Box Score — Play-by-Play — Shot Chart — GameFlow
You know the drill. The Difference is a reflection on the game that was, with one bullet for every point in the final margin.
- If you’re one for hyperbole, then you just witnessed the greatest playoff comeback in Dallas Mavericks history. If you’re not, well, you still witnessed the greatest playoff comeback in Dallas Mavericks history. To say this was an all-timer is no exaggeration, as the ridiculous 17-2 run the Mavs used to create a competitive game where there ought be none was shot on pre-aged celluloid, ready to be used in a hundred NBA commercials and playoff specials and retrospectives. This was a performance of immediate historic importance, and Dirk Nowitzki’s spins and fakes will become inseparable from the spine of playoff lore. The Mavs continue on their long, steady march through this season’s playoffs and toward their ultimate goal, but just four games into the Western Conference Finals, they’ve already reached immortality.
- Nowitzki (40 points, 12-20 FG, five rebounds, three assists) was obviously the mover, the shaker, the game-taker, the back-breaker, but the box score was populated by the influence of the often overlooked. Dallas doesn’t win without combined — and I do mean combined, as their play was often in tandem — defensive efforts of Jason Kidd (17 points, 5-9 FG, 3-6 3FG, seven assists, five rebounds, four steals) and Shawn Marion (seven points, 1-5 FG, four rebounds, four steals). They swarmed and switched against Kevin Durant (29 points, 9-22 FG, 15 rebounds, four assists) and Russell Westbrook (19 points, 7-22 FG, eight rebounds, eight assists), and Marion’s game-saving block on Durant at the end of regulation and his tandem stop with Kidd against KD in overtime were only the tip of the iceberg. These two played exquisite floor D the entire night; they doubled at the right times, contested shots, deflected anything that went over the top, helped in transition, and created a dynamic front for a scrambling defense that threw Oklahoma City for a loop. Kidd’s 17 points were huge, but it’s the four steals apiece from Kidd and Marion that really set their performances apart.
- On the Thunder side, the Mavs’ aggressive defense on Durant and Westbrook opened up plenty of scoring opportunities for Thabo Sefolosha, Serge Ibaka, and Nick Collison. They were able to convert layups, dunks, and open jumpers during the bulk of Game 4 — as evidenced by their 42 combined points — but when OKC’s offense wilted late (as it so often does), those three couldn’t offer the solace of a made J or a strong cut. Everything the Thunder had built turned to dust, ground into an unrecognizable ash by way of the unnecessarily arduous reality of OKC’s endgame offense. There’s no question that Sfealosha, Ibaka, and Collison were instrumental in the victory that almost was for the Thunder, but their contributions were notably absent during one of the biggest playoff meltdowns in modern NBA history.
- Dallas used a 10-2 run to close the second quarter, a 7-0 run to close the third quarter, a 17-2 run to close the fourth quarter, and a 7-0 run to close overtime. “Always Be Glengarry Glen Rossing,” as they say.
- The Thunder more than tripled the Mavs in offensive rebounding rate, but that advantage can be — and was — negated with the right combination of elements. Still, it shouldn’t be lost on anyone that offensive rebounding, a product of positioning and effort, nearly brought this series to a 2-2 tie. The opportunity to take a 3-1 lead is substantial, but the Mavs’ inability to box out through a majority of Game 4 very nearly gave the Thunder the most commanding win of the series. OKC was so close to sprinting away, and Dallas so close to all of the self-analysis that come following losses of lethargy.
- In further efforts to comprehend the fourth quarter shift aside from simply praising Nowitzki’s phenomenal shot-making: the Thunder committed a number of costly, foolish backcourt fouls that allowed the Mavs scoring opportunities with a stopped clock. That’s real currency in a comeback attempt, and perhaps the greatest proof that Dallas couldn’t have won this game without Oklahoma City’s help. It took makes and miracles and defensive execution, but the Mavs were only put in a position to remain competitive by way of the Thunder’s miscues. Kevin Durant took some horrible shots down the stretch. Russell Westbrook has a million voices in his head, all with the assured confidence of sages, telling him to drivepassshootkickgyregymblepickrolldribble; he’s playing like a man preoccupied with silencing critics, without the confidence in his game to assert his own voice and his own will. Scott Brooks is throwing out some odd lineups and doodling aimlessly on a clipboard. The Thunder’s problems are perhaps a bit richer and more complex than these sentences will have you believe, but they stem from the team’s stars and coach, and trickle down accordingly.
- I’d be remiss to not reflect a bit on Jason Terry’s odd night. JET’s lows were perilous; his first half was uncharacteristically Magoo, and he nearly blew the potential for a comeback by attempting to draw a foul on a late-game fast break rather than actually attempt a legitimate shot. Yet in spite of all of the weird passes and near-turnovers, Terry was invaluable as a scorer and opportunistic defender. His 16 points spanning the second and third quarters helped keep the team afloat when the Thunder lead could have exploded, and JET scored as many points in overtime as OKC did as a team. There was plenty worth criticizing in Terry’s Game 4 performance, but this is why you stick with him, even when he starts slow. Dallas needs that scoring, and JET is far more capable of playing through his own poor play than most give him credit. He’ll have off nights and will be exploited defensively at times, but for better and worse the Mavericks need Jason Terry.
Box Score — Play-by-Play — Shot Chart — GameFlow
You know the drill. The Difference is a reflection on the game that was, with one bullet for every point in the final margin.
The Mavericks’ offense was magnificent in the first half. Every movement was crisp and precise, whichmade the Thunder’s stagnation even more apparent. By my count the Thunder attempted just five shots at the rim in the 1st Quarter, with two coming on offensive rebounds. Everything else was on the perimeter. Both sides had plenty of movement, but the Mavericksdisplayed a prescient awareness of where space would be, moving there as it opened up. The Thunder seemed to be seeking open space, and in most cases it eluded their desperate chase. On offense, the Thunder players were looking for opportunities to score; the Mavericks were waiting for opportunities to score. One Dallas offensive possession, in particular, stood out to me. Their second possession of the 2nd Quarter started with a Jason Terry steal. Within 12 seconds, the ball had crossed half-court, at least four passes had been made, three different Mavericks had touched the ball, nearly every Thunder defender had been forced to make a rotation, and Dirk Nowtizki had knocked down an open 16 footer.
In the 4th Quarter the Mavericks’ offense came off the rails. They scored enough to hold on and win, but gave up quite a bit of ground. Instead of the movement and passing that helped them build their lead, which had gone as high as 23 points, there seemed to be a concerted effort to “Get the ball to Dirk.” This resulted in isolation after isolation. A few tough defensive possessions from Nick Collison and the Thunder were back within striking distance.
Kevin Durant had a tough night, as Stevenson and Marion hounded him into a 7 of 22 performance. Durant certainly helped them out by staying on the perimeter. Just 4 of his 22 shot attempts came at the rim, and just one of those 4 was taken before the 4th Quarter. Some may point to his 0 of 8 shooting on three-pointers as a fluke. However, most of those long jumpers were contested and he struggled all game long to find enough space to operate comfortably.
Tyson Chandler completely out-Perkinsed Kendrick Perkins. Chandler finished with a game high 15 rebounds, and stated clearly that the paint belonged to him from the game’s outset. The physicality and nastiness that Chandler has brought to the Dallas back line is what Perkins was supposed to give Oklahoma City. Kind of makes you wonder what would have happened if the Chandler to Oklahoma City trade, of two years ago, hadn’t been voided because of his toe injury.
I’m a basketball nerd so I see references and connections everywhere. ESPN’s time out feature during the 1st Quarter, on notable playoff beards was clearly paying homage, intentionally or incidentally, to the now-defunct FreeDarko
and the “Hair up There” section in their Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History
. Well done, nameless ESPN segment producer.
The biggest storyline going into this game was Thunder coach, Scott Brooks, holding Russell Westbrook out for the entire 4th quarter of Game 2. The narrative coming out of Game 3 will likely continue to focus on Westbrook; but I’m curious to see what shape it will take. Westbrook was 8 of 20 from the field, and scored 30 points, thanks to 14 free throw attempts. His critics will likely focus on his 7 turnovers and 4 assists. I would be happy to offer criticism of Russell Westbrook for his play tonight, but none of it would focus on the ratio between his shot attempts and Durant’s. A comparison of their shot attempts as an evaluation of his effectiveness misses the point completely. Despite how it’s been framed this week, the problem is not a trade-off between Westbrook forcing the action or Durant getting open looks. It’s a trade-off between Westbrook forcing the action or Durant forcing the action. The Thunder offense created next to nothing in terms of open looks for Durant tonight. That’s an indictment of the entire team and everything leading up to the culmination of each possession, not just Westbrook’s ability and willingness to deliver the ball.
Ian Levy is the author of Hickory High, a contributor to Indy Cornrows, and a part of The Two Man Game family. You can follow Ian on Twitter at @HickoryHigh.
The Mavericks’ series against the Thunder presents a number of striking contrasts-youth and experience, isolations and ball movement, and of course fast and slow. The Thunder have played at the 4th fastest pace in these playoffs, averaging 90.8 possessions per game. The Mavericks have played at the 3rd slowest pace, averaging just 85.6 possessions per game. Conventional wisdom says the team that controls tempo, forcing the game towards their preferred speed, should prevail. By my count, each team has been averaging 89.3 possessions through the first two games. Although this shades towards the Thunder’s faster speed, it falls in between their two averages and fitting conventional wisdom, we have a 1-1 split.
We usually think of pace as a marco trend, a statistic which is discussed in the context of a team’s season long numbers. However, pace is anything but static. The speed at which a team plays will fluctuate, game to game, quarter to quarter, even minute to minute. The pace number we assign to a team, is really an averaging out of all those small variations. Shaking off the mantle of typical, I wanted to look at pace as a micro trend to see how much of an impact it’s having.
To break Games 1 and 2 into blocks of time, I used Popcorn Machine’s GameFlow charts. These charts conveniently identify runs for each team, as well as the chunks of time in between. For each block of time, I used play by play logs to calculate the pace as well as the score change from the Mavericks’ perspective.
|Seconds||Game Time||Possessions||Pace||Score Change||Game
Across the first two games of the series, 46.3 minutes consisted of chunks of time with the Mavericks being outscored by the Thunder. 47.8 minutes were chunks where the Mavericks either outscored the Thunder or played them even (I obviously lost just under a minute in my rounding somehow). For the time the Mavericks were in the negative, the average pace (weighted by the length of each time block) was 94.96. For the time the Mavericks were in the positive, the average pace was 86.76. When they’ve been able to keep the pace reasonably slow they’ve generally been ahead. When they start to let it get away from them, they fall behind.
The crisp offensive execution which has pushed the Mavericks to the Western Conference Finals, the pick-and-rolls, ball movement, cuts and screens, take time. When the Mavericks are goaded into an up-tempo burst offensively, it can take them away from what they do best. It limits them on the defensive end of the floor as well. They don’t have the athletes to keep up with Oklahoma City in transition, and a quicker pace makes it much more difficult to implement the zone they’ve used in spots.
The Mavericks can maintain control in a few ways. The first is by limiting their turnovers, which they’ve done very effectively. In both games the Mavericks turned the ball over on around 14% of their possessions. The second is by patiently running the sets, and scoring efficiently. When the Mavericks are calmly working through their offensive progressions, it slows the pace. Made baskets keep the Thunder from runnning, allowing the defense to set, and creating lengthier possessions for the Thunder offense.
In Game 1 the Thunder’s runs, with more than a five point advantage, lasted an average of 126 seconds. In Game 2 those same runs lasted an average of 150 seconds. It took the Mavericks a little bit longer to re-assert control and bring the pace into their comfort zone. They struggled to make shots, going 20 of 55 on attempts not at the rim, which gave the Thunder that chance to push the ball. Interestingly, the Thunder’s 11-2 run mid-way through the fourth quarter was played at a very slow pace, 70.7. Their second unit plays a much slower game, mostly due to the trade-off of Eric Maynor for Russell Westbrook. The tempo was right in the Mavericks wheelhouse. But they couldn’t take advantage and their offensive execution fell apart, with three missed jumpshots and a turnover.
This is something of a chicken-egg discussion. Pace is a reflection of a lot of factors. There is a fine line between the game speeding up because the Mavericks struggled, or the Mavericks struggling because the pace sped up. Regardless of which is the cause, a faster tempo seems like it will go hand in hand with a Thunder advantage. Composure, patience, awareness, attention to detail; all the thing which helped the Mavericks brush aside the Lakers, will be crucial over the next two games in Oklahoma City.
Ian Levy is the author of Hickory High, a contributor to Indy Cornrows, and a part of The Two Man Game family. You can follow Ian on Twitter at @HickoryHigh.
Box Score – Play-by-Play — Shot Chart — GameFlow
You know the drill. The Difference is a reflection on the game that was, with one bullet for every point in the final margin.
- Perfection, thy name is Dirk Nowitzki. Dirk’s Game 1 showing was dominant and poetic, an awkward exercise of mismatch exploitation that can be matched by none. His skill is something to behold in itself, but it was Nowitzki’s versatility that set him apart on Tuesday night; Dirk worked against Serge Ibaka, Nick Collison, Kevin Durant, Kendrick Perkins, Thabo Sefolosha, ‘Stonewall’ Jackson, Buckminster Fuller, Frankenstein’s monster, Joe Montegna, and Rube Goldberg. He varied his approach depending on the coverage — pump faked bigs, backed down guards, shot over the geodesic dome — but the results were always the same. 48 points on 15 shots isn’t a level of efficiency that can be comprehended by the human mind. It’s a transcendent performance, one which we can’t fully grasp by looking at a stat sheet or even watching the game film. Somewhere under the layers and layers of that video is an otherworldly white noise, an aura surrounding Nowitzki that we’re unable to precisely detect but is impossible to ignore. It’s just there, and while puny simpletons like you and I can’t come to a complete understanding of what happened in a game like this one, we’re perceptive enough to know that something special is going on that, frankly, goes beyond our existential pay-grade.
- This series was branded as a shootout, and lived up to its billing in Game 1. Kevin Durant (40 points, 10-18 FG, 2-5 3FG, 18-19 FT, eight rebounds, five assists, three turnovers) may not have matched Nowitzki shot-for-shot, but he came as close as his own limits (and the Dallas defense, for whatever it was worth) allowed. His was a remarkable performance as well, but feats of basketball strength are forever boosted and obscured by the power of context. On any other night, Durant’s incredible production would have been the story, and the ordaining of a young star in the biggest game of his life would have grabbed national headlines. Those in the know don’t need a strong performance in this series to know that Durant is great, but performances like this one certainly don’t hurt his repute. Shawn Marion and DeShawn Stevenson defended Durant for most of Game 1, but Jason Kidd — primarily through switches on 1-3 pick-and-rolls — got his chance, too. It didn’t matter. Durant was fantastic from all over the floor, and though Tyson Chandler did an excellent job of contesting his attempts in the paint, KD was awarded with enough free throws to keep the Thunder competitive in the face of a Nowitzki onslaught feat. J.J. Barea. Yet Durant’s problem is exactly that which I addressed in the preview; while he holds distinct advantages over Marion and Stevenson, he lacks the means to attack as consistently as Nowitzki. That won’t stop him from putting up huge point totals with efficient percentages, but if the dynamic of this series really is to be centered around Dirk vs. Durant, then the slight limitations of the application of Durant’s offensive game could prove costly.
- The Mavs’ collective defense against Russell Westbrook went precisely according to the expected plan, with one small change: Stevenson started on Westbrook, and Dallas employed even more zone than one might have thought. Both of those elements worked out swimmingly; while Stevenson wasn’t notably great on the defensive end, he did his job and executed the game plan, while the match-up zone seemed to create some serious problems for Westbrook. The problem isn’t that Westbrook isn’t a “true point guard,” merely that he is particularly vulnerable to defensive coverage that grants him any shot he wants while defending the rim. The results speak for themselves, and though Westbrook is due for a big game at some point during this series (his talent alone should allow for that much), I don’t see how he combats this defensive strategy aside from making more jumpers. Chandler gives Westbrook a lot of problems inside, and while the young Thunder guard was able to compensate for those problems by drawing fouls and getting to the line (he attempted 18 free throws), it’s hard to object with any particular aspect of the Mavs’ defensive execution in this regard.
- If it hasn’t already become pretty clear, this game turned into a bit of a free throw fest. Dallas’ 46.6 free throw rate is a bit ridiculous, but Oklahoma City’s 51.4 mark is flat-out bonkers. The whistles were quick on both ends of the court (beginning with a bizarre double-technical on Chandler and Kendrick Perkins just a minute and a half into the game), and played a significant role in the efficiency of both Durant and Nowitzki, as well as whatever semblance of efficiency Westbrook was able to muster. I’d expect OKC to continue shooting free throws at a high rate, but it’s no such certainty for Dallas.
- The fundamental obstructions to the Dirk vs. Durant narrative were a pair of reserve guards. J.J. Barea (21 points, 8-12 FG) was again insanely effective as an initiator of the pick-and-roll, and Jason Terry (24 points, 8-16 FG, 4-8 3FG) continues his run of the gauntlet in an effort to restore his postseason reputation. Both produced as necessary, though the performance of the former may not have the same sustainability as Dirk’s; Barea looked unstoppable running the pick-and-roll with Dirk from the top of the key, but the Thunder are a better defensive team than they showed in Game 1. They may not have an answer for Nowitzki, but they can certainly tweak their approach to contain Barea, as even a single body between J.J. and the rim would limit the impact of that particular sequence. Of all of the areas of adjustment for the Thunder, I’d expect this to be the most significant.
- Several observers on Twitter wisely pointed out the disconnect between the feel of the game and the scoring margin, and it’s something to consider. Nowitzki was amazing, Barea astounding, and the interior defense excellent, and yet the Thunder were within seven points with just a few minutes remaining. Dallas is good, but this is going to be a fiercely competitive series, regardless of how many games it goes on.
- On the bright side for the Mavs: Shawn Marion’s performance has plenty of room for immediate improvement. His finishing totals and percentages were pretty decent, but Marion fumbled away many a scoring opportunity in Game 1, with some resulting in turnovers and others mere missed opportunities. If he’s a bit crisper on the catch and off the dribble in Game 2, his slashing and curling around the rim gives Dallas another dynamic offensive contributor.
- James Harden’s 12 points and four assists weren’t back-breaking, but he did create some problems for the Mavs with his work in the pick-and-roll. I still see this as a directly addressable problem, and though Harden made some terrific passes after getting into the lane, Dallas can do better to prevent that initial penetration. Rest assured: the Mavs are well aware of the problems that Harden can create, and will look to make explicit changes in their execution to account for him.
- Again: Dallas is the better shooting team in this series, even with both teams’ defenses taken into account. If the Thunder are to win, they’ll need either a sudden drop in the Mavs’ shooting from all over the floor, or a significant advantage on the offensive glass, in the turnover column, or in free throw attempts. They secured modest advantages in two of those areas on Monday, and it still wasn’t enough — Dallas won with a 9.9 efficiency differential.
It didn’t take much of a discerning eye to pick out the one name conspicuously absent from the full Mavs-Thunder series preview. James Harden is a legitimate NBA difference-maker, and yet he was swept under the rug in the preview treatment, set aside as a virtual non-factor in a battle of supporting casts that I believe Dallas is set to win. On the surface level, that’s a pretty clear disservice to Harden’s skill and production; he’s not a player that should be discounted without reason, and he’s been instrumental to the post-Jeff Green Thunder’s success.
Yet in this series, I just don’t see where Harden moves the needle.
Potentially, Harden has the capacity to act as something of a mediator for OKC — a Manu Ginobili to the occasionally disrupted balance of the offense created by the Durant-Westbrook dynamic. He doesn’t need to ever reach Ginobili’s level of production or efficiency in order to function effectively in this role, but merely provide the skill set in order to bring everything to a stylistic middle; he can spot up to space the floor, initiate the offense and find the open man, and slash down the lane for easy scoring opportunities. Creating an offensive flow centered around the perimeter positions may not be ideal to most coaches, but it can — and has — worked for the Thunder, and has the potential for further growth as Harden, Durant, and Westbrook mature as players. Essentially, Harden can actually be the player that Sam Presti had hoped Jeff Green would turn into, only with greater individual skills and a better fitting game.
He’s just not quite there yet. The Thunder offense is potent, but the equilibrium between OKC’s top perimeter players isn’t perfect. When Harden handles the ball, Westbrook is often reduced to a non-factor, stuck in the no man’s land of exiled point guards who can’t shoot but lack control of the possession. When Westbrook handles the ball, Harden is strictly a cutter and a shooter, an effective role but one that doesn’t encompass the entirety of his abilities. The balance can work for stretches, and sometimes the two-man approach of Westbrook-Durant or Harden-Durant is so effective that the third wheel hardly matters, but the lack of a fully actualized attack makes the Thunder very beatable. There are elements that need to be considered and countered, but a score doesn’t seem imminent on every possession.
The Mavericks defenders need to be aware of Harden’s presence, but the lack of overwhelming synergy between Durant, Westbrook, and Harden opens a window for him to be addressed directly. When Harden controls the ball, Dallas can treat him as they do Westbrook, albeit with more respect for his jumper. He doesn’t have Westbrook’s explosiveness, which allows the Mavs to play him closer on the bounce while still having Tyson Chandler as a safety net at the rim. When he’s playing off the ball, he’ll have to contend with Dallas’ strong close-outs. The Mavs are among the best in the NBA at getting a hand in the face of spot-up shooters (they ranked sixth in that regard during the regular season, and currently boast the second best points per possession allowed on such attempts in the postseason, per Synergy Sports Technology), and they’ll run at Harden (and Durant, for that matter) in particular to contest his three-point opportunities. Harden still has the capacity to put the ball on the floor and attack the basket or make a play in those instances, but Dallas holds the capability to take away Harden’s spot-up opportunities and much of what he accomplishes off the dribble. There’s no certainty that Harden will be kept under wraps for the entirety of the series, but his influence will likely be limited.
Harden is a fantastic player, but he won’t see the same opportunities in this series that he did against the Grizzlies. Dallas is a far more conservative defensive team, and while that results in less direct pressure on ball handlers and the like, it also keeps those playing off the ball in check, forcing them to convert a difficult shot from a neutral position rather than constructing every possession as a distinct scenario of advantage vs. disadvantage. Memphis is fantastic at jumping passing lanes and attacking the dribble, but the result is either a forced turnover or an open man on the weak side. Dallas grabs steals from time to time, but their system puts emphasis on denying the paint and contesting already difficult shots rather than forcing turnovers with aggressive ball pressure. The style of the Mavs’ defense just isn’t as accommodating to players like Harden, and while he still demands attention in the scouting report, the preventative means are in place to contain him.
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.
Box Score — Play-by-Play — Shot Chart — GameFlow
You know the drill. The Difference is a quick-hitting reflection on the game that was, with one bullet for every point in the final margin.
- First, the relevant information that transcends the scope of this game: Dirk Nowitzki left the game around the nine-minute mark in the second quarter after landing just a bit awkwardly on one of his trademark jumpers. There were no defenders in Dirk’s immediate vicinity, no flailing limbs to throw Nowitzki off balance or planted feet to disturb his footing. He just landed, winced, and left the game. The injury didn’t appear serious, but it very well could be. We’ll know more when Nowitzki gets an MRI later today.
- Even after losing Nowitzki for the night, Dallas did a great job of keeping pace with a Thunder team that was anxious to attack in transition. Kevin Durant (28 points on 21 shots, five rebounds, four assists, five turnovers, two steals, and two blocks) was his typically fantastic self, but the Mavs rallied to keep pace while going on some very effective defensive runs. The fourth quarter belonged to Dallas; the Maverick zone held the Thunder to just 12 points in the frame, as Durant and co. shot just 4-of-18 from the field for the quarter while turning the ball over five times. The zone is probably more effective with Shawn Marion and Caron Butler on the wings in place of Nowitzki anyway, and Dallas went into full lockdown mode in a game-turning fourth quarter. In most cases, I’m quick to dismiss the overvaluation of the fourth (over any other quarter, anyway), but in this case there was an observable change in momentum in addition to a literal turn on the scoreboard. After 36 minutes played, the Mavs were down two, and after a dominant defensive performance, they won the day by 10. Influential enough for me.
- When playing zone, Dallas seems to have found the perfect balance of ball pressure and reactive defense. They force opponents into tough shots by restricting access to the paint and allowing opponents to kill themselves with outside shots, but have a knack for attacking a ball-handler at just the right moment, or completely swarming a passer with limited vision at the perfect moment. The Mavs’ match-up zone looks like a legitimate long-term weapon, and though the playoffs provide a completely different preparation dynamic, zoning up seems to confuse the hell out of regular season opponents.
- Interestingly enough, the Thunder started off the game with a little zone of their own. Unlike earlier zones that the Mavs have seen this season, they didn’t seem too affected by it. Progress!
- The Mavs are still killing it from the three-point line. DeShawn Stevenson and Butler combined to shoot 6-of-9 from beyond the arc, and the team as a whole shot 47.8% from distance. OKC shot a decent enough 35.3% from the three, but the discrepancy in percentage and attempts helped the Mavs almost double the Thunder’s three-point makes.
- Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Jason Terry struggled through the first three quarters — both with Nowitzki in the lineup and without him — but came alive in the fourth. JET shot 5-of-8 and made his only three-pointer of the night in the fourth, which was home to 11 of Terry’s 13 points. This isn’t a terribly positive habit to fall into, but it’s nice to know that Terry isn’t so affected by a shooting slump as to miss a chance to soak up the bright lights.
- Jason Kidd (10 points, nine rebounds, 10 assists, four steals, two turnovers) surged appropriately. With Nowitzki out of the lineup, the offense relies even more heavily on ball movement and spacing, which provides Kidd a perfect stage to showcase his showrunning talents. Kidd excels when given the pieces to run a balanced offense, and though the Mavs are unquestionably a lesser offensive team without Nowitzki, Kidd is a tremendous asset to have on a team with limited shot creation that could help Dallas keep their collective head above water if Dirk is forced to miss a little time.
- Terry’s defensive improvements are pretty subtle, but continue to impress me. As is usually the case on the defensive end, it’s all about the little things: stopping a Russell Westbrook fast break by attacking his dribble, closing out just a tad more quickly…I’m sure proper defensive effort is a big part of it, but Terry nonetheless deserves credit for figuring out how to boost his all-around effectiveness.
- Alexis Ajinca found some minutes in Nowitzki’s absence, and looked alright. Interesting to have a player with his height and length on the wing in the zone alongside Brendan Haywood or Tyson Chandler. Also: Ajinca hit a three-pointer, the first in his NBA career.
- Marion and Butler are crucial offensive contributors even under normal circumstances, but for the duo to add 41 points on just 37 shots is certainly notable. That’s more Marion than Butler, but Caron had a solid all-around night.
The Difference is a new feature here at The Two Man Game, in which I’ll provide a bit of instant analysis on games shortly after they occur rather than the following morning. The longer, more detailed recaps will be up as soon as they’re available, but consider these morsels your post-game snack to hold you over until then.
For this feature, I’ll offer one bullet point for each point in the margin of victory. That makes this first installment fairly simple, but fun will be had when the blowouts come. Let’s not have another 50-point win though, eh?
- Combined 6-of-23 shooting for Jason Terry and Jason Kidd? No big. That field goal percentage deficit ain’t no thang when the Mavs completely dominate their opponent in both free throw rate and offensive rebounding rate. These are not the Mavs we’re used to or even the Mavs that will be around for the season, but it’s still nice to have them drop by for a game every now and again.
- Tyson Chandler (17 points, 5-9 FG, 18 rebounds): unlikely offensive weapon, skilled defender, rebounding fiend, ruler of men, master of Oklahoma City bigs. If Chandler were the leader of an underground, post-apocalyptic cult, I’d follow him. As far as basketball is concerned, though, he’s only sublime. I guess that will have to do.
- Turnovers were the cause of the Mavs’ early troubles, but they rounded out their performance nicely by carefully protecting their possessions over the game’s final three quarters. Besides, Dallas couldn’t miss 18 threes if they were turning the ball over so often, now could they?
- Russell Westbrook had 13 points on 13 shots. Is that good defense? Partially, sure, but Dallas can in no way claim full credit for keeping Westbrook in check. For whatever reason he just wasn’t as assertive as he could have — or should have — been.
- Caron Butler can’t exactly redeem himself in a single night, but he started on the right path with a simple 6-of-13, 15-point performance. That’s the thing with Butler: he doesn’t have to wow anyone. All he has to do is not induce groans with his shot selection. All he has to do is not head fake his way into a migraine. This kind of moderate scoring and fairly efficient line will do nicely.
- The Mavs’ transition defense still needs work. It’s not hugely bothersome given the limited number of transition possessions in the average game, but there’s not really a valid excuse for uncontested drives through the middle of a Maverick cluster.
- I’m typically an advocate of starting Serge Ibaka in Jeff Green’s place, for reasons of fit and talent. Green had a solid outing, even if his defensive efforts were a bit futile. Someone has to guard Dirk Nowitzki, and Green had a tough night defending Nowitzki without fouling. That said, Green had a successful offensive evening from all over the court, as his versatile style tilted toward the scoring column for a night.
- Jason Kidd had a throwback shooting performance, as he shot 2-of-9 from beyond the arc and 3-of-12 overall. Kidd has plenty of tough shooting nights filled with near-misses, but he put up more than a few knuckleballs in this one.
- Kurt Helin, my fellow ProBasketballTalk-er, had a chance to interview Caron Butler. Here are Butler’s thoughts regarding what the Mavs’ areas for improvement in the coming year: “Controlling the glass, focusing on defense. Because we can score with the best of them. We have a great player, we have a Hall of Fame point guard and whole bunch of other guys that want to get it done and are willing to sacrifice whatever to win. We’ve just got to put it all together and we will.” Butler also noted that he’s been working with the needs-no-introduction Tim Grover.
- Kevin Arnovitz has a great interview with Texas Legends’ coach Nancy Lieberman, who is getting serious mileage out of her catchphrase (which you may remember from my interview with Lieberman earlier this summer): “Making the irregular regular.” Here’s Lieberman on her voice as a coach, and what the voice will mean to men who haven’t had all that many female basketball mentors: “I think the end message will be similar, but the methods and how they get the information could be different. I’m excited about it because I’m not going to be in practice f-bombing people. That won’t be me. I’ll be firm and I’ll be fair. We won’t tell people what to do. We’ll explain what we’d like them to do. We’ll show them what we want to do. Then, they’ll do it. I will work their tails off. Trust me. I’m not as nice as I’m faking it on this conversation. I will work them really hard, but I’ll love them on the other side. And they need to know they’re loved and cared for. But that doesn’t mean you can walk over me, through me. That won’t happen. But look, I’m going to kill my guys so I might as well be nice to them. I have high expectations. I haven’t made it in a man’s world for 35 years by being soft, scared or insecure.”
- Mike Krzyzewski on Tyson Chandler’s play for Team USA, via Chris Tomasson of FanHouse: “Tyson has been outstanding. We have a relationship from the 2007 qualifying team (and in 2008 when Chandler came close to making the Olympic team) … He doesn’t need the ball. He’s stronger. I bet he’s at least probably 15 pounds heavier and stronger than he was in 2007. He feels healthy.”
- Have $25 burning a hole in your wallet? Then do I have the deal for you. (H/T: Scott Schroeder)
- Josh Howard, infused with Devean George’s trade veto power.
- Caron Butler thinks the Heat could make it to 73 wins. The Bulls’ sacred 72-win mark is seemingly unbeatable, but next year’s Miami Heat have definite advantages those Bulls were never afforded. The ’95-’96 Bulls are certainly one of the best teams to ever lace them up, but is Caron wrong? Isn’t the combination of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade — with Chris Bosh and a hell of a supporting cast — enough to at least bring the Heat into the discussion?
- Andre Miller and Chauncey Billups are two big, strong point guards that have made the most of their size by posting up smaller opposing guards. The Mavs have dabbled with using Jason Kidd in a similar capacity, but he just doesn’t have the scoring chops for it. Regardless, Sebastian Pruiti of NBA Playbook breaks down what it is that makes Miller and Billups so effective in the post.
- Kelly Dwyer is ranking the top 30 players in each of the five conventional positions, beginning with point guards. You can see the first installment (30-21) here, and the second (20-11) here. Jason Kidd comes in at #12, which may seem a bit harsh, but consider the 11 PGs likely to top Kidd in Dwyer’s rankings (in no particular order): Deron Williams, Chris Paul, Steve Nash, Jameer Nelson (already confirmed as #11), Rajon Rondo, Chauncey Billups, Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook, Devin Harris, Tony Parker, and Tyreke Evans. Of those 11, which would you pick Kidd to best in the coming season?
- Jeff Fox of Hoops Manifesto takes a stab at listing the top 10 Mavericks of all-time.
- Rodrigue Beaubois’ surgery was successful.
- From Caron Butler’s blog on HoopsHype: “Aside from the Tyson Chandler trade, my team has had a pretty quiet offseason. I’m not surprised. We had a great roster already. The management looked at the team and thought change wasn’t needed.” Well…that’s certainly one interpretation of the summer’s events.
Photo by Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images.
Box Score — Play-By-Play — Shot Chart — GameFlow
“More men fail through lack of purpose than lack of talent.”
- As much as I’d like to congratulate the Mavs for mounting an impressive fourth quarter comeback, this is not a win that deserves celebration. The Thunder were a team with something to play for, and play they did. Dallas had a real chance to spoil (or at least delay) Oklahoma City’s playoff celebrations, but to call what they did defensively “execution” wouldn’t exactly be accurate. It shouldn’t take an 18-point deficit and 41 minutes to suddenly instill a playoff team with a sense of urgency, yet that really seems to be a reality with these Mavs. It’s been the story throughout most of the season, regardless of who it was hitting the floor in a Maverick uniform.
- Jason Kidd chimed in with a harsh reality for a wannabe contender: “It’s not that we don’t have talent. We’re one of the deepest teams in this league. I think we all need to take this nice little break we have and figure out who we want to be, and that’s sad to say with only five games left.”
- The most effective center for the Mavs was Eddie Najera (11 points), and that’s a problem. Erick Dampier (four points, six rebounds, two blocks) was fairly meh, but Brendan Haywood (nine points, three rebounds) was the big disappointment as he struggled defensively and managed to fumble the ball away three times despite limited touches. When the Mavs traded for Najera, they were expecting a veteran, an end-of-the-rotation guy, and a solid energy player. When the Mavs traded for Haywood, they were expecting a “franchise center,” sayeth Mark Cuban. It’s not good when the former outperforms the latter, especially when the former manages to play 13 and a half minutes without grabbing a single rebound.
- Seeing Dallas play well only during crunch time is something of a cruel tease. In many cases, they manage to pull out a win after only really playing a quarter or half a quarter of good basketball. That’s impressive, sure, but it only serves as a constant reminder of how good this team could be if they executed more consistently, and makes one wonder how many of these close games would be walk-off wins. This team has had time to gel, and now it’s time to perform.
- Jason Terry, undoubtedly frustrated, making sure that the guys at the head of the Maverick bench get their due: “Our play is sporadic. Sometimes we play good D, sometimes we don’t. It falls a lot on the players, but I think everybody is held accountable.”
- Caron Butler and Jason Terry combined for 12 points on 5-of-21 shooting. Beautiful.
- On the frustrating side of things, the Mavs actually played pretty good defense on Kevin Durant. If they did one thing well defensively tonight, it was that; the Durantula scored 23 points on 7-of-18 shooting with five turnovers, though he also had five assists, five steals, and five rebounds. And the Thunder win by five. It was fated to be. Shawn Marion was matched up with KD early, and that responsibility shifted to Caron Butler after Marion left the game with a strained left oblique. Butler did a decent enough job and his teammates were able to pressure Durant well when he had the ball in his hands. The only problem is that the Mavs didn’t rotate well to compensate.
- That left guys like Nick Collison (17 points), Eric Maynor (14 points, four assists), and James Harden (11 points, three assists, three turnovers) wide open. The problem wasn’t Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Jeff Green, even though they combined for 62 points; the real trouble was that Dallas gave uncontested threes and open layups to the Thunder’s role players. There’s typically going to be some price to pay when traps and double-teams figure prominently into a team’s defensive strategy, but giving up 17 to Nick Collison? Letting OKC, a team 13th in the league in offensive efficiency, go completely hog-wild and drop 121 points? That stench isn’t trouble a-brewin’, but trouble fully and thoroughly brewed and only now starting to really stink.
- Then again, plenty of it wasn’t overaggressive defense, just bad defense. With 7:26 left in the fourth quarter and the Mavs down by 16, Collison drove right down the center for an easy layup…against a zone defense. Not good, guys.
- Dirk Nowitzki (30 points, 10-19 FG, 13 rebounds, five turnovers) actually had a pretty terrific scoring night, and it’s a shame that it will be completely obscured by the Mavs’ defensive shortcomings. Despite OKC having two good defensive options for Dirk in Serge Ibaka and Jeff Green, he performs well against them for some reason (excluding tonight’s game, Nowitzki has averaged 30.3 points per game on 53.5 % shooting against the Thunder). Dirk was a huge reason why the fourth quarter comeback was so successful, and he hit some huge shots. Or really, what would have been huge shots had Dallas’ late-game efforts not been all for naught.
- Dallas also wasted a great scoring night from Jason Kidd (24 points, 10-15 FG, six assists), who was the sole reason the game wasn’t completely unwinnable by the end of the third quarter. Kidd had 13 points in the third, half of the Mavs’ total for the frame.
- The Mavs actually out-shot the Thunder, both in terms of effective field goal percentage (56.2% to 54.9%) and raw field goal percentage (53.1% to 51.9%), and outrebounded them (39-34), yet still lost. I’m not positive that this is the case, but it could have something to do with forgetting to play defense in the first half and surrendering 67 points over the first 24 minutes.
- Rodrigue Beaubois (seven points, two turnovers) got the first minutes as the back-up point, but J.J. Barea (10 points) ultimately outperformed him when he provided a spark for Dallas in the fourth.
- Nick Collison, via Twitter (@nickcollison4), regarding Oklahoma City’s playoff-clinching win: “Got 1 “congrats” text from my wife and one from her dad. Just realized I accidentally replied “thank you baby, love u” to her dad. Awkward”