Once More, With Feeling: The Four Factors

Posted by Rob Mahoney on October 26, 2009 under Previews | 3 Comments to Read

This is a part of the multi-part season preview, Once More, With Feeling. To read an explanation, click here. To read Act I (the Network preview), click here.

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Dean Oliver, in his book Basketball on Paper, isolated four factors that determine NBA success:

  • Shooting
  • Rebounding
  • Turnovers
  • Free throws

That’s it. An entire game of nuance and complexities boiled down to four bullet points.

Of course it’s never really that simple; behind these four headings lies each team’s offensive and defensive numbers boiled into a few metrics. They’re a step beyond your run-of-the-mill counting statistics, but still a bit of a reach from your more advanced measures. But they give tremendous insight into the particular successes of a basketball team, and they’re well worth your attention.

Let’s break it down, now.

Original photo by Tim Heitman/NBAE via Getty Images.

Shooting

You’ll find that Oliver’s four factors are determined on an offense vs. defense basis. So when I say shooting, what I (and Oliver) actually mean is the comparative shooting success between a team and their opponent.

In terms of their own shooting, the Mavs are certainly above average, but not quite elite (.504 effective field goal percentage or eFG%, 11th league-wide, .004 better than league average). The culprits of a normally potent’s offense decline into near-mediocrity? Dirk Nowitzki and Josh Howard. Dirk and Josh are good scorers and efficient scorers, but their reliance on two-point jump shots is impossible to ignore when calculating effective field goal percentage, a measure that weighs three pointers appropriately with their additional value. When your primary offensive weapons are shooting jumpers, their eFG just won’t measure up to the league’s premier interior or 3-point shooting outfits.

Keeping the Mavs afloat were the dunkers, Erick Dampier, James Singleton, and Ryan Hollins, and the three point shooters, Jason Terry and Jason Kidd.

In theory, new additions Shawn Marion and Drew Gooden would seem to fit right into that bunch. But their affect on the team’s eFG may be much more difficult to quantify. Shawn Marion was a dynamo during his time in Phoenix, with his eFG topping at .561. But much has happened since Marion’s run-and-gun days, and though Rick Carlisle and the Mavs are vowing to push the pace more than ever this year, it’s a line we’ve heard many times in the recent past. The good news is that last year’s much less effective Marion still managed a .491 mark, which matches J.J. Barea and bests Josh Howard.

Gooden, on the other hand, has posted a much lower career eFG (.474 compared to Marion’s .511), but may be poised for a bump. The only time in Gooden’s career where he has played alongside an above average playmaker was his time in Cleveland. The passing prowess of LeBron James brought Gooden’s eFG all the way up to .511. Jason Kidd shares James’ penchant for assists, and his helpful passes (along with some skilled teammates to relieve defensive pressure) will likely give Gooden more open looks around the basket than he’s ever had before. Hopefully that would at least shoot him in Damp’s direction in terms of eFG, but I’d settle for something right around last year’s team average of .504.

In terms of shooting defense, the Mavs were better than you might think (.493 eFGA, 10th, .007 better than league average). We’ll find the true source of the Mavs’ defensive woes in other areas, but in terms of forcing opponents into difficult shots, the Mavs weren’t too shabby. Though the now departed Antoine Wright’s eFG allowed last season was actually better than Marion’s, the Mavs hope that familiarity with the system as well as his teammates will help return Marion’s production to its previous highs. That isn’t a misguided notion; though familiarity and comfort level matter a great deal on the offensive end, they’re an absolute necessity for operating effectively in a defensive system. Marion needs to know where to rotate and when, and that’s a tough thing to do when the only constant in your life is Marcus Banks. Shawn Marion and Josh Howard are the keys defensively, and if the Mavs are going to transform into a top-notch defensive squad, the improvement will have to come on the wings. If not, there will be nothing to offset Jason Kidd’s lead feet or the Mavs’ lack of help-side shot blocking, and we’re looking at yet another year of average-ish defense.

Photo by Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images.

Rebounding

The Mavs are not a good offensive rebounding team (.266 offensive rebounding percentage or ORB%, 16th, .001 worse than the league average). It’s an ugly truth that comes along with playing a perimeter-oriented power forward, talented though he may be; If Dirk is fading away at the elbow, he’s not going to be in position to hit the boards.

That leaves the primary offensive rebounding duties to fall on the shoulders of the Mavs’ centers, and for the most part, they’ve stepped up to the task. Erick Dampier, Brandon Bass, and Ryan Hollins were among the team’s leaders in ORB% last season, and though they didn’t perform at All-NBA standards (actually, Dampier did nearly match Dwight Howard in this ORB%), each performed admirably when acting as a one-man boarding crew.

It’s no big. Offensive rebounds are tremendously important and help create possessions out of thin air, but it’s hardly a requirement for team success. Though the Blazers and Lakers were near the top of the league last year in offensive rebounding, six of the top fifteen teams didn’t even make the playoffs. The Magic and Spurs were worst and next to worst in the league, respectively. I don’t feel too bad about the Mavs’ mediocre ranking in that department for exactly this reason, and though we should probably expect more of the same in 2009-10, it’s hardly a reason to panic.

That’s only because the Mavs are a competent defensive rebounding team (.746 defensive rebounding percentage or DRB%, 8th, .013 better than average). Dirk more than makes up for his poor offensive rebounding numbers with his work on the defensive glass, and he’s helped by Erick Dampier and the best rebounding point guard in the game, Jason Kidd. This is another area where the additions of Shawn Marion and Drew Gooden will pay dividends, and if each rebounds at a rate equal to their career averages, they would immediately be two of the top three defensive rebounders on the team. And, if the preseason is any indication, Kris Humphries should be a contributor on the glass as well, supposing he can carve the minutes from Dampier, Gooden, and Nowitzki’s hands.

Even if the Mavs don’t improve in rebounding by rank, they should at the very least improve in terms of rebounding percentage.

Photo by the AP.

Turnovers

In the days before Jason Kidd’s return to Dallas, the Mavs were a low assist, low turnover franchise. It got them all the way to the NBA Finals, and created a team ethic after the departure of Steve Nash. Typically, with the return of a true point guard comes the return of the high turnover numbers. Yet somehow, the Mavs have maintained their status as elite ball protectors despite Kidd’s sometimes reckless (yet effective!) passing style (.121 turnover percentage, 3rd, .016 better than league average).

That’s largely because Dirk, JET, and Josh Howard are all unusually careful with the ball. When your team’s (qualified) leaders in usage rate are also the most careful, that translates to some pretty impressive team numbers. Kidd can throw lobs and full-court bounce passes all he wants because at the end of the day, the Mavs’ big possession stars are handle the rock with care.

Now, if you’re an endless optimist, this might be the part where you turn away, cover your ears and eyes, and sing “LA-LA-LA-LA I CAN’T HEAR YOU.” Even though the Mavs low turnover numbers are worthy of your awe, their opponent’s almost equally low turnover rates are at the very least worthy of an exasperated sigh (.123, 25th, .010 worse than the league average). The Mavs are not very good at creating opportunities by forcing turnovers, and their lack of speed on the perimeter has brought on-ball pressure to a grinding halt. So much emphasis is put on staying in front of a man rather than trying to exploit him, and though that might be a necessity on a team that lacks a lockdown defender on the outside, it also results in a painfully low amount of opponent’s turnovers.

Though the addition of Shawn Marion (and, to a lesser extent, Quinton Ross) would theoretically improve upon this weakness, I’m not quite so optimistic. I do think that Marion will find success in Dallas, but it’s impossible to argue against the fact that he’s lost a step. And as Shawn gets older and older, his utility as a defender will certainly dwindle. I still think he’s a capable defender in many ways, but Marion has less athleticism to compensate for gambles, leaving in a position to play more “honest” defense than ever. If less aggressive perimeter defense translates to less forced turnovers, then Marion will likely fall in line with the more defensively conservative Mavs.

Photo by the AP.

Free throws

Dirk shoots jumpers. JET shoots jumpers. Josh Howard shoots jumpers. Jason Kidd, Tim Thomas, and Matt Carroll all shoot jumpers. Even Marion and Gooden dabble. That’s almost an entire offense predicated on successfully making jump shots, and while it’s not exactly conventional, it is successful.

That doesn’t mean we should expect many free throw attempts.

The Mavs are one of the best free throw shooting teams in the league in terms of percentage, but most fans probably wouldn’t know that because of just how rarely the Mavs go to the line (.224 free throw attempts per field goal or FTA/FG, 22nd, .012 worse than league average). That’s not likely to change in the Dirk Nowitzki era, barring the acquisition of a big-time offensively skilled center. And I’m pretty sure MFFLs stopped holding out hope for that years ago.

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Values for the Four Factors from Basketball-Reference.com.

Bring a Coat

Posted by Rob Mahoney on August 3, 2009 under News, Roster Moves | 4 Comments to Read

Ryan Hollins is likely on his way out of Dallas after signing an offer sheet with the Minnesota Timberwolves.  Adrian Wojnarowski reports that the deal is worth $7 million over three years, which is probably a bit high for his potential role with next season’s Mavs.

Nearing the End of the Free Agent Bazaar

Posted by Rob Mahoney on July 23, 2009 under Commentary | 28 Comments to Read

It’s nearing that time, kids.  The time when regrettable mid-level deals are forged and signed with blood, when fits-like-a-glove veterans are snatched up for pennies on the dollar, and when the yearly projects (Oh, hi Gerald.) find their new temporary home in which to fail to make the jump.  Late summer is truly a magical time for basketball fans.

The Gortat Incident seems years in the past, and while that episode may have trampled some hope for the upcoming season, there are still some serviceable free agents out there.  Most of them can be had on the relative cheap and still provide meaningful production.  Some of them can even do so in ways that would maximize a Mavs’ investment.

The biggest questions should be centered around how these potential Mavericks could change the team’s outlook towards the free agent Mavs in limbo: Ryan Hollins, Gerald Green, and James Singleton.  It’s no secret that the Mavs have some, shall we say, “issues” in the middle.  There’s Erick Dampier and a whole lot of nothing.  Will Dirk shift over?  Are any of the relative unknowns on the roster ready to body up in the paint?  Hard to say.  But the lack of “real” centers (whatever that means anymore) on the roster is a definite point of concern.  Ryan Hollins isn’t quite the remedy we had in mind when the off-season started, but locking him up for next season should be viewed as a necessity.  Brandon Bass won’t be around to log minutes at the five and muscle up on the inside, so a combination of Hollins and makeshift 5s will likely have to do the job.

That is, unless the Mavs are particularly enamored with one of the centers still swimming around in the free agent pool.

It seems like the Mavs have seen just about all they need to see from Gerald Green.  If circumstances were different, like if the Mavs were desperately trying to fill their roster rather than trim it, I could see everyone’s favorite/least favorite slammajamma prospect stick around for another year.  But there’s really no incentive to make an obligation to G-Money.  He wasn’t dynamic or even singularly effective enough last season to warrant special consideration, and given what the Mavs already have to work with, committing additional dollars and a roster spot to the Green dream seems pretty foolish.

Singleton’s place with the team is even more ambiguous.  James hustled his way into Maverick hearts last season and proved to be a rebounding machine.  It’s questionable how much floor time would be available to Singleton with Shawn Marion being worked into the mix, but James is an ideal guy to fill out a roster and bring energy off the bench.  But again, with the roster crunch the Mavs are in at the moment, it could be tough to bring Singleton back.  Doing so would likely require a trade or a waiver, which may be more trouble than a 10th man is worth, especially if another free agent option is deemed superior.

With that in mind, let’s take to the list of the remaining free agents that should interest the Mavs:

1. Lamar Odom, F (unrestricted) – Lamar is the big fish.  He’s plump from chomping on that Championship gold, and is a long shot (at best) to land with the Mavs; Even if Odom isn’t feeling the love from the Lakers, the Heat would likely one-up the Mavs in terms of both fit and personal preference.  Oh, bother.

You also may notice that Odom is about as bad of a fit as you can get given the current core.  LO can is a forward, and both of his natural positions are waist-deep in talent.  Dirk Nowitzki, Shawn Marion, and Josh Howard form one mean forward rotation, and finding room for Lamar Odom in that mix would definitely be tricky.  But Odom is unique and talented enough that those concerns come later.  If you can grab Lamar Odom as a free agent, you do it.  Period.  He’s as versatile as players get in this league and now championship-validated, which is a rather powerful thing to add to a resume.

2. Rasho Nesterovic, C (unrestricted) – I know what you’re thinking.  Yes, Rasho is big, he’s white, and he’s lumbering, but this guy is definitely better than you think he is.  I can’t think of a single facet of Rasho’s game that would warrant calling him a beast, but supposing the Mavs are truly looking to fill minutes at the 5 with free agent imports, I see them doing no better than Nesterovic.  Offensively, he won’t provide much.  Strictly a garbage buckets, open dunks and layups kinda guy.  But on the defensive end, that’s where Rasho is valuable.  Having two serviceable centers who can play D is a luxury few teams have in today’s NBA, and though Erick Dampier and Rasho Nesterovic are neither big names nor offensive juggernauts, together they could go a long way towards slowing down the league’s back-to-the-basket types.

3. Carlos Delfino, SG (restricted) -Delfino is a baller.  His game is smooth and he’s a fine shooter (.490 eFG on jumpers), but unfortunately one who is decidedly average from behind the arc (.356 for his career from three).  Delfino offers a prototypical look that would allow the Mavs to run slightly more conventional lineups from the bench.  He slashes, he hits his midrange looks, and he’s a solid defender; Carlos Delfino is a player just waiting for the right opportunity, and I feel like the Mavs could be a great fit.  Delfino would blossom with some offensive talent around him, and with all the loaded guns the Mavs are packing, he should have no problem getting open looks.  The two-way shooting guard that the Mavs have craved may be a vagabond Argentine…or at worst, he slides in as a rotation wing with a diverse game.

4. Von Wafer, SG (unrestricted) – Von Wafer is a ruthless scorer.  He’d cut the throat of a kitten for a bucket, but that same drive makes him a bit of a black hole.  For what it’s worth, he also had trouble getting along with Rockets’ coach Rick Adelman, perhaps the most players’ coachy of players’ coaches.

Wafer may never tighten the screws that keep his head on his shoulders, and that’s likely the red flag that has kept the Mavs away.  If Wafer can’t learn to play nice with his coach and his teammates, he’ll never be able to thrive in the shot-in-the-arm role that best suits his game.  I don’t think Wafer has the talent or potential to pan out as a top-level scorer, but he would rock it as a punch off the bench.  The Mavs already have that covered with a cat named Jason Terry.  You may have heard of him.  But if Von has trouble finding a home and re-enters the market for bargain value, the Mavs would be stupid to pass up the depth…unless Wafer’s even more troublesome to a locker room than I give him credit for.

5. Ike Diogu, PF (unrestricted) – Diogu may not seem like a fit at first glance, but he could be incredibly useful as a post threat on the second unit.  Ike would slide into Brandon Bass’ role as an undersized PF/C, though his game is more drop steps and less money jumpers.

Diogu’s counting stats won’t wow you, but he’s never really had an ample opportunity to strut his stuff.  His career high in minutes is just a shade under 15, and as such his career averages are decidedly pedestrian.  But when you scope out Diogu’s efficiency numbers and per-minute numbers, they’re truly stellar.  Behold, Ike’s stats per 36 (via Basketball-Reference.com.  Click here to see a larger version.):

That’s typically not the level of production you pick up late in free agency.  And more often than not, you don’t find these players pining away on the wrong end of a rotation for the first four years of their career.

6. Leon Powe, PF (unrestricted) – Leon Powe could turn out to be a great investment, but the returns will be delayed.  He’s currently rehabbing from a torn ACL, which is injury-speak for no bueno.  Logic and precedent tell you not to offer a guaranteed contract to a man with jelly knees, but logic and precedent aren’t staring down a short frontcourt rotation that could use a quality big.  Sheesh, the nerve of those two.

Hinging the frontcourt rotation on Powe’s knee could be a gamble, but if the Mavs aren’t satisfied with what they’ve got (Ahmad Nivins included.  He looked like a player in summer league, but you never know what to expect from a team with a full roster.), then they could opt for a low-salary, option-based deal with Powe.

7. Rashad McCants, SG (unrestricted) – He’s young, he’s available, and he’s a scorer.  Unfortunately, he’s not much else.  McCants is a mouth with a jumpshot, but enough of both that he could inject some swagger and balance the court with his range.  As long as the deal is within reason, McCants could be the extra gun arm needed to shoot the lights out.  He also just so happened to work out with the team a few weeks back, so he’s got that on his side.

8. Keith Bogans, SG (unrestricted) – Bogans is one of those defensive-stopper types who grabbed the label through lack of alternatives.  Bogans doesn’t have much going for him offensively, but he’s a good option as a spot-up shooter on the perimeter.  Luckily for the Mavs, that’s pretty much what they’re looking for in a shooting guard.  With the offensive talent the Mavs have, sometimes optimizing the offensive flow is as simple as spacing the floor and going to work.  When the double teams come, shooters are in position, and if they don’t, you’re looking at a high-quality shot for one of the Mavs’ offensive weapons.  It’s hard to say exactly where such a player would fit in minutes-wise, but if the Mavs are looking for back-up plans in case playing Howard at the 2 goes South, they could do worse than Bogans.  Itty bitty problems: Bogans is no spring chicken, so what you see is pretty much what you get, and there are definite redundancies in the games of Keith Bogans and the newly-signed Quinton Ross.

Mr. Blue Sky

Posted by Rob Mahoney on May 21, 2009 under Commentary | 3 Comments to Read

In the spirit of giving the season a full evaluation, I’ve decided to do an extended take on the point-counterpoint formula.  This post will shine the rose-colored spotlight on 2008-2009.

There are countless ways to evaluate a season.  To some, anything short of a trophy is an abject failure.  I am a stark advocate of basketball for basketball’s sake, viewing the means as an end unto themselves.  If you view every season that doesn’t end with a ring as a failure, you’re sadly marginalizing not only a year’s worth of toil and trouble, but also a complex narrative (be it complete or incomplete) rife with elements of macro and micro-level intrigue.  Is there really no beauty in a breakdown?  No silver lining to undeniable failure?  Or, in the case of these Mavericks, no redemption in the season’s smaller victories?  I find that idea not only unsettling, but a bit ridiculous.  The championship validates the season and the effort (and in the most supreme way imaginable; I don’t mean to devalue the almighty trophy), but

The easiest way of finding joy in the Mavs’ playoff defeat is to focus on their blatant defiance in the name of low expectations.  Many projected the Mavs to fall out of the playoff race entirely at the hands of the Shaq-infused Suns.  Neither Dallas nor Phoenix was burdened with particularly lofty hopes for the season, but within the twosome you can see a divergence: the Mavs certainly battled issues with consistency, but adversity was met with important plays and important wins.  The Suns, by contrast, stumbled to the finish line when in need of a dead sprint.  It’s not quite the championship, but it’s certainly a minor victory.  The impacts of a veteran team missing the playoffs can be catastrophic, and are in an entirely different spectrum than a failure to advance beyond round X.  The Mavs’ brass is blessed in a way to have the choice of continuing to tweak or blow up the team, because missing out on the postseason could certainly have forced a few hands.

The only reason that’s possible, and the only reason making the playoffs and beating the Spurs were possible, is because of the offense (5th in offensive efficiency in the regular season, 3rd in the postseason).  It’s easy to lump a complicated variety of factors under that tag, but let’s look at some of the keynotes:

  • Dirk Nowitzki’s effect on the offense cannot be underestimated.  The impact of his scoring was linear, but in providing opportunities for his teammates through improved passing and drawing in the defense.  As the best player on the team, the offensive burden falls on Dirk’s shoulders.  Not only did he succeed with flying colors, but accepted more responsibility without so much as a pip.
  • I don’t know what more we could have asked of Jason Terry offensively.  With the exception of his failures to produce with any kind of consistency in the playoffs, the JET provided a much-needed bench presence and a more than adequate second fiddle.  I don’t think anyone predicted that Terry would eventually come to be the emotional leader of the Mavs when he was acquired for Antoine Walker five seasons ago, but that’s exactly what he has become.  Maybe his gutsy play, his constant jawing, and his showmanship gets under the skin of opponents, but it was exactly the shot in the arm that the Mavs and the fans needed.  That kind of emotional connection with the fanbase is tremendous, especially when trying to use the home court as a rallying point.
  • Jason Kidd deserves credit for proving that old point guards can be taught new tricks, and especially for doing so without abandoning what made him great.  In substantially improving his three-point stroke, Kidd added exactly what the Mavs’ offense called for.  At the same time, his ability to establish his teammates with perfectly placed passes should never be overlooked.  Kidd pulled points out of players like Ryan Hollins and Erick Dampier, which isn’t exactly an easy task at times.
  • J.J. Barea and Brandon Bass really evolved into dependable offensive players late into the season.  Barea’s size and recklessness painted him as a man doomed to fail, but J.J. has reined in his game and transformed from wild card to solid playmaker and effective spurt scorer.  His decision-making has improved by leaps and bounds in the last year, and no attribute is of more import for a backup point guard.  Bass exercised equal discretion, using more selective attempts and possessions based on position and mismatches.  He tries to throw down everything around the rim, and his midrange jumper provides an excellent complement.  Though the Mavs don’t have the best track record when it comes to drafting, both have proven to be welcome additions to Donnie Nelson’s resume when it comes to acquiring “low-level”, low-priced talent in free agency.

Of course, the offense isn’t truly given a chance to shine without Rick Carlisle’s willingness to install his system and let go.  In handing playcalling responsibilities to Jason Kidd, he not only instilled confidence into the team’s core, but also allowed a very capable and talented floor general to control the pace of the game.  The fact that Rick was able to have that kind of faith in his players in his first year as a coach here was tremendous, and the dividends were as obvious as they were impressive.

Rick Carlisle’s successes as a coach were exemplified in the series against the Spurs, where he out-coached Gregg Popovich.  Pop is probably my favorite coach of all time (and I know how blasphemous that sounds coming from a Mavs fan), and to see our man Rick win out over one of the best in the biz was a treat.  Carlisle made all the right moves in regard to tinkering with the rotation (notably pulling Barea out of his magic hat) and altering the defense the best he could.  As a result the Mavs picked up the series in only five games, an impressive feat by almost any standard.  However, Carlisle’s regular season adjustments and willingness to compromise were crucial to the Mavs not only securing the 6th seed in a tight playoff race, but even making it into the postseason.  At the season’s dawn, Carlisle planned on running more of a motion offense that would create more ball and player movement.  The goal was to produce easy shots, but the system never clicked.  Rather than shove his agenda down the players’ throats, Rick catered to the team’s strengths and adjusted the offense to include similar concepts and sets from years past, with a strong emphasis on the Dirk-Terry two man game (imagine that).  It was a central reason why the team was able to rebound from its slow start, and exactly the adjustment needed to combat the loss of Josh Howard to injury.  A little familiarity goes a long way.

Donnie Nelson made quite the blunder in inking DeSegana Diop to a midlevel deal this summer, but like Carlisle he was willing to admit to the fault.  Diop’s miserable start to the season signalled to the Mavs to get while the getting’s good almost rock bottom.  Nelson responded by ditching the expensive, appreciating midlevel deal for Matt Carroll’s depreciating one, and netting a surprise addition in Ryan Hollins.  Hollins was a welcome surprise and — at a bargain bin price — an ideal candidate for frontline depth.  I don’t think Hollins will ever be a starting caliber center in the league, but he’s more than capable of bringing energy, shot-blocking, and athleticism in a role similar to the Birdman.  There’s plenty of room for improvement, but right now that sounds pretty good.

James Singleton also proved to be a stellar addition for little risk, and his ability to fill any frontcourt position in a jam was quite valuable.  He also looks like a miniature version of Erick Dampier, which is both weird and kind of cool.  But Singleton’s rebounding and activity were nice additions to the squad, and he’s exactly the kind of situational role player you want to have on your roster.

Though Singleton and Hollins didn’t play prominent roles in the series against the Nuggets, both (in addition to J.J. Barea and Brandon Bass) were indispensible in creating some semblance of a bench.  Jason Terry distorted the Mavs’ bench scoring, which was completely nonexistent early in the season.  But as Carlisle grew more comfortable with his reserves and as they grew into the system and as players, we saw several guys capable of putting their fingerprints on a game.  I still don’t feel like the bench is strong enough in the right places, but I do have a tremendous amount of respect and pride in what the bench was able to accomplish given the limitations.

In a lot of ways, that was the Mavs’ season in a nutshell: success in spite of limitations.  Josh Howard was limited by injury all season long and fittingly, in the playoffs.  But that didn’t stop him from being quite effective against the Spurs, or from competing to the best of his ability against the Nuggets.  The offense was able to thrive despite going the season with essentially two proven scorers.  The team’s pivotal decision-makers were able to adjust their game plans for the better when met with failure.  The Mavs weren’t good enough to continue on the the conference finals and beyond, but they did remedy some of their weaknesses, and improved markedly by the end of the season.  That’s the reason why we saw the Mavs hang tough with the Nuggets in a series of close games before ultimately falling in 5.  The final tally is misleadingly lopsided, but the team that seemed incapable of solid, sustained play just months ago put together a wonderful offensive performance and a significant change in mentality.  The Mavs toughness didn’t really manifest itself in ways that would make Kenyon Martin proud, but the refusal to surrender despite an insurmountable 0-3 hole and the refusal to bow down to the Nuggets’ physicality is certainly an improvement.

Like it or not, the Mavs have changed.  This isn’t the same team that was the cream of the Western crop in ’06 or that won 67 games the following year.  Jason Terry’s role has changed, Devin Harris and Jason Kidd are remarkably different players, there’s a new coach at the helm, and the depth is not what it once was.  Playoff berths and 50 wins are reasonable goals for this squad, but to expect them to repeat past successes because this team shares laundry with its predecessors isn’t quite fair.

The Mavs are still a very good basketball team, and to be honest they’re still finding themselves.  Offensively, I think the Mavs have it figured out.  But they have yet to achieve anything close to their defensive potential.  That might sound like a criticism, and to some extent it is, but it’s also a reason to be optimistic about things to come.  Were the Mavs’ defensive failures this season a product of poor scheming, poor execution, or poor effort?  Likely some combination of the three, which means we’re looking at a perfect time for improvement.  It’s up to Carlisle to reinforce his defensive system and create an environment that rewards playing solid defense.  It’s not that grown men need a “GREAT JOB!” sticker for every accomplishment, but the foundation of the team needs to congratulate effort and execution.  Regimes run by fear and intimidation eventually crumble, but a defensive scheme hinging on mutual respect and team incentive can go far.  Just ask the Spurs.

The buzzword on this blog for the playoffs has been resiliency, and that’s why I don’t feel dirty doling out points for a morally victorious season.  I have no idea whether that mindset will translate into next season, but the very possibility has me excited.  Not necessarily excitement that requires championship validation, but nonetheless excitement for another successful season that keeps the championship dream, however distant, alive.

Denver Nuggets 106, Dallas Mavericks 105

Posted by Rob Mahoney on May 9, 2009 under Recaps | 45 Comments to Read

Photo by Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images.

Box ScorePlay-By-PlayShot Chart — GameFlow

When angry, count to four. When very angry, swear.
-Mark Twain

There are losses that make you want to yell and scream.  There are losses that make you want to roll over and die.  And then, there are losses that leave you staring in disbelief, mouth agape, as if the life has been sucked right out of you.

Or, if you’re like me, it’s a rotation of the three until I successfully recover from my postgame stupor.

In general, I try to avoid the thing that nobody wants to talk about but everybody wants to talk about: officiating.  There’s a certain give and take to the ref game, and I respect that.  But tonight is different.  Although a  blown call in the fourth quarter technically carries the same weight as one in the first, the critical mistake of the officiating crew in the final seconds of Game 3 was the biggest dagger I’ve seen in these playoffs.  In one missed call, Dallas fell from a hopeful 1-2 to a funereal 0-3, a death knell in NBA basketball.  It’s up for debate whether or not the Mavs had a real chance at winning this series, but one suddenly silent whistle made any debate irrelevant.

No team has ever come back from an 0-3 deficit, and though winning some games would dress up the series in its Sunday’s finest, the Mavs don’t appear to be a team that can buck that trend.  Every piece of evidence imaginable would point to the Mavs losing this series, and can’t even convince myself, much less you, otherwise.

What makes last night’s loss so painful is that the Mavs did what they needed to to win.  Nene (5 points, 2-10 FG), a dominant force in Games 1 and 2, was neutralized by a more effective frontline and a defense aware of his presence.  Josh Howard was revived from ankle hell to score 14 points, grab 7 rebounds, and play some commendable defense on a white-hot Carmelo Anthony.  Dirk (33 points, 16 rebounds) was absolutely wonderful, and managed to actually build upon his prior brilliance by adding an impressive 15 free throw attempts to his series resume.  Jason Kidd and Jason Terry each broke out of their respective slumps, with Kidd running the break with mastery and Terry hitting the (original) biggest shot of the game to put the Mavs up 4.  But all of that was wiped away when Antoine Wright tried to use the Mavs’ foul to give with two seconds remaining and was denied by official Mark Wunderlich, who saw no reason to stop the play and allowed Carmelo a free look at a game-winner.  This isn’t a complaint about a questionable call — NBA president of league and basketball ops Joel Litvin confirmed the boo-boo — but rather voicing the frustration of a clear error that denied the Mavs a chance at this series.

The thought that history will likely remember this day as a Nuggets’ triumph rather than an officiating failure pains me, but credit to Denver for clawing their way through this game.  It wasn’t always pretty and, to be frank, wasn’t always effective, but they managed to perservere despite a lot of things going wrong.  Foul trouble and poor execution be damned, the Nuggets weren’t going to see themselves embarrassed, and that mentality just so happened to get them face-to-face with a winning jumper.  Luckily for the Nuggs and their fans, Melo didn’t blink.

Brandon Bass (16 points, 5 rebounds, 12-14 FT) was awesome.  He alone dominated Chris Andersen (plagued by foul trouble) and J.R. Smith (plagued by poor shot selection being J.R. Smith), and played tough interior defense while Erick Dampier was resting.  Early in the game, it looked as though Ryan Hollins may have supplanted Bass as the back-up center, but Bass played with exactly the kind of energy and discipline that he needs to be effective on a regular basis.  The free throw attempts are clear evidence of his assertiveness around the basket, but that kind of quantification hardly tells how important he was to the Mavs’ offense.  In the first half, Dirk sitting on the bench meant a scoring drought.  But once Bass started hitting his stride, he afforded Nowitzki some much-needed rest and the team a much-needed weapon.

Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups…were Carmelo Anthony (31 points, 8 rebounds) and Chauncey Billups (32 points).  They had the kind of big games that you expect from players of their paygrade, and there was no chance that Denver even sniffs a win if those two don’t contribute huge baskets and meaningful plays at both ends.

Aside from that, the only other Maverick-killer was their inability to secure defensive rebounds.  The Nuggets grabbed 13 offensive boards, many of which were converted into impressive tip-ins and dunks.  That’s a disheartening way to end a play, especially when Dallas’ half-court defense seemed much improved from the first two games.  They were putting the Nuggets in tough spots, but Birdman or Kenyon Martin would swoop in for an easy jam as the ball bounced off the rim.  We’ve asked the Mavs to improve their defense and they responded, which makes those easy put-backs that much more harrowing.

Closing thoughts:

  • Well, Gerald Green played a full 9 minutes, and it wasn’t pretty.  Josh Howard and Antoine Wright’s foul trouble left Carlisle digging into his bench, and Green rewarded his generosity with 0-4 shooting, 0 assists, 0 rebounds, 0 steals, 0 blocks, and 3 fouls.  Ai yai yai.
  • In case you missed it, you can actualy re-watch the game in its entirety here.
  • Say what you will about Antoine Wright “giving up” on that final play, but I don’t see many faults with his play.  If he challenges the shot, there’s actually a decent chance that Anthony catches him jumping from out of position, draws a foul, and gets three free throws (or maybe even more if the foul was flagrant).  If he even challenges the shot, there’s still a chance that a whistle negates his efforts.  And all of this is taking place in about a second flat, fleeting moments in which Wright is expecting play to be stopped by a tweet.
  • Josh Howard was called for an offensive foul on a play where he drove into the lane and warded off a defender by kicking out his foot…which you may remember was almost the exact play that won a regular season game for Chauncey Billups and the Nuggets against the Mavs back in January (check the clip here at the 1:50 mark, although it’s pretty bad quality).
  • Damn.

GOLD STAR OF THE NIGHT: The Gold Star of the Night goes to Brandon Bass.  Dirk has been playing well all series long and deserves his props, but Bass provided something both unexpected and delightful tonight.  Shooting 14 free throws off the bench in just 25 minutes is quite a feat, and Bass is quite a player.

Denver Nuggets 117, Dallas Mavericks 105

Posted by Rob Mahoney on May 6, 2009 under Recaps | 30 Comments to Read

Photo by Garrett W. Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images.

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Have the courage to live. Anyone can die.
-Robert Cody

Brick by brick, the Mavs built the foundation for a victory.  They survived 1st quarter adversity to remain within striking distance.  The bench stepped up as Josh Howard went down.  They clawed their way into a game that they really had no business being in.  And yet, when a Jason Terry three finally pushed the Mavs ahead 74-72, I couldn’t shake the unmistakable feeling that it would all come crashing down.

Boy, did it, in a way that may seem eerily familiar.

After hanging, and hanging, and hanging with a Nuggets team playing better basketball than them on both sides of the floor, the Mavs blew a perfect opportunity by scoring just 2 points in the first 6 minutes of the fourth quarter.  There were rim-outs, there were horrible turnovers, and there were blocked shots, all of which seemed to end in free buckets for Denver on the break.  The offensive magic that pulled the Mavs through the third quarter unscathed was left gasping the thin Denver air, and the Nuggets danced on the grave of the Mavs’ dead and buried transition defense.  The team that wanted to turn this series into a marathon was run out of the gym, and I can’t decide whether ‘leak out’ better describes the nemesis of the Mavs’ defense or the insufferable feeling of their playoff hopes dripping away.  Each drop brings us a bit closer to another playoff loss puddled on the floor, and another step towards the team staring itself down in the puddle’s reflection.

For three quarters, this was a game.  You can thank Dirk Nowitzki (35 points on 20 shots, 9 rebounds, 4 assists) for that.  Dirk’s impact was anything but the silent assassinations we’re used to; each fall-away and maneuver in the post was deafening.  He served as a constant reminder that no Nugget can guard him (don’t worry, I’ll get to the TNT crew later), and also that the Mavs’ offense can’t function without him.  That’s where Denver’s defense really excels.  They can’t stop Dirk, and they don’t even do a very good job of limiting him.  But the second that the offense stops going through Dirk or the second that he sits on the bench, the Mavs look bewildered.  Our possessions begin with a lot of dribbling on the perimeter by Jason Kidd or Jason Terry, and usually end with a turnover or a forced jumper at the shot clock buzzer.  They haven’t taken away our best player, but they may have taken away much more.

The number of open dunks and layups the Nuggets had was humiliating.  Erick Dampier, Ryan Hollins, and James Singleton finally started stopping the freebies with a steady supply of fouls, but the attempts the Nuggets were able to get on the whole were entirely too easy.  The Mavs would grind and pick and squeeze two points out of a jumper, and the Nuggets would respond in a matter of seconds by hitting a wide open Nene for a dunk.  It’s impossible to say exactly how much Dampier’s ankle is limiting him, but for his sake I hope it feels like a ball and chain.  Otherwise, Nene has basically ripped Damp’s heart out of his chest, demoralizing and emasculating him on national television with rolls to the basket, thunderous dunks, and sly work in the post.  Nene finished with 25 and 8, but it seemed like his highlight reel would last for days.

The Mavs’ bench does deserve the appropriate credit for their offensive exploits, but the defense was bad enough that no Mav should leave this recap unmarred.  Jason Terry finally looked like Jason Terry again, registering 21 points and 6 assists off the bench.  Ryan Hollins was the Mavs’ most effective center, and he somehow corralled his speed and athleticism into a few buckets.  J.J. Barea and Brandon Bass vaguely resemble the contributors we saw against San Antonio, but even their mild success was balanced with a steady diet of defensive failure.

On his return, JET ran headfirst into his foil, J.R. Smith (21 points on 6-10 shooting).  Smith showed his full range by making alert, intelligent passes to open teammates, and pulling up early for an errant 26-footer at the end of the second quarter that allowed Kidd to run the length of the court and hit a bomb of his own to pull the Mavs within three going into the half.  He was every bit the Maverick irritant, coming away with a few steals and hitting big shots to stop the Mavs’ momentum dead in its tracks.  I’m sure George Karl will fall asleep smiling.

Carlisle made frequent use of the zone defense, and personally, I’m not sure what to think about it.  It seemed to limit the number of successful slashes, but the Mavs gave up entirely too many offensive rebounds to Denver’s bigs, and surrendered a few baskets to backdoor cuts.  It’s hard to tell exactly how effective it was without some in-depth analysis, but to be honest it seemed like a wash.

Carmelo Anthony (25 points, 5 rebounds, 5 assists) was again brilliant in the fourth quarter, capping an otherwise quiet game with a 15-point explosion to put the game out of reach.  Whether foul trouble or stomach pains have kept Melo mortal, his close-out performances have been stellar.  He’s hitting tough jumpers without forgetting to attack the basket, and essentially using a style that is quintessentially Melo to improve on his perceived shortcomings.  There’s no doubt that he has evolved as a player, and when that fully-evolved form is on display it is to be both feared and respected.

Closing thoughts:

  • I can’t think of anything that makes me angrier than Jason Kidd penetrating all the way to the rim, and declining a layup for a chance to whip the ball around to a shooter.  Truly infuriating basketball.
  • The TNT crew (and by that I mean Kenny, Charles, and C-Webb) really grilled Dirk for describing Denver’s defenders with positive attributes.  Apparently in saying that Nene and Martin are strong and Andersen can challenge shots, Dirk was ceding some gravely important psychological edge.  Oh, but then he kind of dropped 35 on them.  A big thanks to Ernie Johnson and P.J. Carlesimo for being voices of reason and actually listening to Dirk’s soundbite before they frolick off into exaggeration land.
  • Denver’s first quarter parade to the free throw line was brutal.  They entered the bonus with about 6 minutes remaining, and shot 14 free throw attempts in the first quarter alone.
  • Jason Kidd’s performance was much easier to swallow, but with all the free three-pointers he blew, his performance still hurt.  On top of that, Chauncey Billups (18 points, 8 assists, 4-9 3FG) finally emerged from whatever cave he was hiding in, so not only was Kidd sub-par, he was outclassed.
  • For those who don’t know, Josh Howard missed three of the four quarters with some swelling and soreness in his ankle.

GOLD STAR OF THE NIGHT: The Gold Star of the Night goes to Dirk.  Let’s just leave it at that, because even though Dirk had a wonderful night offensively, this team doesn’t deserve a superlative right now.

The Official Two Man Game Official Dallas Mavericks Versus Denver Nuggets Official Playoff Preview for the Official 2008-2009 Official Post-Season

Posted by Rob Mahoney on May 2, 2009 under Previews | 3 Comments to Read

This series is going to be a treat.  The Spurs series was an unexpected letdown in terms of competitive value, but Mavs-Nuggets will surely do more than wet your playoff palate.

Photo by Glenn James/NBAE/Getty Images.

The Mavs’ 0-4 record against the Nuggets in the regular season is well-documented, but those games couldn’t possibly mean less.  Josh Howard returning from injury (and his renaissance) are akin to a major trade: it significantly changed the way that the Mavs approach the game, the way they execute on both ends, and the way Carlisle manages the rotations.  The five games’ worth of Playoff Mavs has been shocking not only in quality of play, but also just how this team has evolved since their regular season dog days.  The regular season irrelevancy goes double for the Nuggets.  Denver was a good regular season team, good enough to secure the number 2 seed in the West.  But the way that the Nuggets completely erased Chris Paul and the Hornets at large was a remarkable feat that the regular season Nuggets just weren’t capable of.  At this point, no one can accuse either the Nuggets or the Mavs of not approaching the playoffs with the appropriate level of focus.

These teams match up exquisitely, and provide a bit of yin and yang at every matchup.  Chauncey Billups’ function is to set up his teammates as a function of his scoring, while Jason Kidd’s function is to score as a function of getting his teammates going.  Dirk Nowitzki and Kenyon Martin will face off at power forward, but couldn’t have more contrasting styles.  Josh Howard, a player who broke into the league with his defense and developed more consistent offensive skills, will do his best to stick with Carmelo Anthony, a phenom with a wide offensive range who has only recently begun to groom his defense.  And yet, despite these very glaring differences, each of these players provides functionally similar contributions (Billups’ and Kidd’s leadership, Dirk’s offensive impact and Kenyon’s defensive one, and Josh and Carmelo’s versatility).  The defensive pieces seem physically able to counter the other team’s offensive weapons, but offensive talent will undoubtedly prevail.  Essentially, you’ve got two teams doing very different things and producing the exact same results.

However, both teams have found great success by breaking down iso-heavy play into a team-oriented approach.  Finding consistency with the role players is again going to decide a series for the Mavs.  J.J. Barea, Brandon Bass, and Ryan Hollins appear to be up to the challenge, but success against the decidedly mortal Spurs may not be indicative of future success.  Unfortunately, Denver has a huge leg up with the way their reserves have been executing on defense.  The Nuggets won’t be able to enact the same strategies that worked against Chris Paul and the Hornets, but the fact that as a team the Nuggs were able to execute to near-perfection on the defensive end is a bit concerning.  Chris Andersen and Anthony Carter are natural defenders off the bench, but even those considered suspect on that end (J.R. Smith, Linas Kleiza) have stepped up their game and helped the Nuggets to thrive on D.  If the Nuggets are able to repeat their defensive performance, the impact of players like Barea and Bass could be rendered irrelevant.

But with players like Smith and Kleiza, if you can break their concentration by denying them the instant dividends of stops, you can potentially turn them into defensive liabilities.  Dallas will need to work the mismatch game and continue to move the ball if they’re going to have that kind of early success, because despite what skill set and physique will tell you about the Kenyon Martin, he can’t guard Dirk one-on-one.  This season, Dirk has averaged 30 points (44% shooting), 11.3 rebounds, and just 1.5 turnovers against Denver.  Over their entire careers, Kenyon has been able to “hold” Dirk to 27.8 PPG (48.5% FG) and 10.1 RPG.  Martin has become a talented, physical defender that can give a lot of players trouble.  I just don’t believe Dirk to be one of them.  Dirk has the range to pull him to uncomfortable spots on the perimeter, he has the pet moves to put Martin in foul trouble, and even if Dirk doesn’t have position or an angle, he has the height to shoot over him.  Even the league’s best defenders aren’t ideal for guarding just anybody, and Martin is no exception.

The later George Karl realizes that, the better.  But the Mavs need to be prepared for the impending defensive pressure.  I wouldn’t be surprised if we see some of the same double-teaming strategies employed by San Antonio, with the Nuggets betting they can outlast the Mavs’ supporting cast.  Dirk’s passing ability will definitely come into play once again, as his ability to find open perimeter shooters and slashers down the lane will greatly affect the flow of the Dallas’ offense.  That means that the other players on the floor need to create and work in space and be ready to answer the call.  In the last series, that was Josh Howard, J.J. Barea, Erick Dampier, and Brandon Bass.  But with Antoine Wright poised for a more prominent role this time around, things could get a little trickier.  Wright is indispensible in his ability to spell Josh Howard as a defender for Carmelo Anthony, but his shooting is a bit suspect.  His ability to either finish his looks, swing the ball after drawing the rotated defender, or use that space to drive to the basket will be crucial.

Brandon Wade/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT

“Guarding Carmelo Anthony” has been a prominent theme here, and figures to be one throughout the series.  He looked completely unstoppable in the regular season, and Carlisle will have his hands full coming up with ways to slow him down.  James Singleton is a rugged, physical rebounder and defender, but he lacks the technique and speed to keep up with a player of Anthony’s caliber.  Antoine Wright will certainly have a go, but Anthony’s versatility will give him trouble, as well as Wright’s offensive limitations.  Enter Josh Howard, the Mavs’ most promising defender at small forward.  Howard didn’t have to guard an elite wing last series, but still played very impressive defense with a variety of on and off the ball tactics.  And, most importantly, he was very focused and very active, a welcome to contrast to the sometimes lackadaisical Josh we’ve seen in the past.  But everything won’t come up roses for Howard.  He’s still a little wobbly on that bad ankle, and trying to protect against the drive while predicting Melo’s pull-up jumper won’t help in the least bit.  Anthony’s got a killer first step and a vast repertoire, two factors that go heavily in his favor.  It’s up to Josh to show that he’s ready for the challenge, and that whether he’s guarding Ime Udoka or Carmelo Anthony, he’s a top-notch defender in this league.

Personally, I wouldn’t take any chances.  The more Josh is able to rest the better, because Anthony can be tired out just like Tony Parker was.  If you give Carmelo a variety of looks and coverages to keep him on his toes, he may be worn down enough to be visibly impacted.  Equally important is Josh’s offense, which can assist greatly in wearing down Anthony.  Provided he’s making Carmelo work around screens and stay in front of him on the way to the basket, Josh can play a huge role in limiting Anthony’s minutes/effectiveness due to foul trouble and fatigue.  Of course that’s only the beginning.  Antoine Wright and James Singleton need to turn into the Mavs’ own version of the Nuggets’ Dahntay Jones, bullying and pushing on Carmelo every step of the way.  That kind of beating can both wear down and test the patience of any player.

Speaking of Dahntay Jones, the Mavs defenders need to be fully aware of what he can (not a lot) and can’t do (quite a bit) offensively.  I’m of the opinion that Jones’ defender should bring a strong double on either Chauncey Billups or Carmelo Anthony, forcing Jones to either make a play or make a shot.  He doesn’t have much of a midrange touch and is reluctant to camp on the perimeter, which means that the Mavs’ frontline has to simply rotate to protect the basket should Jones opt to drive.  Jones isn’t on the floor for his offense, so it’s up to the Mavs to take advantage of that by bothering Denver’s two best offensive options instead of Jones.  Even that solution isn’t a cure-all, but the Mavs have to make the best of what they have defensively.  It’s going to come down to so much more than K-Mart vs. Dirk or Chauncey vs. Kidd, because those are both going to be group efforts.  Team defense is what it takes to stop teams as balanced as the Mavs and the Nuggets, and so the ability of Antoine Wright to stop J.R. Smith, while completely relevant, is really only the beginning of the discussion.

Photo from friends.mavs.com

It’s not that I don’t have great respect for Denver’s defense, but for the Mavs it really is as simple as “Do how we do, baby.”  Jason Terry will face some tough defenders in Jones and Anthony Carter, but hopefully it’s nothing he won’t be able to overcome in transition and playing the two man game with Dirk.  Essentially, Terry is the one spot where Denver can really take something significant away from a major Maverick producer.  If Chauncey “takes away” Kidd’s offensive production, at best he’s taking away a spot-up shooter and bothering Kidd’s dribble.  I have too much faith in Kidd’s court vision and ball-handling abilities to fret about that.  If the Nuggets play Dirk one-on-one he’ll get his, and if not you’d hope that the role players are able to make up for the scoring with their suddenly easier looks.  Howard has off-games, but he also provides a very different kind of player than anything the Nuggets had to face with the Hornets.  Though Denver is a very different team than San Antonio, the series comes down to the same basic premise: rely on offensive efficiency while limiting the Nuggets enough to win.  The Mavs simply don’t have the personnel to rely on defensive prowess to win, so their ability to execute against Denver’s D will determine their fate.

This series is a very winnable one for the Mavs.  They have enough offensive firepower to overcome even the staunch Nuggets’ defense, and they have just enough to limit the Nuggets’ production offensively.  Both of those rely on a million other factors, but the Mavs have have the players and the fight in them to advance.  That said, I’m picking the Nuggets to win in seven.  It’s going to take incredible strategic prowess to eliminate Dirk’s impact, but it would take a damn near miracle to eliminate Carmelo Anthony’s.  Historically, he’s had his way with the Mavs, and though Carlisle has been nothing short of excellent thus far, I’m just not sure that the team can totally withstand an attack that centers around Anthony, but is by no means reliant on him.  If Anthony (or Billups, or a combination of the two) can exploit the Mavs like Tony Parker was able to, Denver’s role players will finisht the job in a way the Spurs’ never could.

Here’s to hoping I’m wrong.

So, Children, What Did We Learn Today?

Posted by Rob Mahoney on April 29, 2009 under Commentary | 4 Comments to Read

The first round is in the books, and the Spurs are no more (for now).  There have been a lot of micro-level observations about the Mavs’ play and their responses to the Spurs’ specific strategies, but it’s about time that we make a good, honest appraisal of where this team is.

  • The Mavs have some fight in them.  In the regular season, the Mavs could gut it out with contenders one night and then blow one against Milwaukee another.  But we’ve seen a completely different look from the team in the last five games (well, four of the last five games).  Where the old Mavs would roll over and hit the snooze button, the new Mavs leap out of bed fully energized and karate chop the alarm clock in half.  They’ve been able to leap gaudy offensive efficiency numbers in a single bound, and their defense has been passable enough to secure wins.  Tony Parker and Tim Duncan took their turns going on mini-runs in this series, and the Mavs built on the resilency they showed in the final games of the regular season and fought back.  Call it experience, call it better offensive execution, or call it mental fortitude, but when the Mavs get hit they’re hitting back.  That’s pretty huge progress from a squad that tended to fold like origami when faced with the slightest coercion a few months ago.
  • The Mavs are not an elite defensive team, but they’re also not a bad one.  They currently rank 8th among playoff teams in defensive efficiency at 102.9, which for comparison’s sake would have ranked 7th in the regular season.  They’re notably better than Houston (104.0), one of the best defensive teams in the playoffs.  The sample size is hideously small, but there is a pretty big piece of anecdotal evidence that goes in the Mavs’ favor: against the Spurs, the Mavs were able to stop the Spurs from doing what they wanted to do.  Poppovich wants to use Tony Parker and Tim Duncan as a mechanism to open up three point shooters, which can kill teams from the corners.  Parker and Duncan are obviously still big-time contributors, but San Antonio’s offensive strategy hinges on those shooters.  I’d be lying if I said the Mavs completely took away that strategy.  Parker’s deep penetration still allowed plenty of open looks.  But as the series went on and the team resigned itself to the fact that Tony Parker’s going to be able to get his, the approach shifted.  Kidd and Barea began playing the angles, hoping to limit Parker and funnel him into the help rather than stop him.  And on the perimeter, Josh Howard, Jason Terry, and even Dirk were locked in place on the shooters, either expecting the kick-out or rotating perfectly.  The defensive rotations and shot contesting in Game 5 was some of the best we’ve seen from the Mavs all season.  Don’t discount that, especially when this offense only needs a little breathing room to win.
  • Josh Howard is back.  We all had our fingers crossed that throwback Josh wasn’t a mirage, and we lucked out.  Frankly, he deserves a post all to himself, and he’s going to get one.  But for now, it’s worth noting that there are four players that are legitimate stars on this team, even if the stat sheet isn’t in their favor every night.
  • The bench seems deeper than ever, and the mob is ready to contribute in a big way.  J.J. Barea was pegged as a potential X-factor for the Spurs series, but Brandon Bass’ and Ryan Hollins’ contributions were nearly as valuable.  The ability to throw a variety of defensive looks at Tim Duncan to keep him on his toes while also having a safety net for Erick Dampier’s foul trouble was indispensible.  James Singleton has been lost in the shuffle of Josh Howard’s return, but he could be a piece of the puzzle to defend Carmelo Anthony (supposing Denver guts out another win).  The success of Barea and Bass make stopping the offense that much more difficult, and they’ve eased the burden on the big guns by playing smart, gutsy basketball.  Plus, Antoine Wright was a non-factor in the last series, but he’ll be an important defensive piece in a series against either the Nuggets or Hornets.  At various points throughout the season, I’ve worried that a bench consisting of Barea, Hollins, Bass, and Singleton was akin to loading up your pistol with peanuts when you ran out of bullets.  Not only did they each prove me wrong individually, but on the whole this bench is stronger than I’ve given them credit for.
  • Blocking out a star won’t stop its light from shining through.  The bench was so successful in part because of all the attention Dirk and JET received.  The Spurs were clearly ready to let Kidd, Josh, and the rest of the bunch decide the fate of this series, but those open shots and clear drives don’t happen unless Terry is getting trapped on the wing or Dirk is doubled at the free throw line.  Both of their shot attempts were down, but their floor presence was unmistakable.  Dirk showed off his much-improved passing game, and both he and Terry patiently waited out the defense.  Yet even with both shooting significantly fewer shots, the Mavs’ offense looked unstoppable at times.  The ball is moving to the open man, the turnover rate is as impressive as ever, and Dirk and JET are still making their mark despite their point totals.  Don’t get me wrong, I’d still openly weep when Dirk goes for 50, but every time he makes a bullet pass to a cutter, an adorable little angel puppy gets its wings.  Aww.

Dallas Mavericks 99, San Antonio Spurs 90

Posted by Rob Mahoney on April 26, 2009 under Recaps | 2 Comments to Read

Photo by AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez.

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“Success is simple. Do what’s right, the right way, at the right time.
-Arnold H. Glasgow

Regardless of how you dress yesterday’s game up with requiems for the Spurs, tie-ins for near-Spurs Jason Kidd and Josh Howard, or woeful depictions of Tony Parker and Tim Duncan as isolated heroes, one singular fact reigns supreme over all else: the Mavs are 3-1 against the Spurs.  Oh, happy day.

Tony Parker (43 points 18-29 FG) and Tim Duncan (25 points, 10 rebounds, 7 assists) were nothing short of spectacular, and for once, it wasn’t enough.  Throughout the regular season, the Mavs seemed to lack the firepower to stay competitive without big nights from Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry.  But in this game and in this series, Dallas has done just that.  A complete performance from a supporting cast rumored to be limited…the Mavs may no longer be the Spurs by design, but this type of balanced performance has Spurs written all over it.

Due to my, shall we say, unique viewing experience, it’s probably best to defer to the wise words of others.

The Spurs led the Western Conference in 3-point precision this season, but in a playoff game in which point guard Tony Parker and power forward Tim Duncan needed some help at the offensive end, the team’s ordinarily accurate long-range shooters came up short, long and sideways. The Spurs made only 6 of 23 3-pointers Saturday. Parker made two, and George Hill went 2 for 2. Matt Bonner, who finished eighth in 3-point accuracy at 44 percent, missed all three shots from beyond the arc. Roger Mason Jr., 15th in regular-season accuracy at 42.1 percent, missed both of his. Ime Udoka launched two and missed both. Michael Finley, who shot 41.1 in the regular season, missed four of five. His final long-range attempt, with the Spurs trailing by seven with 36.5 seconds left, got wedged between the basket and the backboard, a fitting, frozen moment that epitomized the long-distance frustration. ‘Me, personally, they all felt good and looked good,’ said Bonner, scoreless for the second time in four games of the series. ‘I felt they were all going in, but they all rattled out.’”
-Mike Monroe, San Antonio Express-News

“I was very disappointed with [the Spurs'] shot selection during the closing stretch. After Michael Finley made a technical free throw with 4:20 left on the clock, the Spurs were down 92-87. After Tony Parker missed 2 free throws with 3:47 left on the clock (and still down by 5), the Spurs took 8 field goal attempts. All 8 were 3-point attempts. Only 1 was made. It was completely unnecessary for the Spurs to begin heaving up outside shots. [The Spurs] needed stops on the defensive end and penetration on the offensive end. [They] produced neither.”
-Graydon Gordian, 48 Minutes of Hell

“Dirk Nowitzki is nearly 10 points below his season scoring average in the playoffs – and the Dallas Mavericks are still on the verge of easily advancing. ‘People may say Dirk’s not scoring enough, but Dirk is playing the game the right way. Playing patient, not taking any bad shots,’ Dallas guard Jason Kidd said. ‘I don’t think he has to score 30 for us to try to win. You can see that in this series.’ Or even 20.”
-Associated Press

“Tony was unstoppable for most of this game, on offense.  He was 18-29 for 43 points, and had 4 steals.  And that’s what went right for him. As the game went on, however, Tony became something of a liability.  He had 31 points and 3 assists at the half.  He finished the game with 43 points and 3 assists – that’s right, ZERO assists in the second half.  What’s more, he started to turn the ball over.  This is not to say it was all Tony’s fault, though.  He set up Ime, Findog, Mason and Bonner multiple times, but they couldn’t hit the 3.  If those guys are making shots, Tony probably gets a double-double and doesn’t have to wear himself out trying to win the game on his own. Also, in the second half, he wasn’t even trying to get a hand in Kidd’s face on 3-point attempts.  Kidd was 3-7 on those tonight, and at least two of his makes(by my count) were in that second half with Tony just standing there and watching.”
-rikkido, Pounding the Rock

“But it wasn’t just The Others who created a situation that puts the Mavs up 3-1 in this best-of-seven series (with a Tuesday road chance to close this out and advance to Round 2 for the first time since the 2006 Finals). It was The Everybodies. Josh Howard drew plaudits from both locker rooms for his assertive path to 28 points. He made seven of his 14 shots and three of his six 3’s. But the proof of his style in is his other path, the one to the free-throw line. Howard plowed his way to the basket with enough frequency that he earned 13 visits there. And he made 11 of those. ‘Josh was great,’ Jason Kidd said.”
-Mike Fisher, DallasBasketball.com

“Jason Kidd was superb. I have said it before and I will say it again. There are two ways to look at trades, and one is ‘the future’. But the other, ‘the present’ should not be completely ignored. And in the present, there is no question in my head that he has made this a better Mavericks team. I know that won’t help you feel better about 2011, but Jason Kidd has provided such a higher basketball IQ for the squad it is not even funny. He is a basketball genius from the way he thinks the game. He defends with his head, he takes the ball away, he sees passes you don’t see, and I have really found it shocking how he well he shoots the wide-open shots. In this sports age where we only see what a guy doesn’t do, I would like to speak up for Jason Kidd and appreciate what he does do. I swear I have not seen a smarter player in a Mavericks uniform. He just doesn’t ever hurt you with his decisions. And when you have him, all of the sudden, some of your other players who may be less than brilliant between the ears do seem to get smarter.”
-Bob Sturm, Inside Corner

“Popovich had started Bruce Bowen in place of Roger Mason in an effort to counteract the spark J.J. Barea has given Dallas as a starter. Now Popovich is running out of games and options. The Spurs have to hope Parker and Duncan can carry them. ‘It’s obvious that’s what we need to do,’ Popovich said. ‘Those guys have to have the ball as much as possible to score. Sure, we hope that other people step up and make shots and make plays. It didn’t happen enough tonight, but it wasn’t for lack of effort.’”
-Brad Townsend, Dallas Morning News

“Ryan Hollins guarding Tim Duncan. For 19 minutes. I know Mavs followers liked the idea, and we’ve reported that Jet liked it so much he begged Carlisle to give it a shot before the start of the series. But for Carlisle to give him 19 minutes? Against Duncan? Brass ones. ‘Was I surprised?’ Duncan said, repeating a postgame question and then noting that Hollins ‘is a young buck and he is very athletic and he was all over the place.’ So. … ‘No, I was not surprised.’”
-Mike Fisher, DallasBasketball.com

There Are Other People on the Planet

Posted by Rob Mahoney on April 16, 2009 under Commentary | 5 Comments to Read

And some of them even happen to watch the Mavs.  That’s why I went through the trouble of reaching out to Mike Fisher of DallasBasketball.com and Zac Crain of D Magazine’s sports blog, Inside Corner, to get their opinions on a variety of topics anchored around the upcoming Mavs-Spurs throwdown.  Without further ado:
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Rob Mahoney: The Mavs draw San Antonio in the first round.  Good thing or a bad thing?  Would you have preferred the Mavs get a shot at Denver or Houston?  Or was San Antonio the team at the center of your dartboard down the final stretch of games?

Zac Crain, Inside Corner: The two teams I targeted about a month ago were Portland and San Antonio. Portland: partially (and we’re talking, like, 5 percent) because they weren’t playoff-tested, but mostly because the Mavs had played them extremely well all season. San Antonio: because they’re the Spurs and the Mavs are the Mavs. Dallas isn’t the same team that beat ‘em in 7 in 2006, but the ghost of that squad is still there, and for that reason, you throw out the regular season records and expect them to fight it out all the way. SA is the one team in the league that still thinks of the Mavs in pre-2007 terms. (For the most part.)

I didn’t want Denver (the Mavs just don’t match up that well) and Houston, well, I think it would have been an interesting series, but I would have given Dallas less of puncher’s chance than they have against the Spurs. All that said, I am a bit worried about the fan base’s overly enthusiastic reception to the Spurs series. Not saying don’t be optimistic. I’m saying: cautiously optimistic.

Mike Fisher, DallasBasketball.com: I agree with Popovich (generally a wise move with it comes to basketball if not hirsute styling) on this one. And I’ll quote Jason Garrett circa mid-1990’s, too: “I do not concern myself with those things that are beyond my control.’’

I did consider Houston to be the most wobbly of those three teams. But. … combine the big brains of Pop and Redball and, basically, it’s a waste of time to worry about such things – unless, I guess, you are Avery Johnson’s 2006-07 Dallas Mavericks skipping blindly off the side of the Golden Gate Bridge.

RM: Which match-up, besides Dirk v. Bonner, presents the greatest advantage for the Mavs?  And likewise, which match-up is the most advantageous for the Spurs?

Mike Fisher, DallasBasketball.com: “Dirk vs. Bonner’’! I loved that episode of “Growing Pains’’!

I’m not sure the Mavs really have a singular mano-a-mano matchup that deserves to be ranked anywhere near the aforementioned. Sorry. As I noted in an analysis piece on Wednesday, Josh Howard is so frequently touted as an “X-Factor’’ that now even J-Ho himself is calling himself that. But an “X-Factor’’ seems to be, by definition, something of an “unknown,’’ a “surprise,’’ a “what-if.’’

And “what-if’s’’ don’t qualify as advantages I’m willing to bet on.

Zac Crain, Inside Corner: I’ll start with the second question: Tony Parker vs. anyone they throw at him. I just don’t see them really shutting him down in the slightest. An Antoine-then J.J.-then Kidd rotation might work against Deron Williams or Chris Paul, because those guys can pass and are willing to. Parker just wants to get to the hoop. As for the Mavs: I think Josh could go off against Finley. And they don’t really have a stopper coming off the bench. Big IF here: IF Josh’s ankle doesn’t give out.

RM: Which non-JET Mavs bench player has the biggest impact on this series?

Zac Crain, Inside Corner: J.J. Barea, for the same reasons the Spurs had so much trouble with Devin Harris: he’s quick, an aggressive penetrator, and a creative finisher. I think there is at least one game where he is the next day’s headline. Dark horse: Brandon Bass, because he’s the most athletic big man on both sides, and the Spurs are a bit creaky up front.

Mike Fisher, DallasBasketball.com: I say it’s whichever Mav big man Carlisle decides to pull out of his “Be-Ready’’ Bag. Erick Dampier will get the first (and second, and third) crack at Duncan. But somebody else is going to get 20 minutes at center. Will Bass and Hollins tag-team him like they did Yao on Wednesday? Isn’t Singleton long, athletic, frustrating and just enough of a perimeter threat to trouble Timmy? Is it time to pull the Dirk-as-center idea out of year-long mothballs?

Whatever the Mavs do here will be a fateful decision – one way or the other.

RM: What will give the Mavs the most trouble in this series?  (You can go with players, strategies, a certain element that the Spurs excel at, etc.)

Mike Fisher, DallasBasketball.com: Enduring the pain of employing a “Let-Parker-Do-His-Damage’’ philosophy.

It kinda worked against CP3, who is the same sort of uncontrollable waterbug as Parker is. And heck, Kidd, Wright, JJB, whomever. … they aren’t going to actually stop offensive-minded rabbit PGs. So keep Parker from creating inside, keep a lid on his more controllable teammates, and grimace as Parker goes for 30-plus in three or four or five of the upcoming games.

And hope it ain’t enough.

Zac Crain, Inside Corner: Two things, one of which I mentioned before. They can’t stop Parker. And I’m not positive a “let TP get his” game plan helps much, because they don’t really rely on his setting up his teammates. Two: the corner three, which the Spurs have turned into an art form, and which the Mavs have never especially defended well.

RM: Describe this series in one word.

Zac Crain, Inside Corner: Familiar

Mike Fisher, DallasBasketball.com: Can “9X50’’ be one word?

“9X50’’ is the little T-shirt-worthy equation we coined at DB.com to celebrate what the Mavs have done with playoff appearances and 50-win seasons. The only team in Dallas’ class in those two categories? The Spurs, of course.

9X50. A celebration. For both franchises. For a couple more weeks, anyway.

RM: And the big one: prediction time.  Who ya got?

Zac Crain, Inside Corner: Mavs in six.

Mike Fisher, DallasBasketball.com: The Mavs’ logic? “As good as we are at home, all we have to do is steal one in San Antonio!’’

The Spurs’ logic? “As good as WE are, period, we don’t have to STEAL anything!’’

I’m a journalist — I’ve got the Press Pass in the band of my fedora and everything — but I’m also a fan. (I’d also like to note that I’m a bitch, I’m a lover, I’m a child, I’m a mother, I’m a sinner, I’m a saint). The fan satisfaction I’d get from Dallas winning would be matched by the journalist satisfaction I’d get from correctly predicting the upset.

Mavs in seven.

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A big thanks to Zac and Fish for playing along, and be sure to check out their other work at DallasBasketball.com and Inside Corner.  And don’t worry, you’ll get plenty of my thoughts on the series soon enough.