Sunday, March 18, 2007

Sizing up the Competition

After a week of drama and worrying, we're back where we started. San Antonio and Phoenix each had a two-game losing streak to match Dallas’ (see my comments on the Suns’ losses), and the Mavericks’ lead in the standings appears safe again. So what does Dallas need to do to win the first seed?

Well first of all, since Phoenix is five games back in the loss column, Dallas obviously could clench by losing four or fewer games, meaning they would go 14-4 at worst for the rest of the season. If Dallas beat Phoenix April 1, then the Mavericks would gain a game in the standings and win the tie-breaker against Phoenix, which means they would only need to go 11-6 in the rest of their games (finishing at worst 65-17) to win the first seed.

But like Dallas, Phoenix can win lots of games in a hurry. And if they did––and if Dallas struggled for some reason––things could get tight, and tie-breakers could matter.

If Phoenix beat Dallas April 1, then the season series would be tied, and the tie-breaker would shift to the team with the best record against the western conference. So far Dallas is 33-8 against the west, Phoenix 25-11. Because Phoenix has a lot more games left against the western conference (in fact all 16 of their remaining games are against the west), it's a big stretch to predict how this tie-break would turn out. Assuming a loss to Phoenix on April 1, Dallas would have to win 9 of the other 10 games against the west to guarantee the tiebreak. But if Dallas played that well they'd almost certainly win the conference outright anyway (remember, they only need to go 14-4 overall), so it probably doesn't matter.

The next tie-break (if Dallas and Phoenix finish with the same record against the west) is record against western conference playoff teams; right now Dallas is 14-7, Phoenix 10-8. But those numbers could change depending on whether Golden State holds on to the eighth playoff seed, so they're also not worth worrying too much about.

Looking at the rest of the games for both teams:

Overall Dallas has 18 games left with 12 on the road, and Phoenix has 16 games with 8 on the road. Phoenix plays all 16 against the west, while Dallas plays 11 against the west, 7 against the east.

However, Dallas does get Utah and San Antonio at home, whereas Phoenix has to play both of them on the road. Dallas, however, has to play at Phoenix, as well as at Detroit and Cleveland as a part of a 6-game road trip, and then at Denver. So Dallas appears to have six tough games left: Spurs, at Suns, Jazz, at Nuggets, at Pistons, and at Cavs. Phoenix’s top opponents are perhaps just barely tougher: Mavericks, at Spurs, at Jazz, at Rockets, Denver, Lakers, and at Lakers.

Just to keep things in perspective, Dallas could lose every game remaining against a current playoff team, and if they won the rest they'd still finish 64-18. In that case, Phoenix would have to finish 15-1 to take the top seed.

So if Dallas loses the top seed, it will be the least of their worries. Basically, the only thing that could stop the Mavericks from finishing the season with the league's best record would be a free-fall into medocrity that would appear to dash our title hopes anyway.

Incidentally, right now has the Spurs listed as the 4 seed behind Utah, even though the Spurs have the better record. I thought they were supposed to fix that this year, so that it can't be in Houston's best interest to drop from the fifth to the sixth seed so they can draw a team with a worse record in the first round. It also would mean, of course, that Dallas would have the best record but still have to play the #2 and the #3 team to get to the finals. Anyone know what's going on there?


scoots said...

Dirk may not hit a lot of game-winners, but he's outstanding on hitting late daggers to seal wins. He's hit shots like that recently against Orlando and Boston, and he hit a tough fall-away from the corner to take a six-point lead over the Pistons with a minute left. As I write the Pistons still have a change if the Mavericks miss another free throw, but still Dirk hit his third dagger in the span of two weeks.

scoots said...

Another thing Dirk does particular well is turn games around. Today the Mavericks started the second half trailing by 4. Not a huge deficit to worry about, but suddeny Dirk hit a pair of big shots and Dallas was up by 3.

scoots said...

There's been a lot of talk of these next few games being a rough road trip, but I think really it only looked scary because Detroit was first on the list. The five remaining games of the trip are against teams who have combined for a 146-185 record this season. So far against these teams (granted, most of them at home), Dallas is 6-0 with an average margin of victory of 10.

Actually, the worst team in the entire NBA that Dallas has lost to this season (based on current standings) is the Clippers, with a winning percentage of 46.2%. The average record of opponents remaining on this trip is 44.1%, and only Cleveland has a winning percentage higher than that. In other words, if the Mavericks don't go at least 4-1 on the trip, it will be because they lost to the worst team they've lost to all season.

The toughest team on the trip, clearly, is Cleveland, at 41-25. The Cavs have won nine in a row, including victories against Houston, Detroit, and Utah. But they still would only be tied for the fifth seed in the west. And their last loss was against Dallas.

Jeremy said...

Dirk may not hit a lot of game-winners, but he's outstanding on hitting late daggers to seal wins.

But of course most tight playoff series come down to hitting game winners. Dirk cannot yet be trusted to hit crucial field goals or free throws.

micah said...

Scott, has Hollinger gotten to you too? ;) "Dallas is 6-0 with an average margin of victory of 10."

scoots said...

Hollinger gotten to you too?

Uh, no. What matters is the 6-0 part. If you've got that, then the point margin is a nice touch.

Actually, my favorite stat to quote against Hollinger is the Mavericks’ playoff series against Sacramento in 2004. Dallas actually outscored the Kings for the series, though narrowly, by 1.4 point per game. Problem is, Dallas lost the series 4-1.

I assume Hollinger would say that, if the two teams had played a really long series––say, best of 15, that Dallas likely would have won because they had the scoring margin. But what I saw was one blowout by Dallas and three different games that came down to the wire where the Mavericks couldn't hit the big shot at the end: one each by Finley, Nash, and Dirk. Call it odds or whatever, but it sure seemed like they just didn't have the nerve to make the shots at the end.

Incidentally, does anyone else remember how Nash would almost never hit these big game-saving shots when he played for the Mavericks? By my memory, Terry's better at that for Dallas than Nash ever was when he was here.

micah said...

Yeah, that sounds about right. I definitely remember more Nash misses than makes and more Terry makes than misses.

ryan b said...

I was discussing with my brother-in-law how Nash seems to have gotten better in all aspects of his game, including hitting clutch shots, since he has joined the Suns. Any theories as to why? Is it the people he's playing with or the system he is in? I guess the clutch shots may just come with experience. Not that Nash was bad when he was with us but he certainly wasn't the same player we saw last Wednesday.

Also, this isn't related to his basketball skills, but in watching (on the post-game interview with Dirk, notice how many times he says the word "obviously" when responding to questions. I've noticed this for the last couple of years actually. Dirk's English has come a long way since he first arrived in Dallas, but it's interesting to see the idiosyncracies one has when speaking a second language. I know it's an odd thing to point out, but it just intrigues me after my own experience of learning a new language.

scoots said...

Are you sure it's not just that they're asking Dirk the same obvious questions (How do you feel about the mvp race? What's it like being rivals with your best friend? How did you feel about losing the finals last year?) over and over again?

ryan b said...

Good point, he probably is annoyed. The media in Germany probably has more sophisticated and refreshing questions to ask him.

scoots said...

Dirk went 11/20 from the field Sunday, which makes him just half a FGM off of 50% shooting for the season so far. He's now made 558 out of 1117, or 49.96% of his shots.

I'm sure it doesn't mean anything, but it's fascinating to me that his percentage is so close to that round mark with so many attempts so far. And it’s an interesting stat to trace, following Dirk’s efficiency and shot selection according to whether he can stay above the 50% mark.

Meanwhile, Dirk is 440 of 489 for free throws, or 89.98%. If he had made that late free throw against Detroit, he'd be just above 90%. Maybe there's some symbolic value there too.

micah said...

Once again, I'm ranting on the Hollinger rankings. I'm passed being mad and now I'm just confused. The Mavs have better numbers in every category of the formula except two. The Spurs lead them margin of victory for the season and they are tied in record over the last 10 games. The Mavs have better numbers in season strength of schedule, strength of schedule last 25%, margin of victory last 25%, and season record.

There has to be something in the formula that takes away points from the Mavs just to create controversy and get people like me to keep talking.

Cody said...

You do spend a lot of time blogging, don't you?

On game-winning shots: whoever said it was right, JET hits more game winners than Nash ever did in Dallas. This is Dirk's year, though. Even if he's missing a few during regular season, I'm betting he won't be missing them when the playoffs roll around. I think this year Dirk will be clutch for the Mavs. He's one determined German (that almost ryhmes and should be made into a shirt or something). The playoffs are a different game. You can feel the difference even if you're watching on TV. I'm not worried about Dirk hitting the big shots. I'm more worried about getting consistant play from Dampier and Diop (and I'm sad that Mbenga, my favorite Maverick, is out).

I think Nash's recent improvement, obviously, is due to several factors. A couple that I think are overlooked are 1) Nash's desire to stick it in Cuban's ear for not matching Phoenix's offer (for which I do not blame Cuban) 2) Nash's realization that his championship winning days are drawing to a close, he's a man on a mission.

micah said...

Looks like Dirk is back above 50% (going by Scott's number and Dirks line tonight).

ryan b said...

Woa! I just read in the game summary after the Knicks game tonight that Cuban considered selling the Mavs last summer. This is the first I've heard about this. Does anyone know about this that can update me on what I've missed?

scoots said...

Dunno about Cuban.

If my math is right, Dirk should be at 50.18% FG now, and his 3-3 from the line tonight makes him 90.04% there. We can all breathe easier now.