Of Lisa Frank Trapper Keepers

Posted by Rob Mahoney on October 12, 2011 under Video | 4 Comments to Read

These are truly dark times for all basketball fans, but at least Tyson Chandler and (blonde) Shawn Marion are having a bit of fun:

NBA Lockout: Lock-In from Tyson Chandler

Waking Up

Posted by Rob Mahoney on September 8, 2011 under Commentary | Be the First to Comment

Over at ProBasketballTalk, we’re looking at every NBA team’s post-lockout plan of attack. I wrote on what we should expect from the Mavs once a new collective bargaining agreement is finally in place, with the spotlight fixed firmly on free agency:

When the lockout ends, the Mavericks need to… Choose one of the following paths: (1) re-sign Tyson Chandler, Caron Butler, and possibly J.J. Barea in order to maintain their current competitive core, (2) re-sign either Chandler or Butler while covering for the other’s loss with positional depth, or (3) let both Chandler and Butler walk while bracing for a bit of a drop-off. Dallas’ off-season — in whatever form the lockout allows — leans heavily on free agency and the decisions made by all parties within it.

Losing Butler would be a shame, but losing Chandler would legitimately move the franchise down a peg in terms of their immediate competitive worth. Brendan Haywood is a good, starting-caliber center (regardless of what his 2010-2011 production would have you believe), but Chandler is a talent who can elevate a team’s collective defense while augmenting their offensive flow. Players like that don’t come around often, and as the Mavs will find out shortly, they don’t come cheap.

Check out the full post over at PBT, complete with the obligatory call for more minutes for the young guys, the slightest championship gloating, and more rumination on Caron Butler’s value.

The Difference: Dallas Mavericks 105, Miami Heat 95

Posted by Rob Mahoney on June 15, 2011 under Recaps | Read the First Comment

Screen shot 2011-06-15 at 4.52.21 PM

Box ScorePlay-by-PlayShot ChartGameFlow

TeamPaceOff. Eff.eFG%FT/FGORB%TOR
Dallas91.0115.456.714.625.015.4
Miami104.452.127.823.117.6

You know the drill. The Difference is a reflection on the game that was, with one bullet for every point in the final margin.

  • In professional sports, panic is easy. Identifying worries and overreacting to them quickly is the path of least resistance, false adjustments that feign activity. Throughout their entire playoff run, the Mavericks never were tempted into that panic; they took their path every time, even when the win-loss binary told them that path was faulty. Rick Carlisle never pushed a button for pushing’s sake, nor did any of the Mavs attempt to drastically alter their approaches in an effort to counter some real or perceived problem. They just ran their stuff. They ran their stuff in the house and with a mouse, they ran their stuff here, and there, and anywhere. They ran it in a box and with a fox, and then they skipped the green eggs and just went ham. True commitment to a system or strategy often seems a lot easier than it is (case in point: Miami’s willingness to abandon their pick-and-roll game with a single kick-ball in the fourth quarter of Game 5), and I’m convinced that perseverance within their system is among the most crucial reasons for Dallas’ first ever NBA title. Carlisle could have easily rewritten the book after Game 1 of the Finals, or drastically changed his team’s defensive strategy once Dwyane Wade began to really go nuts. He didn’t and the Mavericks thrived from the strength of their minor, precise adjustments.
  • Strictly as an observer, I haven’t decided whether there was more narrative power in the actual outcome of Game 6 or in an alternate reality where Dirk Nowitzki finished the series as dominant as ever. Both are suitable finales, but there would have been a clearly established satisfaction in seeing Nowitzki grab the Larry O’Brien trophy by its personified throat. That wasn’t quite the way it turned out, but is that a fair conclusion to the tale of Nowitzki’s historically incapable supporting cast, or an anticlimactic finish for the man who always did it all?
  • Tyson Chandler scored five points and grabbed eight rebounds in Game 6, and I still wouldn’t have been opposed to him being named the Finals MVP. Nowitzki was an offensive juggernaut in the Finals, but Chandler was the primary deterrent against a formidable Heat offense. He wasn’t an anchor, but a pillar; Dallas unveiled a beautifully crafted defensive structure in the Finals, and though Jason Kidd and Shawn Marion really brought it together, Chandler was the critical support that allowed the entire thing to exist in the first place. (Plus, offensive rebounding was pegged as a definitive Heat strength going into the Finals, and yet the Mavs won the offensive rebounding rate battle in three of the six games. That’s essentially all Chandler.)
  • For the record, my mom, soothsayer that she is, predicted that the Mavs would win the title this season. Then again, she’s said the same thing every season since 2000, so I guess hat makes her 100% right this year, and about 9% right overall. Still, even grasping at straws deserves a tip of the hat, so long as she gets the straw.
  • J.J. Barea (15 points, 7-12 FG, five assists) was unbelievable. It seems like it’s been ages since I was forced to defend Barea’s presence by outlining his unique strengths within the context of this team, but in reality, Barea was painted as a scapegoat as recently as a few months ago. He’s come a long way in terms of focus and efficiency, mind you, but the strength of his game is the same: Barea’s handle, speed, and creativity give him an inlet to the basket that few players are able to access. Barea has made clear his intent to stay with the team that unearthed him, but strange things can happen in free agency. If Barea ends up on another team’s roster, Dallas will be the worse for it.
  • There’s always room for more in Maverick Nation, and in principle, I’m not opposed to accepting refugee fans from other teams that have been bounced in the playoffs. Still, I won’t miss the bile. I won’t miss the abject hatred. I won’t miss the inescapable stink clouding what was a brilliant series with a fantastic ending. Fans are free to love or hate whoever they’d like, but the way they conduct themselves can always disgust me, even if their agency doesn’t.
  • DeShawn Stevenson dropped nine points, as did Eddie House. Brian Cardinal had three, and Ian Mahinmi four. In the closing game of the NBA Finals. It’s a mad, mad, mad, mad world.
  • Oh, there’s this cat named Jason Terry — he’s turned the pull-up jumper in transition into an art form, and was the dynamic offensive star Dallas badly needed to finish out the series. Terry (27 points, 11-16 FG, 3-7 3FG) has been maligned as any Maverick over the years, and to an extent he’s deserved the criticism. His defense used to be quite poor. In the past, Terry’s offensive contributions could be teched against too easily, leaving Nowitzki to carry the entirety of the scoring burden on his own. But this year’s offense wasn’t Nowitzki-and-JET-dependent so much as it utilized both as investments in the system. Jason Kidd, Shawn Marion, Tyson Chandler, J.J. Barea, and previously, Caron Butler, rounded out the offense and balanced the floor. No player benefited more from Dallas’ offensive flow than Terry, who was able to finally benefit from the creation of others. Just having Kidd set up Terry was never enough; the entire offense had an oddly stable codependency, in which Kidd needed Nowitzki, Terry, a more involved Marion, and Chandler to really do what he does best, and each of those players needed one another in order to create the perfect swing to their offense.
  • LeBron James didn’t perform as he could have or should have, and yet somehow, I don’t think anyone in Dallas really minds all that much. James has been story 1A in the postseason’s aftermath, but frankly, I was more taken by how Dallas held Dwyane Wade to 17 points on 6-of-16 shooting (with five turnovers) in Game 6. Wade’s injury likely played a part in his underwhelming line, but the Mavs used some quick doubles to chase him out of his comfort zones. Wade in the post had been the most consistently effective weapon for either team all series long, and yet the Mavs were able to completely neutralize it in Game 6 while keeping the rest of Wade’s game in check and keeping LeBron James producing on a reasonable level.
  • Do you believe it yet?

The Difference: Dallas Mavericks 112, Miami Heat 103

Posted by Rob Mahoney on June 10, 2011 under Recaps | 5 Comments to Read

Screen shot 2011-06-10 at 11.10.59 AM

Box ScorePlay-by-PlayShot ChartGameFlow

TeamPaceOff. Eff.eFG%FT/FGORB%TOR
Dallas86.0130.265.930.412.912.8
Miami119.858.630.029.018.6

You know the drill. The Difference is a reflection on the game that was, with one bullet for every point in the final margin.

  • One more. That’s all that stands between Dallas and the prize the Dallas Mavericks were never supposed to win, between Dirk Nowitzki and the validation that players like him supposedly didn’t have in them to secure. The Mavs’ insane shooting performance was an outlier, but one that has changed the series and can never be reversed. One could yap all day about sustainability, but nothing in that chatter can reverse what has been stone, or push Dallas from the brink of the title. There’s still so much left to be accomplished — stealing another game in Miami will be no easy feat — but Dallas’ versatility should give them reason for optimism. This was the first game in the Finals when the Mavericks actually shot well, and though plenty of that shooting was against good defensive coverage, there is value in the fact that two wins were earned without consistently competent offense. The Mavs can’t again afford the defensive breakdowns they suffered in Game 5, but they likely won’t have to. Dallas will tweak and adjust. Rick Carlisle will have them ready to roll, and iron out the wrinkles. They haven’t won their championship yet, but they’ll be ready to close in Miami, and the defense will undoubtedly execute at the level we’ve come to expect.
  • The Mavs’ pick-and-roll defense will have to improve. Miami finally started hitting the roll man in the fourth quarter — either directly or through a preliminary pass to the other big — and Dallas really struggled to contest that action with such heavy pressure being committed to Miami’s ball-handlers. The Mavs have the right idea in walling off Dwyane Wade and LeBron James as they come around screens, but that kind of coverage naturally leaves the roll man open as a release. Dallas has been great about covering that roll man and the other big simultaneously, but that pick-and-roll action broke through for Miami in a big way down the stretch. Dirk Nowitzki, who has quietly had a tremendous defensive series, really struggled in that regard. Tyson Chandler does a fantastic job of hedging Wade and James away from drives, but Nowitzki has to be able to cover the back line when he does so.
  • J.J. Barea continued the playoff run of his life, albeit after a few hiccups. Say what you will about his height, but when Barea is able to tuck behind screens and connect on his threes, he’s an insanely tough cover. Once that shot starts to go, the middle of the floor tends to open up even more for Barea, and in Game 5 he was able to penetrate and create great looks time and time again. Barea very nearly usurped Jason Terry’s sacred role as a closer, but was pulled, and Terry went on to hit several big shots down the stretch. I guess J.J. will have to settle for merely being the unstoppable force that pushed the Mavs to the brink of the NBA title with his ability to create off the dribble, his fantastic shooting, and his smart decision making.
  • Dwyane Wade is injured, but on that matter I share an opinion with Jason Terry; when Wade is on the floor, he’s a threat. Period. He may be ailing, but he’s still plenty capable of torching the Mavs, and he scored 10 points on 3-of-6 shooting in the fourth quarter to prove it. I’m sure that whatever Wade is experiencing with his hip isn’t pleasant, but basketball fans should know the terrors that Wade can bring for opposing teams. The Heat have their backs against the wall, Wade will have time for treatment and recovery, and Dwyane Wade is still Dwyane Wade. His offensive performance in this game was nothing to scoff at, and Game 6 will only bring more drives, more shots, and more defense to contend with.
  • Brendan Haywood was again inactive, and Tyson Chandler again managed to stay on the floor and function as one of the Mavs’ best players. Chandler only scored two points in the second half, but he finished with 11 overall, a product of his aggressive rolls to the rim and ability to make himself into a big, accessible target. Chandler’s teammates fully understand just how much of an offensive weapon he can be, and though Miami attacked Dallas’ pick-and-roll action effectively in the second half, I shouldn’t need to preach the value of that forced adjustment. Chandler’s success opened up more room for Nowitzki, Barea, and Terry, and conveniently exemplified Chandler’s underrated offensive impact. The fact that Dallas consistently performs better offensively with Chandler on the floor is no coincidence; he may not be a threat to go to work from the low block, but Chandler creates legitimate opportunities just by setting hard screens and rolling to the rim.
  • Much has been (and will forever be) made of LeBron James’ alleged disappearance in this series, but I thought he had a rather decent performance in Game 5. The Finals just aren’t a stage conducive to decent performances, and with a player of James’ standout caliber, we expect better. It’s not absurd to expect James to be the best player on the floor, and from that perspective — the one he’s created by being the best in most every other setting but this one — James has surely disappointed. Still, let’s not lump James’ Game 5 performance with Game 4; he was hardly transcendent on Thursday night, but he was much more focused offensively than in his infamous Game 4 letdown.
  • On a related note: James was right in his post-game assessment of the Heat’s performance. Miami played well enough to win this game, they just didn’t have a means to counter Dallas’ incredible shooting. The Heat’s defense was unquestionably their weaker link; though LeBron’s numbers may not be as gaudy as we like, it was the defensive breakdowns that led to Chandler dunks, wide open three-pointers, Barea drives, and some oddly open opportunities for Nowitzki. The Mavs’ accuracy — even in the face of good defensive pressure — may have put them over the top, but it was those breakdowns in coverage that led to shots around the rim that really doomed the Heat.
  • Almost 18 combined minutes for Ian Mahinmi and Brian Cardinal, but Dallas survived. Neither of those players is a preferred member of the regular rotation, but the circumstances of the series have dictated that they play. So they play. Mahinmi does his best to function as a substitute Haywood, and Cardinal takes his open shots and tries to get in a position to draw charges. Neither was tremendously successful in Game 5, but they also didn’t kill the Mavs — an underrated value for any situational player. Mahinmi and Cardinal can’t be expected to produce like regulars because they flat-out aren’t regulars; they don’t have the skill nor the experience at this stage to produce as Haywood or Stojakovic potentially could, but they’re the most sensible options with Haywood ruled out and Peja burned out.
  • By the way, Dirk Nowitzki had 29 points on 18 shots. Just thought I’d sneak that in there.

The Difference: Miami Heat 88, Dallas Mavericks 86

Posted by Rob Mahoney on June 6, 2011 under Recaps | Read the First Comment

Screen shot 2011-06-06 at 11.26.43 AM

Box ScorePlay-by-PlayShot ChartGameFlow

TeamPaceOff. Eff.eFG%FT/FGORB%TOR
Dallas83.0103.645.731.430.816.9
Miami106.048.715.423.112.0

You know the drill. The Difference is a reflection on the game that was, with one bullet for every point in the final margin.

  • Don’t call it a miraculous comeback. All Dallas did was play, and though they spotted Miami points here and there, it’s not as if they were horrid — even at their worst. The difference between the bumbling Mavs and those blazing the comeback trail was actually fairly thin; hitting the defensive glass and taking care of the ball was all it took for Dallas to give themselves a chance in this game, and so it will be for the remainder of the series. Miami is a great team, but they’re not the only great team in this year’s NBA Finals. Provided that Dallas stays away from their bad habits, we should be heading for at least a few more amazing, highly competitive games with singular displays of greatness and brilliant collective execution. The micro and macro battles between Dallas’ offense and Miami’s defense have been absolutely phenomenal, but the other end of the court deserves its due; the Mavs have played some terrific team defense in their efforts to limit LeBron James, and though Dwyane Wade hasn’t been hindered in the same way (as evidenced by the fact that he had a monster game on Sunday night), slowing the MVP enough to create a balanced series is a significant accomplishment. Dallas — specifically Tyson Chandler, Shawn Marion, and Dirk Nowitzki (yes, Dirk Nowitzki) — has played some incredible defense to halt Miami’s high pick-and-rolls in the same way that the Heat defense has halted theirs, and though that side of the court doesn’t come with the same loaded result of an elite offense facing off against an elite defense, both teams have created a reasonable facsimile. Maybe Dallas isn’t elite on D and perhaps Miami’s limitations prevent them from being a truly elite offensive team, but both teams have played at such a high level in this series that those designations are meaningless. All we have is the here and the now, and both Dallas and Miami are playing terrific basketball in an incredible series.
  • Figuring out why the Mavericks lost this game requires an analysis that exceeds the limitations of a single bullet point, so with the acknowledgment that my task here is somewhat futile, I’ll offer a bite-sized element that nonetheless factored prominently into the outcome of Game 3: Dirk’s defensive rebounding. Nowitzki’s extraordinary shot-making, Wade’s magnificence, and Chris Bosh’s heroics will take center stage, but this game wouldn’t have been what it was if not for Nowitzki making a deliberate, concentrated effort to clean the defensive glass beginning mid-way through the second quarter. The Heat were still able to grab their share of offensive boards, but thanks to Nowitzki’s efforts to secure contested rebounds — and Chandler’s relentless drive to collect offensive boards — the Mavs were able to win the rebounding rate battle. It’s one of the influences on the game that will be undoubtedly overlooked because it doesn’t support the cause of the victor or explain the shortcomings of the loser, but Nowitzki’s rebounding work was one of many reasons why Game 3 was so enjoyable and competitive.

The Difference: Dallas Mavericks 95, Miami Heat 93

Posted by Rob Mahoney on June 3, 2011 under Recaps | 4 Comments to Read

Screen shot 2011-06-03 at 12.37.09 PM

Box ScorePlay-by-PlayShot ChartGameFlow

TeamPaceOff. Eff.eFG%FT/FGORB%TOR
Dallas88.0108.052.022.731.420.5
Miami105.753.522.216.713.6

You know the drill. The Difference is a reflection on the game that was, with one bullet for every point in the final margin.

  • It’s hard to fully encapsulate an incredible comeback with a single bullet point — or even two, or seven, for that matter — but these Dallas Mavericks apparently love to see me try. Of all that impresses me about this Mavs team, high on the list is how natural they make feats of extraordinary strength appear. They don’t have the kind of athletic talent that makes highlight reel dunks look easy, but the way they move the ball and find shooters is not normal. Dallas has a truly exemplary offense, and yet you’d never know it as Jason Kidd makes a relatively routine pass to the corner at just the right time, or Tyson Chandler sets a barely legal screen to free up Dirk Nowitzki with enough room to launch an off-balance jumper. Nothing in their equation is ordinary, and yet it’s all instinctive, all reactive, all a product of a team filled with intelligent ball players doing merely what they know to do. Seven minutes is a long time to contend with an offense like that, even for a elite defense. The Heat D is fast and flexible, but nonetheless subject to the mandates of the offense. When Dirk touched the ball, Miami was largely forced to double. When the ball swung this way or that, the Heat were forced to shift to compensate. All of this is a fundamental part of the offense-defense dynamic, but when the freewheeling Mavs dictated everything with their crisp passing and perfect spacing, the Heat can only do so much. That said, they could have gotten one more shot or one more bucket to significantly impact the result of this game. That might make the Mavs’ remarkable comeback win feel serendipitous, but in truth it was simply a process of in-game natural selection. One team adapted over the final few minutes and the other did not, and the power of that sudden evolution was apparently far more potent than a mere 15-point advantage.
  • Nowitzki, Jason Kidd, and Jason Terry will get credit for making big plays and huge baskets in the fourth quarter, but Shawn Marion (20 points, 8-13 FG, eight rebounds, three offensive boards, three assists) and Tyson Chandler (13 points, 4-6 FG, seven rebounds, four offensive boards) were the MVPs of this game. For most of the night, Nowitzki and Terry shot incredibly poorly from the field; both finished just shy of .500 shooting for the night, but only after their respective sprints down the stretch of the fourth quarter. Dallas was able to remain competitive — even in spite of a breathtaking performance from Dwyane Wade (36 points, 13-20 FG, six assists, five rebounds) — because Marion weaved through the Heat defense straight to the rim time and time again, and because Chandler worked relentlessly to find the ball or have it find him. These two were the true anchors of the Mavs’ offense, and their combined 33 points on 20 shots doesn’t even do justice to their impact…in part because of the stellar accomplishments of both players on the defensive end. Dallas only came back in such spectacular fashion because they played the pick-and-roll with LeBron as the ball-handler so aggressively, and that doesn’t happen without Tyson Chandler — who was pressuring like mad, despite having five fouls at the time and Brendan Haywood unavailable with a strained right hip flexor — shutting down LeBron’s options. It’s not as if they were only successful defensively at the end of the game; Marion played James to a virtual tie in the box score, and though Marion pulled off a highly efficient offensive night, the key was meeting James in the middle ground. 20 points, eight rebounds, and four assists is still excellent production, but it’s the kind you live with (or even laud) when coming from the best basketball player on the planet. Throw in five turnovers and that’s about as good of a defensive performance as one could hope for against James. That wasn’t all Marion’s doing, but he certainly played his role, and played 41 minutes as a result. That playing time says it all; Marion simply could not be pulled on Thursday night.

The Difference: Miami Heat 92, Dallas Mavericks 84

Posted by Rob Mahoney on June 1, 2011 under Recaps | 6 Comments to Read

Screen shot 2011-06-01 at 1.25.16 PM

Box ScorePlay-by-PlayShot ChartGameFlow

TeamPaceOff. Eff.eFG%FT/FGORB%TOR
Dallas84.0100.044.037.316.713.1
Miami109.545.623.834.811.9

You know the drill. The Difference is a reflection on the game that was, with one bullet for every point in the final margin.

  • To those struggling to find the fine line between the acknowledgment of Miami’s excellence and the hope provided in the Dallas’ missed opportunities, I empathize. Game 1 has to be viewed in terms of all that the Heat accomplished, but I can’t shed the thought of Dirk Nowitzki’s missed layups, J.J. Barea’s botched runners, Jason Terry’s poor decisions. Credit Miami’s D for their impressive contests — and even for the impact of their potential contests, which clearly had Barea shaking in his boots — but the Mavs can play much better…as long as the Heat defense doesn’t improve yet. We knew this would be a competitive series, but I’m not sure anyone quite expected such an odd start. To credit the Mavs’ offensive failures or the Heat’s defensive successes would be a terrible oversimplification, and yet somewhere in that relationship is the dynamic that could decide the series.
  • The Dallas zone had its moments, I suppose, but its start to the series was anything but exemplary. Mario Chalmers was able to burn the Mavs with a pair of wide open threes from the corners, but it was the play of Chris Bosh that made things particularly painful for Dallas when in their zone coverage. Bosh finished with five offensive boards in capitalizing on the displacement of the Mavs’ defenders, and his passing from the high post provided a terribly effective counter to the Mavs’ zone look. Rick Carlisle didn’t seem too distressed about the zone’s performance, so I’m curious as to what he saw in Dallas’ Game 1 zone execution that we didn’t; how much zone the Mavs run in Game 2 should provide a more authentic appraisal than anything Carlisle said postgame.
  • Udonis Haslem and the Heat’s double teamers did a credible job defending Dirk Nowitzki (27 points, 7-18 FG, eight rebounds) by playing passing lanes and limiting Dirk’s attempts. In terms of challenging, the Heat defenders can only do so much; Haslem and Joel Anthony just don’t have the height or length to really alter Nowitzki’s shot, which leaves their means of defending him a bit more reliant on prevention. Anthony couldn’t quite pull that off, but Haslem — with help from Mike Miller and others — was able to put enough pressure on Nowitzki to make him pass out of doubles and rush through many of his possessions against single coverage. Nowitzki needs to get settled in, but Erik Spoelstra is too good of a coach to maintain a static approach against Dirk; he may see the same basic defensive look in Game 2, but the specifics of its implementations (the timing of the double, etc.) will likely change. Nowitzki was able to adjust and attack, but he may have to start that process all over again in Game 2.
  • Shawn Marion and DeShawn Stevenson were able to have some success in man-to-man coverage against LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, but then the Mavs shifted into zone, the zone failed, and the final product was flawed man-to-man execution that allowed the Heat do do as they willed. James and Wade didn’t have their most aggressive driving games, but they were certainly assertive scorers; the two stars combined to shoot 6-of-9 from three-point range, and several of those attempts came against pretty good defense. The prospect of defending Wade and James is always predicated on concession in some form. Teams often cede long jumpers — both twos and threes — to both James and Wade in the hopes that it lures two of the league’s best creators off the dribble into taking decidedly less efficient shots and stalling their team’s offense in the process. That’s still a semi-effective strategy against Wade (particularly due to his poor shooting from three-point range), but James has somehow become even more unguardable by hitting threes with consistency. Defending against either player is a miserable assignment, defending against both at the same time is just brutal, and defending against both at the same time when they’re hitting 67 percent of their three-point attempts is something I’m not sure the basketball world is — or will ever be — quite ready for.
  • Nowitzki tore a tendon in his left hand (or on his middle finger, to be more precise) while trying to strip the ball from Bosh on a drive. Had the tear been in his right hand, we’d be looking at a series ender; Dallas needs Dirk producing at an elite level to compete in this series, and a legitimate injury to his shooting hand would be a painful blow. However, the fact that Dirk injured his left hand isn’t exactly irrelevant, consider how crucial his handle and driving ability are to his overall game. It’s no secret that Nowitzki prefers to drive left, and considering how many driving lanes he had in Game 1, a limitation on his handle and finishing ability strikes me as rather significant.
  • Mike Bibby played 14 minutes, which was probably 14 minutes too long. Mario Chalmers wasn’t perfect, but he was far more productive than Bibby, and the Heat’s no-PG lineups even better than those involving Chalmers. I doubt there will be much of a change in Spoelstra’s rotation at this point in the playoffs, so Dallas needs to take advantage of the time that Bibby sees on a nightly basis.
  • James actually defended JET to close the game, a matchup that, while stifling and impressively creative, opens up an interesting opportunity. Marion had a fantastic offensive game, but could have been even more involved in the fourth quarter offense by going to work against Miller in the post. Any time that Marion can shed James, he’ll have an offensive advantage on the low block, and while he was able to create from the post a few times throughout the game, I think Marion can be used as an instigator of change. If Marion can be efficient enough in the post against Miller, Spoelstra could be forced to give up on assigning LeBron to chase JET and disrupt the Mavs’ two-man game, which would ultimately open up one effective offense by way of another.
  • Tyson Chandler and Brendan Haywood aren’t deserving of scapegoat status, but they have to be better on the glass. Their job (of anchoring the defense, challenging the shots of stretch bigs like Bosh and Haslem, and still hitting the boards) isn’t ideal, but it’s the task placed in front of them. I don’t see how the Mavs win this series without Chandler and Haywood pulling off something of a minor miracle in that regard. Best of luck to ‘em.

I Bite My Thumb at Thee

Posted by Rob Mahoney on May 30, 2011 under Commentary | 2 Comments to Read

Beckley Mason, whose prolific writing can be matched only by his equally prolific hoops game, was kind enough to have me drop by HoopSpeak for a “gentleman’s debate on these impending NBA Finals:

Rob: Well, the only forecasters who are hideously wrong are those who expect a lopsided series in either direction. Something has to give when elite offense and elite defense collide, but the matchup dynamics of this series speak to a hard-fought six-or-seven-gamer. I’m waffling in my prediction of the verdict at the moment — the only outcome that seems as likely as the Heat winning in seven is the Mavs winning seven, or six, or losing in six, or what have you — which is really only indicative of the slightest of margins that separates the performance of these two fantastic teams.

Dallas will have a lot to contend with; their problems go beyond LeBron and Wade diving into the paint, as the offensive complications Chris Bosh, Udonis Haslem, and Mike Miller provide could end up deciding the series. Miami has a lot of focused firepower in their best five-man lineup, and the aforementioned defensive prowess to boot.

But the Mavs didn’t come this far by way of luck or some trickery. Dirk Nowitzki is, as you may have heard, that good. Jason Terry, Shawn Marion, and Jason Kidd provide the framework for an incredibly versatile and prolific offense. I’m still not convinced that the Mavs will win the series, but I fail to see why they can’t. Dirk is as unguardable as any player in the Finals, and provided that Tyson Chandler and Brendan Haywood can manage some way to negotiate their responsibilities as both on-ball defenders against stretch bigs like Bosh and Haslem and as perfectly vertical monoliths protecting the rim from the James/Wade barrage, I’m not seeing what makes the Heat anything resembling an overwhelming favorite.

Be sure to check out the full dialogue over at HoopSpeak, and look for the OFFICIAL Two Man Game Finals preview tomorrow.

All the Difference

Posted by Rob Mahoney on May 26, 2011 under Commentary | 20 Comments to Read

Screen shot 2011-05-26 at 10.50.57 AM

You know the drill. The Difference is, under most normal circumstances, a reflection on the game that was, with one bullet for every point in the final margin. These are not normal circumstances.

Jason Terry is holding court in the Mavericks’ locker room, just as he always does, but the swath of reporters that typically surrounds him is not a swath. It’s a sea. It feeds endlessly into waves of cameras and recorders. Ian Mahinmi can be seen across the room, clad in only a towel, holding his arms up above it all as he attempts to pass through — literally wading through the gulf that now stands between him and his own locker.

It’s not surprising that such a contingent has flooded around Terry. He’s become a mouthpiece of sorts for the organization, a quotable commodity that has become even more valuable to soundbite-seekers with Mark Cuban uncharacteristically silent. JET’s statements come pre-packaged for journalistic use, with just the right amount of bravado, insight, and cliché. He’s a talker. This is just what he does. The regulars that follow the team know it, and apparently so do all of the other reporters and cameramen who have seemingly come up through the woodwork. Terry sits, fielding question after question after question, and responding with the punch of a veteran politician. Or maybe just a veteran ballplayer, but with all of the noncommittal responses, who can tell the difference?

Terry, J.J. Barea, and Brendan Haywood comprise the first wave of available Mavs. Barea draws his own sizable crowd of English and Spanish-speaking media, but one media member can be heard telling her cameraman partner to get in position for “Barrera.” Picking apart defenses en route to the NBA Finals may have earned Barea nation-wide respect (or detest, depending on your point of view, I suppose), but it does not, apparently, ensure the correct pronunciation of his name. This might be the first time he’s been called “Barrera,” since being crowned a Western Conference champion, but it’s only a precursor for the frequent pronuncial butcherings to come.

Oddly, Brendan Haywood doesn’t have all that much going on around his locker, despite the fact that he’s perhaps every bit as quotable as Terry. The distinction may lie in the fact that Haywood is more truth-teller than politician; his words draw interest when they’re seen as having the potential to incite conflict, but otherwise, he’s just a back-up center doing what he can to dissect and explain the world around him.

Haywood has been characterized by perceived sulking or brooding over his last season and a half in Dallas, but he’s understandably easy in moments like this one. He talks about wanting to be the back-up center on a team headed to the Finals rather than relishing in a role with more playing time or more touches. He jokes candidly about his words being taken out of their original context prior to Game 5, words which he notes as being more light-hearted than they appeared in text. He’s not just a flagrant fouling machine, but an interesting — if occasionally abrasive, for better and worse — voice within the team. He’s just buried beneath Terry’s charisma, Dirk Nowitzki’s quiet charm, and Jason Kidd’s veneration. Haywood may not always give some writers exactly what they want to hear for their pre-penned stories, but if you ask the right questions and listen closely, Haywood has a lot to offer.

But his smaller scrum naturally drifts into a group waiting for Tyson Chandler — the bigger star, the bigger name, the bigger personality. Haywood waits in his chair to answer the questions of the stragglers, but what may have once belonged to him now belongs to Chandler. Dozens of media members wait around Chandler’s empty locker, chattering amongst themselves in lieu of chatting with Haywood, or DeShawn Stevenson — who stands shirtless at his locker speaking with media members, wearing a scowl of sorts until the word “Finals” lets escape a slight smile — or Brian Cardinal — who dresses in front of his locker undisturbed save one man with no recorder — or Peja Stojakovic — who has a smirk plastered to his face, perhaps making him as one-dimensional in the locker room as he is on the court. The boxing out around the locker of a prominent player isn’t so different from what goes on in the regular season, but it’s all a bit more deliberate; rather than float aimlessly in the vicinity of a particular locker, now the camps are set. Ladders are deployed and cameras are at the ready, all positioned around an empty locker.

Shawn Marion field questions while wearing shades with orange lenses, and talks of the Mavs’ stomachs being “three-fourths full.” Whether he knows it or not, LeBron James is already in and on his mind, even as he goes on to mention that he doesn’t care who Dallas will face in the series to come. Regardless, Marion sees a world in warm tones and unintentionally borrowed analogies.

He politely answers the same question, posed repeatedly with only slightly altered structure. One would think that there are only so many ways to ask Marion about the significance of the Mavs’ experience, but a few tweaked words apparently qualifies as an entirely new question to some. Marion tries his best to make each answer unique, but all of his words begin to bleed together. Even a character like Marion is made a bit repetitive by way of an absurd, redundant media presence.

Marion lifts his glasses as he talks about the Mavs’ belief in themselves, a trust in a system and team that he says has never wavered. He doesn’t stare into space as he dispenses canned confidence, but looks at virtually each media member directly. He wants you to know this. He wants you to know that the Mavs believed, through the regular season and Caron Butler’s injury, through the sprints and slogs, through the first and second rounds that they weren’t supposed to win. The shades will eventually come back down, but Marion’s insistence on that belief does not.

Nothing has changed…in a sense. Dallas believes in their championship hopes as much now as they did on Media Day. Yet to ignore the fundamental difference in the atmosphere both on the floor and within the belly of the American Airlines Center is foolish. There is a discernible difference, even if it exists most obviously in the cosmetics of media prevalence. The players don’t just talk of big games, but have lived them. We all dispense of hypotheticals, because in a most improbable scenario, the Dallas Mavericks are the first team in the NBA Finals. Things aren’t the same. They can’t be, and never will be again. There is a fundamental difference between today and yesterday, between the playoffs and the regular season, between this Mavericks team and the one we saw over 82 games. It may not be drastic, but this is more than just a step in a process for those same Mavs that started the season so full of hope.

Jason Terry still fields questions roughly a half-hour later, and the ocean across the locker room remains. But Dirk dresses quietly — the space around his locker is perhaps the only few feet without a recording device or probing reporter. He prepares for his press conference facing his locker, and more poetically, facing the picture of the Larry O’Brien trophy that hangs within it. Terry, Nowitzki’s locker room neighbor, has the same picture hanging in his, undoubtedly as a reminder of what was nearly theirs, and now what nearly is again.

Haywood remarks about Dirk’s black shirt — “Johnny Cash!” — and then Nowitzki departs to a walk of waves and nods on his way to the interview room, which is naturally full to the brim with even more cameras and recorders and media members. What came from the sea has returned to the sea.

At the stand, Nowitzki rambles a bit, launching into the exhaustive answers that have practically become his trademark. Nowitzki is many things to many people, but after games he is hardly pithy. The hyper-efficient Dirk and the one sitting, leaned back and clutching the mic as he stares through the table and rattles off answers, are somehow one in the same.

With his press conference duties fulfilled, Nowitzki finally escapes…to one more set of media members, though this group speaking his native tongue. Nowitzki and his counterpart walk the halls of the AAC, as Dirk pushes the hair behind his ears. He probably tugged at the upper left side of his imaginary jersey, too, completing the routine for this one last free throw. I imagine it’s hard to keep gait with toes pointed inward and knees bent ever so slightly, but there’s no question that Dirk’s eyes are focused on completing this one final task before he can breathe easy.

Dirk finally makes his way toward the garage, where only he and his police escort will go. His walk is slow, but not heavy; there’s no lightness, but only deliberation. He marches, but somehow does so without the slightest rigidity. As they trail off down the hall, talking and laughing along the way, Nowitzki finally finds respite. In that moment, he offers himself the slightest concession. To this point, nothing in Nowitzki’s actions or words has suggested celebration. He answered questions with the same standard tone, acknowledged fans with the same humility, and even escaped before the presentation of the Western Conference Championship trophy had fully concluded. Yet as he and the officer round the corner into the garage, Nowitzki indulges in a single and final celebratory act: a subtle high five, a prize worthy of a conference champion looking to accomplish so much more.

The Difference: Dallas Mavericks 121, Oklahoma City Thunder 112

Posted by Rob Mahoney on May 18, 2011 under Recaps | 5 Comments to Read

Screen shot 2011-05-18 at 11.28.19 AM

Box Score Play-by-PlayShot ChartGameFlow

TeamPaceOff. Eff.eFG%FT/FGORB%TOR
Dallas91.0133.059.646.625.013.2
Oklahoma City123.152.151.430.614.3

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.