Survival of the Fittest

Posted by Rob Mahoney on March 23, 2010 under Commentary | 3 Comments to Read

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NBA teams are valued based on their strength. That strength is evaluated through “power” rankings, through their brute force, and through their ability to execute a game plan without compromise. In the same way that we value unwavering opinion (after all, anything less makes an individual a weak flip-flopper), we praise teams that impose their will on others rather than adapting to circumstance. What the Trailblazers did pre-Camby was impressive, sure, but that storyline was a mere footnote on the NBA landscape while the powerful wills (or temporary lack thereof) of the Lakers and the Cavs stole headlines.

Power matters. It really does. Talent drives the game, the league, and the teams. But even more important is knowing the best ways to optimize the talent that you have, and that involves an incredible amount of flexibility. After all, why hammer a square peg into a round hole with a big rock when you can just swap for a round, well-fitting peg?

That responsibility starts with the players, and having an willingness to try new things. But the primary burden falls on the shoulders of the coaches. It’s the responsibility of any coaching staff to do more than execute a plan of attack; that plan should be adjusted, tinkered with, and even radically altered as the situation dictates. It’s not a concession to switch up match-ups or alter one’s rotation, but a sign of sound decision-making. Survival on the NBA is predicated on the ability to adapt and evolve, and luckily for the Mavs, that’s Rick Carlisle’s specialty.

Case in point: the Mavs use of Dirk Nowitzki on the offensive end against the Celtics on Saturday. In spite of their drop-off this season, Boston is still tied for tops in the league in defensive efficiency. That’s no accident, and even though Kevin Garnett is nowhere near his MVP production levels, he’s still a huge part of that. So while the Mavs-Celtics match-up is interesting for a variety of reasons, chief among them is likely the battle between a world-class offensive and defensive player at the same position. Take a look at this clips and watch how well Garnett contests Dirk in isolation. He prevents Nowitzki from gaining position, plays his favorite sides for spins, crowds him, and gets a hand up.

Of course, Garnett has help. The reason the Celtics’ boast such an impressive defense is because of their ability to rotate and contest. The system strengthens the inferior individual defenders, hiding their weaknesses and exploiting their strengths defensively. On this play, we see Rasheed Wallace (Dirk’s primary defender), Glen Davis, and Paul Pierce all play a hand in defending Nowitzki. ‘Sheed does most of the work as he traps Dirk on the wing, but Davis stepping up to protect the basket and Pierce getting a hand in Dirk’s face on the jumper cannot be ignored. Those are two areas of the floor from which Dirk is incredibly comfortable, and yet he has no room to operate against Wallace and gets a tough look against Pierce.

Then there’s the two-man game. This example comes from late in the fourth quarter, so perhaps it betrays my point a bit. But the Celtics excel at taking away what Nowitzki does best. Every pick-and-roll/pick-and-pop opportunity for Dirk was smothered, he was defended well in the high post and the low post, and it was clear that Boston knew exactly where the ball was going when Dirk set up shop.

The Mavs still worked the ball around to Nowitzki, but the important thing is that the Celtics could anticipate what Dirk was going to do when he caught it. Garnett and Wallace knew to anticipate the spins, and to crowd him. The Mavs best player was still making some tough shots on occasion, but for the most part he was having the most effective parts of his game (or really, his most effective areas on the floor) taken away from him by a terrific defense.

So the Mavs had a few options. They could:

  • Keep doing what they were doing, and rely on Dirk’s offensive prowess to trump KG’s defensive talents.
  • Work the ball through other players, and rely on the offense of Caron Butler and Jason Terry to win the day.
  • Keep going through Dirk, but alter the approach.

Rick Carlisle and Nowitzki opted for a combination of the latter, though Butler hardly carried his weight and Terry was good but well short of supernatural. The key to getting Dirk to 28 points on just 18 shots (with 57.8% shooting) was to take him out of his comfort zones intentionally by switching up the Mavs’ usual sets. That way, Dirk sees the change coming through prescribed play calls, but the Celtics were still operating under the assumption that the Mavs’ offensive scheme would proceed as usual.

Needless to say, it didn’t. Dirk was mindful of openings to score in different ways (he was much quicker on the trigger to fire on an offensive rebound, for example), and the sets were drawn up using a bit of misdirection.

  1. Getting it right.

    The scouting report on Dirk Nowitzki will tell you that he always goes to his left. It was part of his basketball development and helped to keep defenders off-balance early in his career. Now it’s a known fact, and you know Dirk is switching things up when he not only drives to his right, but finishes without pulling up for a short bank shot (as he’s been ought to do this year) or going reverse. He still goes to the left hand to finish at the front of the cup, but I think we can live with that.

  2. A subtle variation of an old theme.

    When the Mavs run the two-man game, it’s typically slow and methodical. Jason Terry works around a Dirk screen, is patient to see if Dirk is more open than he is, and if nothing is there on first or second glance, he explodes toward the hoop or an open spot on the floor for a jumper. In this case, J.J. Barea and Dirk run the two-man game in a completely different capacity (apparently by design). When Barea draws the attention of both defenders, he knows exactly where Dirk will be and dishes it to him with a ball counter. We’ve seen Dirk and JET do this on occasion, but in this case it seems far more deliberate.

  3. The weak side is the strong side.

    Here, Dirk takes advantage of a two-man game setup that doesn’t involve him. Terry and Eddie Najera go to work on the right side, while Dirk works to get open on the left. When Rasheed Wallace is forced to rotate to cover the cutting Najera, Nowitzki is left wide open from three. It was just Dirk’s 33rd made three this season.

  4. Sharing is caring.

    The easiest way to capitalize on an overly aggressive defense is to either put them in a position to commit fouls frequently (A.K.A. driving to the basket) or to exploit help defenders with smart passing. That’s what Nowitzki does here, as he finds an open Kidd on the perimeter after spinning into a Rasheed Wallace/Marquis Daniels double.

  5. Sleight of hand.

    On these sequences, the Mavs run the Dirk-Terry two-man game as a decoy. The play is not only obvious but so effective that teams have to pay attention to it, giving Terry the perfect opportunity to find open teammates on the perimeter. The Celtics were aggressive in pursuing the pick man at almost every instance; Haywood was smothered on each roll to the basket, Sheed stepped up to trail Najera, and Dirk was almost always covered. That left Terry with enough room and enough time to find the weakness in the Celtics’ rotation and exploit it. These possessions didn’t end with points, but they’re still well-conceived.

  6. Inside, outside, USA.

    Wait, you mean having a back-to-the-basket threat alongside Dirk yields tangible benefits? You don’t say. The opportunity to block a Brendan Haywood turnaround jumper is a bit too enticing for KG, which leaves a driving lane open for Nowitzki. Perkins does a nice job of contesting Dirk at the rim, but Nowitzki finishes by creating space with the off-arm. Slightly illegal, maybe, but highly effective.

  7. Do everything you normally do, only different.

    Dirk is so effective at running the pick-and-pop, that’s it’s a bit shocking when he changes things up and rolls to the basket. The real credit here goes to Barea though, who runs this particular sequence to perfection.

  8. So predictable it’s unpredictable.

    Mavs fans should be painfully familiar with this set. Whenever the Mavs want to set up Dirk along the baseline, they’ll run him from one side of the lane to the other utilizing a pick from either Haywood/Dampier or one of the wings. That allows the entry pass to go into Nowitzki easily in most cases, which is important considering that Dirk doesn’t really have the backside to protect the feed. This has really been a post-2007 development; Stephen Jackson and co. were so good at stealing and doubling the feed into Dirk that the Mavs need a counter in their playbook. So they run him off of a baseline screen, and the pass usually goes into Nowitzki without incident.Garnett knows this. But in this particular case, Dirk fakes his usual route and then makes a quick cut to the top of the key.

It might be hard to find solace in something like this after back-to-back losses, but these things matter. Knowing that your team’s star and head coach can adjust to serious defensive pressure is about as important as it gets. The Mavs may not face a power forward or team defense on-par with KG/Boston at all in the post-season, but if they can adjust to allow Dirk to get his against that type of opponent, what’s going to stop them from doing the same against L.A. or Denver?

Boston Celtics 102, Dallas Mavericks 93: Abridged

Posted by Rob Mahoney on March 21, 2010 under Recaps | 6 Comments to Read

Photo by Danny Bollinger/NBAE via Getty Images.

Box ScorePlay-By-PlayShot Chart — GameFlow

Continual improvement is an unending journey.
-Lloyd Dobens

  • The fact that this game shows up as an L in a sea of W’s doesn’t change much; the team that lost to the Celtics last night is very much the same team that rattled off 13 straight wins. This one result was obviously quite different, but this performance was just as imperfect as any during the streak, and just as promising. Dallas couldn’t close against a pretty determined Boston team, but the defense was still impressive and the half-court offense made a nice second half rally. The only trouble in paradise is that it was never really paradise to begin with.
  • This was a terrific game. Competitive throughout, no team registering any kind of insurmountable lead, and the stars on each side coming out to play. There were stretches where both teams were in a funk: the turnovers, missed shots, and lazy fouls added up like you would never expect from two contending teams. But the Mavs and Celtics were evenly matched even in their futility. That doesn’t translate to 48 minutes of beautiful basketball, but it did translate to 48 minutes of hotly-contested basketball, which may be the next best thing. Or the best thing if you’re a March Madness zealot.
  • The rumors of the Celtics’ demise were not greatly exaggerated. This Boston squad was dead, pronounced, autopsied, and buried months ago. What we have here is a team of undead soldiers. Kevin Garnett walks again in the Romero mold, lacking the quickness, explosiveness, and general transcendence of his previously human self. But he’s as belligerent a defender as ever, and he hounded Dirk into plenty of tough shots. Paul Pierce and Ray Allen are perhaps a bit more self-aware in their second chance at life. Both are pained by the limits of being the walking dead, but they tirelessly carry out the goals of their mortal lives. Rajon Rondo follows the contemporary Danny Boyle model: a relentless, physically intimidating, quick, reactive, and utterly more frightening force. These guys have unearthed themselves and they’re hungry for brains.
  • On paper, the Mavs match up pretty well with the Celtics. Shawn Marion is a terrific counter for Pierce, Caron Butler and Jason Terry may not be able to stop Allen but they can certainly match him and then some, Dirk and KG are excellent foils, and the combination of Haywood and Dampier can hopefully negate any impact that Kendrick Perkins would have. Not all of that came to fruition last night, but the lineups present some incredible possibilities.
  • Rasheed Wallace’s “retribution?” Are we seriously talking about this? Come on.
  • Garnett played Dirk about as well as any defender has all season…and Nowitzki still finished with 28 points on 11-of-19 shooting. I don’t want to show my hand too much, because I plan to drop a video on this sometime in the next day or so, but the key to jump-starting Nowitzki’s production after a slow start was to take him out of the Mavs’ traditional sets. Rick Carlisle showed some real creativity in finding Dirk scoring opportunities against some elite defense, and that’s huge.
  • That said, KG (eight points, 3-9 FG, nine rebounds, five steals) was essentially a defensive specialist against the Mavs. Dirk defended him well, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. The phase of Garnett’s career where he was a dominant scorer has come to a close, and while that puts quite a cap on his league-wide hegemony, it doesn’t entirely negate his influence. He can impact a game as a key defender and a spot scorer, and his work on Dirk could have been what put Boston over the top.
  • The Mavs centers combined for five points, 10 rebounds, and five turnovers. They were completely invisible aside from a pair of Haywood blocks, most notably a obliteration of a third-quarter Rajon Rondo layup attempt. It was an impressive play, but it doesn’t quite excuse the combined performance of the Mavs’ 5s.
  • The atmosphere at the AAC has been a bit lacking this season, but it’s nice to see the in-game entertainment folks stepping up their game.
  • Caron Butler (nine points, 3-14 FG, four rebounds) did not have a good night, but he was working hard. That’s all you can ask. The Celtics are a great defensive team, and while it’d be nice if every Mav could drain every open shot, sometimes it just isn’t in the cards. But we know that Butler is capable of contributing on a consistent basis otherwise, and that type of redeeming factor is what will keep Caron’s status separate from a Josh Howardian designation. Howard’s effort was criticized as much as his decision-making and his maturity level, but Butler was killing himself on the court. His three offensive rebounds tied for the game-high, and he added three steals.
  • Shawn Marion (16 points, 7-13 FG, six rebounds) is becoming more and more influential. Before, Shawn was a defensive stopper who could score. Then, he was a crutch in a time of need. Now, even with a fully-functional lineup (unless you count the left half of Jason Terry’s face), Marion is easing the burden on the team’s top scorers by providing some much-needed scoring help in the half court. Yes, in the half court. Marion may have started the game with a leak out into transition, but almost all of his damage came by cutting in the half-court game and finding open spots along the baselines. Some of his missed layups are still heartbreaking, but I think you take what you can get when Marion is carrying the scoring load for chunks of the game.
  • Rajon Rondo (20 points, 10 rebounds, five assists) was absolutely terrific in the fourth, as he worked against Jason Kidd in isolation. I can feel Mavericks Nation simmer over the fact that Rodrigue Beaubois couldn’t get off the bench until the closing seconds, and I feel you. Roddy is the most physically gifted perimeter defender the Mavs have, and his physique is practically tailor-made for a guy like Rondo. That doesn’t mean you cold call him in the middle of the fourth quarter when Kidd (11 points, six rebounds, nine assists) and (18 points, 8-16 FG, three steals) Terry are still playing well. Theoretically it makes sense, but contextually it didn’t.