You know the drill. The Difference is a reflection on the game that was, with one bullet for every point in the final margin.
It figures that the game I pick to recap is a blowout. Disclaimer before we go any further: I am a huge Isaiah Thomas fan. I will try to temper this as we talk about what went wrong with the Mavericks in Sacramento. It wasn’t pretty, people. Not even a little bit.
A rough start really doomed Dallas. The team had five of their 17 turnovers in the first quarter, including four of them in the first four minutes of the game. Sacramento took advantage, scoring nine points off of those turnovers in the opening session. The Kings jumped out to a lead quickly, leaving the Mavs to play catch up all night.
After finding himself on the bench at the end of the Suns game on Thursday night, Jason Terry (game-high 23 points, 10-for-18 fgs) was looking to get himself going early against the Kings, and was one of the bright spots for the Mavs offensively in the first half. He kept the Mavs in it by coming up with a bucket to temper the crowd every time the Kings seemed to be on the verge of really blowing things open.
While Dirk Nowitzki started off 2-for-2 from the floor, the team didn’t make it a point to get the ball to him in the first quarter and things went downhill from there as Dirk wasn’t ever able to get going. He shot 1-for-5 in the second quarter, 2-for-4 in the third and then 0-2 in the fourth. He finished with 13 points on 5-for-13 shooting in 29 minutes of action.
The Mavericks just looked sluggish tonight. Perhaps they were tired from last night’s loss to the Suns, but their defense wasn’t doing them any favours against the Kings. A five-point swing for the Kings: Jason Thompson gets his own offensive rebound, finds Chuck Hayes open under the hoop for an easy two. Next possession:Francisco Garcia steals the ball from Nowitzki (Mavs turnover #6) and finds John Salmons for a three.
You know the drill. The Difference is a reflection on the game that was, with one bullet for every point in the final margin.
The Celtics’ availability issues started out crippling and ended up comical; if it weren’t bad enough that Rajon Rondo (suspended), Kevin Garnett (personal reasons), and Brandon Bass (knee) were nixed from the game at the start, Jermaine O’Neal (wrist) and Chris Wilcox (groin) left in the third quarter and did not return. That left the Celtics reeling with all kinds of crazy lineup combinations, and completely incapable of mounting a comeback run using their typical offensive and defensive alignments.
Then again, considering how O’Neal and Wilcox plodded through their pick-and-roll recoveries on Dirk Nowitzki, maybe a delayed absence was for the best from Boston’s perspective. Nowitzki was focused from opening tip and quick to fire, but each of his ball screens secured him an ocean of open space. A make is virtually guaranteed for any competent NBA shooter who is able to catch, square up, and fire off a jumper without even the slightest hint of duress; under those same conditions, a shooter as as accurate and highly utilized as Nowitzki apparently rattles off 26 points in 30 minutes. Without having Garnett around to at least attempt to check Dirk, Boston was fairly helpless.
You know the drill. The Difference is a reflection on the game that was, with one bullet for every point in the final margin.
No recap of this game would be complete without proper documentation of the bucket (and free throw!) that brought about its conclusion:
The Mavs’ offense on the whole isn’t looking all that impressive, but Dallas’ immediate scoring future is looking brighter based on one simple fact: Dirk Nowitzki (16 points, 7-11 FG, seven rebounds, four assists) has progressed beyond polishing his ability to hit open shots and moved right on to practicing — and making — the impossible ones. This functional game-winner was generated by a wonderful drive, but the fact that Nowitzki was able to convert the layup rather than merely draw a foul is indicative of just how special of a player Dirk is. Nowitzki manufactured a few open looks throughout the game after faking out his defender, but his second half was particularly notable for his run-ins with impossibility.
Ian Levy is the author of Hickory High, a contributor to Indy Cornrows, and is now a part of The Two Man Game family. He’ll be bringing his intelligent brand of — mostly quantitative — analysis here on a weekly basis.
Have you ever had an afternoon, or even an entire day, where everything went totally smoothly? With every normal disaster avoided? The girl at Starbucks doesn’t notice your fly is down as she hands you your coffee. The important meeting for which you’re completely unprepared is canceled at the last minute for a bizarre and unexpected reason. You turn on the fake tears and the state trooper lets you off with a warning.
Well, DeShawn Stevenson has had about 90 of those days in a row.
Stevenson is shooting 41.3% on three pointers this season, well above his career average of 34.7%. This fact becomes even more impressive when you consider that he shot 21.8% and 27.8% his last two NBA seasons. If he was a cyclist and made that sort of single season improvement in one area, hundreds of technicians would be poring over vials of his urine in laboratories around the world.
If we look at Stevenson’s three point percentages for each season, we’ll see this is actually not the only towering peak:
He also shot 40.4% on 183 attempts in 2007 and 38.3% on 413 attempts in 2008. What Stevenson is doing this season is not unprecedented for him personally, but it does put a spotlight on an amazing pattern of inconsistency. As I mentioned above, between this season and the 2007 and 2008 campaigns, Stevenson shot 21.8% and 27.8% on a total of 216 attempts. Before the 2007 and 2008 seasons he had made 52 of 202 three pointers for his career, a 26.2% clip. Still, the jump this season over his career average is his greatest increase yet.
Thus far this season, Stevenson is shooting 6.6 percentage points higher than his career average. In the past 20 years there have been 291 instances of a player shooting better than 40.0% on three pointers for a season with a minimum of 200 attempts, two marks Stevenson should easily surpass barring injury or a gigantic slump. Of those 291 instances I could only find 22 cases where a player shot over 40.0% on three pointers and it represented an increase of 6.6 percentage points or more over their career average. Ray Allen’s jump this season from a career mark of 39.8% to 46.2% just barely misses our cut.
Looking at things in this way certainly favors the freakishly flukey. Historically great three-point shooters like Steve Kerr, Dale Ellis, Reggie Miller, Dell Curry and Wesley Person don’t make our list because they consistently shot a high percentage each season.
There are a few other oddities with this list. The first is that Stevenson is not the only player showing such a dramatic improvement in their three point shooting this season. I mentioned Ray Allen above, but Richard Jefferson is also on pace to match Stevenson’s improvement over his own career average. The second is a fellow Maverick: Jason Kidd’s performance last year earned him a spot on this list as well. Kidd, a career 34.9% three point shooter, made 42.5% of his three pointers last year, an improvement of 7.6 percentage points. Unfortunately, Kidd hasn’t been able to sustain that improvement this season.
There are only two pairs of teammates who appear on the list for notably improved performances in the same season. The first pairing is Toni Kukoc and Michael Jordan for the 1996 Bulls. Not that you needed any convincing from me, but things went really, really well for the Bulls that season. Brent Price and Tim Legler also made the list for the 1996 Washington Bullets. I’m not sure what was happening in our nation’s capital that winter but it was apparently a glorious time to be an undersized, athletically limited, one-dimensional shooter.
The biggest single season improvement over a career average I could find was Kevin Johnson’s 1997 campaign for the Suns. Johnson was a career 30.5% three point shooter but knocked down 44.1% that season. Looking at the Suns’ 40-42 record gives the impression that it was a fairly unremarkable season for them. However, that team was one of my all-time favorites to watch. In the early stages of that season, the Suns traded Sam Cassell to Dallas for a talented young point guard named Jason Kidd. The rest of the season they started a three-guard lineup of Kidd, Johnson and Rex Champman, with Wesley Person and a young Steve Nash coming off the bench. That team was an early predecessor of the run-and-gun Suns that would rise to prominence several years later.
Even if surrounded by a generally unimpressive list of players who have accomplished this feat, Stevenson’s improvement is still something to be recognized. But where did this scorching stroke come from? I took a look at the data from Synergy Sports to compare what type of offensive possessions his three point shots came out of this season and last season.*
*For some reason, only the data from his time in Washington was available for last season, though he didn’t attempt many shots at all for Dallas. Stevenson took 87 three pointers last year and 63 of them came with the Wizards, so a significant chunk of last season’s performance is represented here.
Three Point Distribution
PnR Ball Handler
It would be nice to have some data from earlier seasons for a point of comparison, but we’re stuck with what we have: publicly available data. The trend from the past two seasons would seem to indicate that Stevenson is a reluctant and inefficient shooter when it comes to taking three-pointers off the dribble. He is taking roughly the same percentage of his three-pointers from each area as he did last season, but in situations where he can just catch and shoot (off screens, transition, spot-up) he has seen a remarkable improvement.
Last season in Washington, Stevenson made just 20.8% of his spot-up three pointers compared to 43.4% this season. Obviously an offense run by Jason Kidd with Dirk Nowtizki as a primary offensive threat is going to generate more open looks than one run by Randy Foye with Andray Blatche as the “weapon of choice,” but I don’t think all of his miraculous shot making can be attributed to better teammates or better coaching. You can call it skill, luck, fate or an aberration. I just think Stevenson has been having one of those days . . . again and again and again.
“A ship is safe in harbor, but that’s not what ships are for.”
Defense is predicated on calculated risk, and when properly executed, this is what those risks look like. Lots of long two-pointers (Boston shot 31 shots between 16-23 feet and made just 12 of them). Rotations that expose the defense temporarily, but are balanced by a strong presence at the rim. A huge, potentially game-winning shot, put in Rajon Rondo’s hands some 24 feet from the basket. Even the best defense can’t stop everything, but if a team focuses on what’s important and cedes the rest, they can debilitate opposing offenses enough to win games like this one.
The Mavs weren’t flawless in their execution, but we focus primarily on the defense, this is precisely what the Mavs should hope to achieve on a nightly basis. If all goes according to plan, this defensive performance — though fine on its own merits — should be completely unremarkable. This needs to be the regular for Dallas. This needs to be a trademark. This needs to be the schoolwork proudly displayed on the fridge for a day until a new assignment takes its place, rather than some mantle piece riddled with dust. The Mavs have the potential to be this good defensively if they execute properly, and on this night they did just that.
The Mavs also have the potential to rival the league’s elite if they execute properly on offense as well, yet on this night they did anything but. Dallas committed 19 turnovers in a 91-possession game, which might be borderline impressive if it weren’t so maddening. The Mavs can’t expect to win these kinds of games with regularity if their turnover rate is hovering around last night’s mark of 20.9. Dallas’ hot shooting this season has managed to balance out their turnovers, but the shots won’t always fall. This team can’t always hang its hat on high-percentage shot-making, even if they’re working to create more high-percentage looks than ever. The turnovers need to come down, even if it’s hard to peg any specific reasons for the unexpected bump. As I mentioned yesterday, the symptoms are obvious, but if anyone has a proper diagnosis for these sudden turnover concerns, I’m all ears.
Luckily, Dirk Nowitzki (25 points, 9-16 FG, seven rebounds, four turnovers) was relentless in his drives to the rim, Jason Terry (17 points, 5-11 FG, four assists) was patient and fought for open looks in the half-court offense, and Tyson Chandler (12 points, 5-5 FG, 13 rebounds, two blocks, zero turnovers) introduced the alley-oop as an item of cultural relevance in the Dallas metro area, and J.J. Barea (12 points, 4-7 FG, three assists, three turnovers) scored just enough, even if he overstepped his bounds a bit.
The Celtics have a number of excuses/justifications if they choose to play those cards. Maybe they were looking ahead to a game against the Miami Heat. Maybe they were physically or mentally exhausted in playing the second night of a back-to-back. Regardless, Dallas was the superior squad last night. They executed more effectively, shot more efficiently, hustled more consistently, and attacked more strategically. The Mavs were ready for this game, and they earned a win. That’s important. That’s what you can take away to keep in your back pocket. Whatever goes on in Boston’s camp is their problem, but Dallas came in with a well-constructed plan and enacted it properly.
Tyson Chandler was fantastic. Nowitzki’s offense was obviously instrumental, but Chandler (Gold Star spoiler alert) was obviously the Mavs’ most effective player. He didn’t create any of his offense on his own, but by relying on his teammates to feed him the ball at the proper moments, Chandler was always in the right spot offensively. He finished each of his opportunities, and demanded that the Celtics’ defense account for him, praise that hasn’t been applicable to a Mavericks’ center, well, ever. On defense, Chandler didn’t re-write the rules of help defense, but he recited them from memory to perfection. He stepped up and challenged any Celtic who dared attack the basket, and even recovered fully to challenge his own man at the basket in some cases. He never stopped. Chandler clearly understands that a defensive possession is only finished after his team secures the rebound, and he worked tirelessly to challenge as many shots and potential shots as possible before concluding each and every possession. Books aren’t written about those who do exactly what they’re supposed to, but for his efforts on this night alone, I vote Chandler worthy of a memoir.
DeShawn Stevenson started in place of Jason Terry, as Rick Carlisle opted to redistribute the Mavs’ strongest scorers. He answered by hitting a pair of three-pointers and chasing Ray Allen around for 14 minutes, and that’s an unquestionable success. I’m not sure it makes a world of difference to have Terry starting or coming off the bench, as both designations can be balanced by his usage in particular lineups. However, if Stevenson can hit reliably from distance and put in that kind of defensive effort nightly, I’d have no problem with him assuming the starting job until Rodrigue Beaubois’ return.
Caron Butler knows that the season has started, right?
The Mavericks have absolutely no respect for Rajon Rondo’s jumper. So much so that J.J. Barea once forgot that Nate Robinson had subbed in for Rondo, and gave up a wide open three-pointer without even pretending to contest.
I’m not sure who this Brendan Haywood is, but I wouldn’t mind seeing the old one come back. Haywood had a nice contested slam and grabbed a few boards, but he had a lot of trouble defending Kevin Garnett, Semih Erden, and Glen Davis. I know the matchup wasn’t favorable; Haywood would have been far more useful had we seen more of either O’Neal, but Jermaine played limited minutes and Shaquille sat this one out. I understand that puts Haywood in an awkward position, but he has to do better. He has to provide better help, he can’t let Erden beat him to rebounds, and he can’t give up points on the low block so easily. There’s no problem being patient with Haywood given what he’s capable of, but if this is par for the season’s course, Mark Cuban is going to have plenty of sleepless nights, holding his wallet close.
Even after all of the barking and strutting, I still love watching Kevin Garnett play. As long as he milks that pump fake and turnaround jumper, it doesn’t much matter to me what he’s said or done. Garnett — the player — is still terrific in my book, even if Dirk gave him serious trouble with his drives. Also: KG is so brutally effective from the high post against the zone. He backs down a shoots jumpers over JET, while having the passing savvy to abuse any double-teamer that comes his way.
If you think this game was in any way decided by officiating, stop. The free throw discrepancy was that large for a reason, and the Mavs’ aggressive third quarter mentality was a big part of that reason.
Hail Jason Terry, who in his infinite wisdom, opted to foul Ray Allen with 1.5 seconds left in the game. The Celtics had collected an offensive rebound after Rajon Rondo’s three-point miss, and the Dallas defense was in slight disarray. The Mavs had a foul to give, and Terry took it while he could. Not only is that a smart move irrelevant of the result, but the fact that Dallas was able to completely smother the ensuing inbound pass and force Garnett into a contested turnaround from the far corner…well, you can’t ask for much more. Pitch-perfect execution in all regards by Dallas down the stretch, and a great judgment call by Terry.
GOLD STAR OF THE NIGHT: Tyson Chandler. I wouldn’t hang the Mavs’ hat on this iteration of Chandler showing up for every game, but Mavs fans should be thankful he was so effective last night.
“Continual improvement is an unending journey.”
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.
Sebastian Pruiti, my fellow TrueHooper over at NetsAreScorching, has launched a new blog entitled NBA Playbook. It’s exactly what it sounds like, and Sebastian broke down the Mavs’ “miscommunication” that led to a wide open, potentially game-tying three point attempt for Rodney Stuckey.
Dirk is a no-brainer for the best European player of all time, but could Pau Gasol eventually nab the honor? Dirk is two years Pau’s senior, so it could very well depend on just how long the two remain active and just how successful Pau and the Lakers can be. On an individual level, I’m not sure the two are even comparable; Dirk can simply do things on the offensive end that no other player can do, while Gasol, for all his talents, isn’t built to carry an offense in the same way. That said, if championships are part of the criteria, Gasol already has a ring on his finger and is in a good position to possibly win a few more. I’m not sure how much the ‘ships count in the context of this discussion, but that’s the one area in which Pau clearly trumps Dirk.
Now infamous former Mavs stat guru Wayne Winston on this season’s MVP (via Henry Abbott): “Surely Dirk. He leads the whole league in two of my categories, plus/minus points and impact (plus-26 points, plus-73% impact). Luol Deng, Ray Allen and LeBron James have also been great. People forget Kobe Bryant has great teammates, so I do not think he is up there.” High praise, albeit from a guy who has made his share of dubious claims.
On the surface, this is about a blogger who has long walked the realm of the NBA utterly team-less. But dig a little deeper, and you’ve got one of the most cogent, self-aware, and perceptive writers in the biz pinning down exactly what it means to be a fan. Lap up the praise, Moore, because this new era of your NBA fanhood has started with a bang.
“It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything.”
Oh, so that’s what good ball movement looks like.
The Dallas Mavericks reminded us that that they can forget to show up for a game any time they want to, and apparently came to a unanimous decision to stink it up against the defending champs in front of a national audience. On some level, I’d like for the Mavs to retain a certain sense of a national respect, but that’s not the real issue here; the Mavs had a chance to not only establish some momentum and wow the ABC viewers, but they literally had a chance to redefine the way their season is evaluated. One of the beautiful things about having an up-and-down team is that as infuriating as it is, the team’s play fluctuates towards the cream of the crop and the bottom of the barrel ad infinitum. In doing so, it’s hard to determine exactly where they they fall in the basketball continuum, giving them a mysterious potential for unspeakable power when you least expect it. You feel like they could all of a sudden open up a 30-point can of utter destruction on a bonafide championship contender.
The Mavs are as up-and-down as they come, but they aren’t that team anymore. Sunday’s loss (yes, I know, it was just one game) effectively shackled this team’s upward potential once and for all. To be honest, the offense wasn’t terrible. Dirk had an awful shooting night; just another merit badge on Kevin Garnett’s vest, and perhaps a nomination for Brian Scalabrine to make an All-Defense team. But the rest of the team shot over 47% from the field, an effort that might be good enough to get a Dallas win on some days. Needless to say, this was not one of them.
The Celtics just managed to pick out almost all of the Mavs’ significant weaknesses and attack them simultaneously. They attacked Jason Kidd with Rajon Rondo, one of the quickest point guards in the game. Dallas’ D got absolutely slaughtered on any play that involved a pick; the typical results were an open Ray Allen jumper, a good look at a J from Kevin Garnett over a smaller defender, or a wide open three on one of the wings. It was brutal. You could certainly say that the Celtics hit a ridiculous amount of their shots (notably a ridiculous 16 of 27 from three). That said, there’s a reason why the Celtics hit at almost 54% on the night: there often wasn’t a defender within ten feet. I hear that helps. Throw in the fact that Garnett played some killer, active defense against a lackadaisical offense and blitzed everyone that tried to guard him, and you’ve got the makings of a blowout. I wish I could say this was an isolated incident, and in a sense I guess it kind of is — not many teams have the talent on both ends that the Celtics have. That doesn’t mean we won’t see one of these weaknesses attacked each and every night, whether it’s Chris Paul making Jason Kidd look like a guy with a peg leg trying to catch a squirrel covered in vegetable oil or the Spurs making the Mavs’ heads spin.