their current roll, the Dallas team of this series was a championship contender and then some.
Jason Terry (32 points, 11-14 FG, 9-10 3FG, four assists) was positively stupendous. This wasn’t “one of those nights” or the “hot hand”; on May 8th, 2011, Jason Eugene Terry activated his final Chakra. He reached out and touched the divine. He shifted into another state of consciousness, or was possibly existing simultaneously in two realms, his body a conduit for some greater power. This shooting display was a spiritual experience, the likes of which can change lives and convert men in their heart of hearts. The Lakers didn’t exactly put up much resistance, but the confidence and the consistency in JET’s jumper was otherworldly, or self-actualizing, or centering, or dimension-shifting. I’m not exactly sure which, but one simply knows when they’ve witnessed something miraculous.
Peja Stojakovic (21 points, 7-7 FG, 6-6 3FG, three steals) wasn’t too bad, either, and continued in his efforts to make me look like an absolute fool for wondering if he would bear fruit for the Mavs. Stojakovic was perfect from three-point range in six attempts, and like JET, his composure is admirable. He can fire off a corner three even against a hard close-out, and in those situations when he thinks the defense might get the better of him, he doesn’t hesitate to put the ball on the floor or swing it back to the top of the key. Stojakovic is a shooter, but he isn’t exactly consistent with the typical limitations spot-up shooter archetype.
The Maverick reserves scored 86 points, matching the Lakers’ collective total. Unreal.
Blowout losses do crazy things to people. Like Lamar Odom:
And Andrew Bynum:
I can understand the argument that Odom’s foul wasn’t quite deserving of the flagrant 2/auto-ejection, but Bynum’s is completely classless, uncalled for, and unacceptable. I’d be shocked if he doesn’t receive a multi-game suspension to kick off the 2011-2012 season for his momentary lapse into insanity. Bynum is typically a pretty reasonable, aware guy, but the sight of J.J. Barea getting yet another uncontested drive to the rim drove him into some kind of madness. Then again, he had mostly himself to blame for Barea’s previous effortless drives, so maybe he was just taking out his frustrations on a mini, Barea-sized avatar of himself. Or, y’know, he just lost his mind.
Bynum’s flip-out wasn’t wholly negative though, because it did help Barea (22 points, 9-14 FG, eight assists) — who shared the game’s tri-MVP honors with JET and Peja — score an elusive made bucket on a flagrant foul. Even after taking a huge forearm hit from Bynum, Barea’s floater went up and in, resulting in two points for Dallas, two subsequent free throws, and possession of the ball. Not exactly an everyday occurrence.
On a related note, it’s still baffling to me that the Lakers would commit so much pressure at the three-point line to the task of defending Barea with either Tyson Chandler or Brendan Haywood setting a screen. Is it so hard to roll under screens to encourage Barea to shoot jumpers while letting the big man sag in the paint? Chandler and Haywood aren’t going to catch at the free throw line and pop a jumper, and if J.J. concedes in order to take a three, that’s ultimately a good thing for the Laker defense considering the circumstances. Yet L.A.’s defenders got hung up on screens time and time again with Bynum hedging 20 feet from the rim and Pau Gasol unable to leave Dirk Nowitzki. I’m not sure who was responsible for the pick-and-roll blunders for the Lakers, but they empowered Barea as a creator and made him into a significant problem in this series.
But let’s take a moment to appreciate just how incredible Barea was in this game and this series. The pick-and-roll opened the door, but it was still up to Barea — who has often functioned as the Mavs’ built-in scapegoat, but has set that honorary title ablaze — to finish his looks and find his teammates. He scored over and around Bynum, he worked for creative passing and scoring angles, and had Terry not connected with an unseen power, he would have been the best guard for either team in Game 4, despite taking the court alongside two surefire Hall-of-Famers.
Also: attempting to defend Barea with Ron Artest was hilarious.
As were Artest’s offensive pursuits:
Gasol vs. Nowitzki used to seem like an actual argument, but that debate segued into Bryant vs. Nowitzki, and now Nowitzki vs. pretty much anyone. To the victor go the spoils of public opinion, and after championing the Mavs through their improbable sweep, Dirk is walking on sunshine.
I doubted the ability of Tyson Chandler and Brendan Haywood to defend against LaMarcus Aldridge’s versatility, and then doubted their ability to defend against Bynum’s sheer size. I was horribly wrong, and both players have been defensive rock stars. Bynum scored six points and grabbed just six boards in Game 4, his second game in this series where he had both under 10 points and 10 rebounds. Bynum still had a pair of successful performances, but that’s the expectation. He played up to par in two games, and was held far below his expected performance in two others, including the final outing of the Lakers’ season.
Oh, by the way: the Mavs happened to make 20 three-pointers (in just 32 attempts), setting a new playoff record. No big deal, just making history over here.
Sebastian Pruiti of NBA Playbook found one constant in the Mavs’ three-point shooting aside from the hard work of Terry and Stojakovic: the influence of Dirk Nowitzki. Yet another example of how the man makes things happen, even on a day where his statistical output isn’t quite what you’d expect.
Brendan Haywood made two consecutive free throws. That’s an omen of the apocalypse, right?
I’m still in disbelief over Gasol’s regression. Nowitzki did a fantastic job of defending him both on the perimeter and in the post, but even with that in mind, the degree to which Gasol was neutralized is startling. He’s been the most important Laker all season long, but throughout both of L.A.’s postseason series he’s failed to be aggressive, failed to execute, failed to make an imprint on the game in almost any regard. Basketball fans will again call him soft, but really, Gasol was just bad; it has nothing to do with his masculinity or his ability to grind in the post or something equally ridiculous, but simply an odd reluctance to assert himself. He was certainly too passive, but also underwhelming even when he did get touches down low or in the high post. I don’t mean to make the man a scapegoat — what ailed the Lakers went far deeper than Pau Gasol — but he was so unbelievably absent from this series.
32 assists on 44 made field goals is pretty insane, as was the fact that the Mavs had assisted on 10 of their first 11 buckets, and had notched 20 dimes by halftime. This is truly unparalleled ball movement.
Dallas’ worst quarter in Game 4: a 9-of-17 third frame in which they played L.A. to a draw at 23-all. The Lakers started out the second half with some defensive stops, and for a matter of moments, looked like they actually belonged on the court on Sunday.
Jason Kidd deserves a round of applause for 1) his well-publicized ability to impact the game in a variety of ways, and 2) his tremendous defense against Kobe Bryant in this series. Kidd didn’t even rack up all that many assists in Game 4, but he was a contributor during some big Maverick runs (the 10-0 sprint to close the first half, for example) and did those mythical little things.
However, it was the Mavs’ additional defensive pressure that really threw Kobe off of his game. Dallas was somehow able to pull off the feat of committing an extra defender against Bryant overtly at times (direct double team) or more subtly at others (a floating defender, waiting to help), and yet still scamper back to cover the open man. Kidd, Stevenson, Stojakovic, Terry, and Barea deserve a ton of credit — they managed to hound Bryant a bit and recover nicely to avoid weak side exploitation.
For the sake of finding a silver lining, L.A. did do one thing relatively well: rebound. The Mavs should have dominated the raw rebounding totals given the incredible number of Laker misses. Instead, they took just a 40-39 advantage, thanks largely to L.A.’s 30.6 offensive rebounding rate. I don’t want to glorify a series of missed put-backs in a game that the Lakers essentially forfeited, but at least there was a slight display of effort in creating extra possessions off the glass.
Stojakovic was an oddly effective defender in this series. He faced a series of tough assignments created by weird matchups or on switches, but held his own against Bryant, Odom, Artest, and even Bynum and Gasol (via denying entry passes) on occasion. I’d settle for Stojakovic not providing opponents with a clear point of attack, but at various times in this serious he made legitimately beneficial defensive plays.
The same is true of Marion, but due to his superior defensive ability, I don’t look at his performance in this series in such rosy terms. Dallas clearly didn’t need huge performances from Marion due to their hot shooting, but he ultimately took the back seat in defending Kobe Bryant to Kidd. Marion still had effective stretches, but just wasn’t quite as good as one may have expected given Marion’s track record in defending elite wing players. Even at this age, he can do better, and if the Mavs play the Thunder in the Western Conference Finals, he’ll have to.
The Lakers made five three-pointers in the entire game. The Mavericks made at least four pointers in each quarter, including seven in the second and five in the fourth.
I still don’t have the foggiest idea why we didn’t see more of Corey Brewer in this series. DeShawn Stevenson didn’t play all that well on either end of the court, and Brewer is definitely capable of shooting 1-of-5 from three but while providing better slashing, more energy, and better defense. Plus, when opponents are leaving Stevenson to double elsewhere, isn’t that enacting the fear of the offensive burden that Brewer might bring?
Haywood grabbed more rebounds in 17 minutes of action (eight) than every Laker except for Gasol (who also had eight).
Kudos to the folks running the entertainment at the American Airlines Center. During several rounds of the “BEAT L.A” chants that broke out in Game 4, the folks running the soundboard killed everything. They cut the music, the sound effects, the video clips — they let the fans unleash in support of their team with only silence as the backdrop. The AAC can be characterized by its non-stop audio-visual stimulation (sometimes to the detriment of the basketball experience), but these moments of unadulterated fan fervor were pretty awesome. I know it’s easy for fans to get psyched when their team is on the verge of sweeping the defending champs, but the MFFLs showed up on Sunday and the AAC entertainment staff let them scream to the rafters.
Terry’s rapport with the fans is tremendous. You know JET eats up the response to his antics, but the man makes a conscious, ongoing effort to keep the fans involved and energized, even when things like long TV timeouts take away some of the game’s natural momentum. Rather than loiter around the scorer’s table to wipe off his shoes an extra time or do a quick stretch, JET took the court solo to energize the fans. He stalked the sidelines and called to the Maverick faithful. Opposing teams, coaches, and fans may find him irritating, and I can understand their frustration with JET’s posturing. Yet there’s a reason he holds such a special place in the hearts of Mavs fans, and it goes beyond the timely shots and the fourth quarter performance.
More record fun: Terry’s nine three-point makes tied an NBA playoff record, but the lopsided nature of the game prevented him from securing that record-breaking three. Drat.
This was likely Phil Jackson’s final game as a coach, and it’s a damn shame that his players couldn’t have taken that into consideration when they were spacing on pick-and-roll coverage and practically rotating away from open shooters. Jackson’s the best there ever was, and though this loss likely won’t be even a footnote of a footnote of a footnote on his coaching career, it would have been nice to see his team go out with a bit more fight. For the record, I don’t think Jackson was a victim in this loss or this win-less series; there are a number of technical problems that held L.A. back, and that responsibility falls on the coaching staff. Still, Phil wasn’t supposed to go out like this, and even if the Lakers committed some strategic blunders, the biggest problem in Game 4 was the embarrassing lack of effort.
Predictable dynamic of the post-game press conferences: though plenty of questions were lobbed up for both Dirk and JET to answer (they took the podium together), Dirk remained silent while Terry offered his analysis and reflection. In several cases, Nowitzki didn’t even look up; he merely stared straight through the table in front of him during the question and the response both, allowing Terry — ever the talker — to handle every single question purposed for both of them to answer.
You know the drill. The Difference is a reflection on the game that was, with one bullet for every point in the final margin.
I did not even remotely anticipate having to tell Mavs fans to take deep breaths for all of the best reasons after the first three games in this series, but here we are. Inhale. Exhale. Never underestimate the heart of a chicken before it hatches in the cart before the horse, and all that. Dallas is in a great, great place — a greater place than one could possibly have imagined coming into this series — but just for the sake of finality, let’s see what happens in the remainder of this series before we start looking forward to who the Mavs may potentially meet in later rounds. Celebrate the first three wins and praise the Mavs for this incredible accomplishment, but be patient and be mindful of the opponent at hand. Dallas has certainly been the better team in this series, but L.A. isn’t quite finished yet.
It’s adorable to watch the entire country appreciate Dirk Nowitzki (32 points, 12-19 FG, 4-5 3FG, nine rebounds) as if he were a great novelty rather than an established wonder. Yes, he’s that good. Yes, pretty much all the time. It’s terrific that Dirk’s public narrative is being rewritten with every big shot and every heady play, but really, it never should have come to that. The degree of diametric star-praising and star-targeting that goes on by NBA analysts is absurd. There is room for shades of gray; every Maverick loss isn’t an indictment of Nowitzki’s heart or toughness or ability, just as every win isn’t necessarily an affirmation (though due to just how fantastic Dirk is, this is largely the case). There’s plenty more nuance to the game than the goings on in the superstar strata, and while I’d be the first to tell you that Nowitzki is a truly phenomenal player, I’d also be the first to remind that playoff success is inherently a team accomplishment. We use rings and playoff wins to gauge the careers of individual players against each other, but the Mavericks’ shortcomings over the years have not been part and parcel to Dirk’s. He’s had some bad games now and again. Perhaps he struggled in this series or that. Yet overall, Nowitzki is one of the top playoff performers of the modern era and of all time, and while I’m happy to see the narrative turn, the root of the problem that bizarrely diminished the postseason repute of one of the game’s top performers still exists. Think for yourselves and evaluate for yourselves — stories from the ether are great, but the best antidote for over-the-top narrative exaggeration is our own capacity to reason.
From ESPN Stats and Information: “Dirk Nowitzki finished with 32 points on 12-for-19 shooting from the floor as he notched his 10th straight playoff game with 20 or more points. Nowitzki feasted on Pau Gasol offensively as 27 of his 32 points came while being guarded by Gasol. This is not a huge surprise as Nowitzki is 19-of-25 from the floor for 45 points against Gasol this series.” On the flip side, Nowitzki has done a tremendous job of defending Gasol in this series. Dirk held a clear matchup advantage, but I had assumed there would naturally be a little more give to balance Dirk’s take. Hasn’t been the case so far, and as much as we can blame Gasol’s complacency on offense and whatnot, Nowitzki has been there, denying post position, battling on the back-down, challenging everything, and finishing the play with a box out.
L.A. benefited from a great performance by Andrew Bynum, a more efficient night from Kobe, and Lamar Odom’s best showing in the series thus far — and still lost by a 7.3 efficiency differential. The Laker offense performed well — perhaps even well enough to win — but no one in this series can even attempt to guard Dirk Nowitzki effectively, nor defend the Mavs on the whole. Dallas has executed relentlessly on offense in this series. All of the blown pick-and-roll coverage, the inability to cover the corner man after a swing pass, the confusion in rotation? That’s all coming because the Mavs are pressing precisely the right buttons to make the Laker defense squirm. Dallas has the personnel and the ball movement necessary to really create problems for L.A.’s D, independent of the Lakers’ effort or execution. Dallas’ offense is just rolling right now because the ball-handlers continue to make smart decisions and those moving off the ball are cutting hard. The Lakers are a step behind, rotating late and getting stuck in coverage, and frankly incapable of keeping up with the extra pass at this point. That final swing, kick-out, or dump-down is what has broken the Lakers’ backs in this series, and it should offer Rick Carlisle such sweet relief to see his team working and working and working through every possession while the opponents share looks of exasperation.
Peja Stojakovic (15 points, 5-11 FG, 3-7 3FG) is everything the Mavs had hoped he would be, and while his outside shooting was great, his defense was just as important. Stojakovic refused to be exploited; whether guarding Kobe off the dribble or Odom in the post, he did a terrific job of challenging shots to the best of his ability. Had Peja’s defense not held, today could look very different for both teams; Shawn Marion (two points, 1-7 FG, eight rebounds) wasn’t exactly on the top of his game, and Stojakovic was able to act as a key cog in Dallas’ perimeter attack because his defense allowed him to stay on the floor. Peja nailed so many big shots in this game, but he was only able to because of the big stops he earned on the other.
As of right now, Jason Terry is averaging a 21.0 PER for this year’s playoffs, the highest mark of his career. He’s dropping 16.8 points per game (with the sandbagging pace of the Portland series keeping the numbers reasonable) on 49.1 percent shooting. He’s posting his highest playoff true shooting percentage since 2005. It’s not quite right to say that this is the Jason Terry of old, because honestly, this version is better. As fantastic as it is to see JET’s jumper falling again, what has impressed me even more (in both this series and the previous one) has been Terry’s unwillingness to settle. He’s driving to the hoop more often and more effectively than he has at any point during his career, and it’s those baseline drives and runners in the paint that have taken his efficiency to new heights…along with the fact that, yeah, he’s just hitting more shots more often. Bravo on both counts, JET.
You know the drill. The Difference is a reflection on the game that was, with one bullet for every point in the final margin.
Frustration is a natural precipitate of playoff basketball; combining two competitive entities in elemental form creates not only an expected solution, but a necessary, balancing byproduct. The glow of a win must stand against its opposite, so as Portland goes one way in victory, Dallas goes another. The Mavs are frustrated. Rick Carlisle is frustrated. You’re probably frustrated. There are plenty of reasons to be after Game 3, with the lost potential of a commanding 3-0 series lead perhaps chief among them. Many will point to questionable officiating (with a certain video replay call made in error as only the most obvious example). Others, perhaps, to lost opportunities at the free throw line. Yet the most frustrating aspect of all was a return to normalcy for both teams in the turnover column. Dallas ranked 21st in the league in turnover rate this season, while Portland ranked second in opponent’s turnover rate. That combination seemed highly reactive from the start, and yet the turnover battle was hardly an important part of the series narrative prior to Thursday’s game. Then Jason Kidd turned the ball over three times in the first quarter, reestablishing the season-long Maverick tradition of surrendering possessions midstream. Dallas posted a turnover rate of 18.8, their highest of the series and significantly more damaging than Portland’s 10.6 mark. Every reckless move fed the possibility of a Maverick loss, ultimately leaving the whole evening plump with the potential for disappointment. It’s just one loss, but it’s one loss that could have effectively ended the Blazers had the Mavs not participated in their own temporary demise.
As unfortunate as this loss was, those numerous frustrations aren’t guaranteed to persist; this one lost opportunity is no reason for legitimate despondency, considering how well Dallas played even in defeat. The Mavs can find solace in the fact that they generally worked their way into favorable shots, even after Jason Kidd (eight points, 3-9 FG, three assists, six rebounds, five turnovers) and Peja Stojakovic (seven points, 3-7 FG, three rebounds) returned to earth. Dirk Nowitzki (25 points, 10-21 FG, nine rebounds) was able to shoot a decent percentage from the field for the first time all series. Portland’s offensive rebounding was held to a reasonable level. Gerald Wallace and Nicolas Batum contributed during a crucial fourth quarter run, but were largely unproductive on offense. Even with the loss, there’s a lot to work with and plenty to look forward to in Game 4.
For a night, Jason Terry (27 points, 10-13 FG, 5-7 3FG, seven assists) walked on air. JET had played productive minutes in both Games 1 and 2, but his performance in Game 3 stands among the best by any player in this series thus far. Terry was the Mavs’ one consistent source of points, and he expertly used his defensive draw to set up teammates for easy scores. Just productive, heady play from a big-time playoff performer. Terry was able to fuel Maverick runs and keep the team afloat when the offense struggled, and while it’s a damn shame that Dallas couldn’t take full advantage of JET’s excellence, it was a treat to see Terry in optimal form.
Fittingly, JET was balanced by his positional counterparts; Wesley Matthews (25 points, 8-12 FG, 4-6 3FG, three assists) and Brandon Roy (16 points, 6-10 FG, four assists) were both fantastic for the Blazers, and together accounted for over half of Portland’s points. Roy will draw the primarily of the attention, as he transformed from self-pitying distraction to valuable contributor almost overnight. However, Matthews’ combination of three-point range, driving ability, and aggressive defense offers the greater long-term concern. Roy may have had a profound impact on this particular game, but he’s not at a point where he can be trusted to do the same on Saturday, much less for the rest of the series. Matthews, on the other hand, stays relatively constant in his effort, even if not his production. He can be a difference-maker with his hustle and defense alone, and when he’s dropping 25 on efficient shooting as well, he presents a rather substantial problem.
The Mavs’ defense was stifled by the Blazers’ impressive shot-making (as was the case with the Blazers’ D and the Mavs’ shot-making as well), but Brendan Haywood and Tyson Chandler did incredible individual defensive work against LaMarcus Aldridge. LMA still managed to get his, and several of his buckets were quite timely. That said, a few big baskets don’t erase Aldridge’s less efficient overall line; he may have scored a bit and even kept Chandler off the court by putting him in foul trouble, but his presence was significantly less taxing on the Dallas defense than it has been in games past. 30 minutes of Haywood typically isn’t conducive to effective play, but he filled in for Chandler admirably.