Friday, April 20, 2007

The Big Game

Those who have been reading along know that I’m a staunch Dirk defender, even though he doesn’t often hit the big shot at the buzzer, and even though (or maybe especially because) it’s been so maddening to follow his teams over the years.

But I was curious about whether he really does fail to show in big games, like people claim, and I thought the best thing I could do is compare him with Tim Duncan, widely considered the greatest power forward in the history of the game. And since we want big games, I decided to only look at how the two players have performed in the playoffs.

A couple of admissions up front:
  • There’s no denying that Duncan is a lot better at winning than Dirk is. Duncan has three rings (and an 18-5 series record) in eight playoff seasons, and Dirk has no ring in six seasons, with an 8-5 series record. (The wcf series in 2003, where Dirk sat out the last three games with a bum knee, counts for Duncan but not against Dirk.)
  • Duncan has far outplayed Dirk defensively over the years, and he also has a lot more assists. In fact, in two of the games I look at below, Duncan had a triple-double, something Dirk has never done in any nba game.
  • On the other hand, I think Dirk’s undefeated record in game 7’s (5-0 if you count the game 5 win against Utah in 2001) is pretty impressive. (Duncan’s is 1-1.)
All that said, here are their career playoff averages:
  • Dirk: 76 games, 42.4 minutes, 25.7 points (44.9% FG), 11.1 rebounds, 2.4 assists.
  • Duncan: 118 games, 40.7 minutes, 24.1 points (50.5% FG), 12.7 rebounds, 3.6 assists.
There’s nothing startling in those numbers. Dirk scores more, but with a lower field goal percentage, and Duncan gets more rebounds and assists. For both players, their playoff numbers are higher than their regular season numbers for minutes, points, and rebounds, but lower in field goal percentage. Duncan’s assists and blocks also increase in the playoffs.

But what about the really big games? I decided to do a box score comparison of the deciding games for the playoff series that Dirk and Duncan have played in. These are, almost by definition, the biggest games––the ones where a team won or lost their playoff series.

And just to be fair, since Dirk didn’t play any playoff games his first two seasons (i.e., when he was still inexperienced), I’ll exempt Duncan’s first two seasons (which would have hurt his cause slightly) from the numbers I’m going to crunch. What we end up with is all the series-clinching games Dirk and Duncan have played in since the 2001 playoffs.

Here are Dirk’s lines (FG made/attempted for points/rebounds):
  • 2001: Mavs (3) over Jazz (2); Dirk 3/11 for 18/4
  • 2001: Spurs (4) over Mavs (1); Dirk 14/24 for 42/18

  • 2002: Mavs (3) over Wolves (0); Dirk 11/17 for 39/17
  • 2002: Kings (4) over Mavs (1); Dirk 13/25 for 32/12

  • 2003: Mavs (4) over Blazers (3); Dirk 12/21 for 31/11
  • 2003: Mavs (4) over Kings (3); Dirk 12/20 for 30/19
  • 2003: Spurs (4) over Mavs (2); Dirk didn't play last 3 games

  • 2004: Kings (4) over Mavs (1); Dirk 11/23 for 31/14

  • 2005: Mavs (4) over Rockets (3); Dirk 5/14 for 14/14
  • 2005: Suns (4) over Mavs (2); Dirk 9/25 for 28/13

  • 2006: Mavs (4) over Grizzlies (0); Dirk 12/21 for 27/7
  • 2006: Mavs (4) over Spurs (3); Dirk 11/20 for 37/15
  • 2006: Mavs (4) over Suns (2); Dirk 8/20 for 24/10
  • 2006: Heat (4) over Mavs (2); Dirk 10/22 for 29/15
Now Duncan’s lines:
  • 2001: Spurs (3) over Wolves (1); Duncan 8/23 for 24/16
  • 2001: Spurs (4) over Mavs (1); Duncan 12/25 for 32/20
  • 2001: Lakers (4) over Spurs (0); Duncan 5/10 for 15/7

  • 2002: Spurs (4) over Sonics (1); Duncan 9/19 for 23/9
  • 2002: Lakers (4) over Spurs (1); Duncan 11/23 for 34/25

  • 2003: Spurs (4) over Suns (2); Duncan 4/12 for 15/20 (+10 ast)
  • 2003: Spurs (4) over Lakers (2); Duncan 16/25 for 37/16
  • 2003: Spurs (4) over Mavs (2); Duncan 8/20 for 18/11
  • 2003: Spurs (4) over Nets (2); Duncan 9/19 for 21/20 (+10 ast)

  • 2004: Spurs (4) over Grizzlies (0); Duncan 10/18 for 22/13
  • 2004: Lakers (4) over Spurs (2); Duncan 7/18 for 20/11

  • 2005: Spurs (4) over Nuggets (1); Duncan 13/23 for 39/14
  • 2005: Spurs (4) over Sonics (2); Duncan 6/21 for 26/9
  • 2005: Spurs (4) over Suns (1); Duncan 14/24 for 31/15
  • 2005: Spurs (4) over Pistons (3); Duncan 10/27 for 25/11

  • 2006: Spurs (4) over Kings (2); Duncan 6/8 for 15/6
  • 2006: Mavs (4) over Spurs (3); Duncan 12/24 for 41/15
That’s a lot of numbers, but now for the averages in these games:

Dirk: 49.8% FG, 29.4 points, 13.0 rebounds
Duncan: 47.2% FG, 25.8 points, 14.0 rebounds

Dirk has Duncan by 3.6 points a game, and Duncan has Dirk by 1 rebound. And even though Duncan’s career playoff FG% is higher than Dirk’s, in the biggest games Dirk’s jumps from 44.9% to 49.8%, while Duncan’s drops from 50.5% to 47.2%.

What killed Dirk’s reputation was the 2005 playoffs, where Dallas almost lost to Houston in the first round, and then lost to Phoenix in the second round amid a team chemistry melt-down. Dirk shot only 34% that game (even though he still managed 28 points on 25 shots), and he’s had trouble living it down.

If you notice, Dirk’s two worst lines of the bunch were in games where Dallas actually won, one of them by forty points. In the five series where Dirk has played in Dallas’ final loss, his worst point total is 28, and his worst rebounding total is 12. Say what you want, but he does not let his team go down without a fight.

Obviously, in the end you’d still rather have Duncan, whose teams have won the championship in 3 of the 8 seasons he’s played in the playoffs.

But for the big games Dallas has played, I think Mavericks fans have good reason to feel good about Dirk and his 29/13 on 50% FG. He still needs to learn how to win it all, but history says he does step up.


Jeremy said...

Great analysis. I think Dirk’s finals meltdown had distorted my memory. When you look at the numbers alone, Dirk has to be considered an all-time great. Unfortunately for those of us who work hard behind the scenes (or, in Dirk’s case, who play well when people aren’t paying attention), perception often counts more than reality.

scoots said...

It’s also interesting that the biggest criticism of Dirk’s playoff performances has been his offensive troubles, which are what I’m mainly defending him for at this point.

And it is true that we could wish Dirk could get to the rim and/or get better shots more often at the ends of games.

But in the end, most of the playoff series the Mavericks have lost in Dirk’s career have come down to the team’s poor defense rather than an inability to score. Remember when Dallas used to play Sacramento in the playoffs every year and get lit up every game?

And more recently, there have been three seasons when Dallas really should have performed better in the playoffs.

The first was when they lost to the Spurs in the wcf: Dallas had a big lead in the fourth quarter, but Steve Kerr and Stephen Jackson started hitting 3’s and Dallas couldn’t stop them––although the Mavericks stopped scoring, too, that quarter. But Dirk wasn’t even playing that game, so who knows what we would have seen if he had been on the court.

The second ugly loss was against the Suns during Nash’s break-out year. Dallas should have pushed that to seven games, but I’m sure we all remember Jason Terry back-pedaling too fast and Nash pulling up for a wide-open 3 to send the game into overtime. I’m sure we also all remember Stoudemire scoring 40 points whenever he wanted it that series. And that year’s playoffs also featured Dirk calling out Erick Dampier publicly, not to mention his yelling at Jason Terry on the court after the Nash 3-pointer; not Dirk’s finest hour. But still, the problem was more defense than offense.

And then last year against Miami: sure, Dallas had a couple of plays near the end of game 6 where they turned the ball over or missed the big shot, but I think everyone would agree that the Heat won the series primarily because Dallas couldn’t stop Wade from scoring. We could wish that Dirk had gone off for 40 points a game as well, but then we’d be talking about one of the greatest head-to-head performances for two stars in the history of the game. Surely we can’t call Dirk a loser just because he didn’t live up to that.

All this to say: all the commentators are right to say that defense is what you need in order to win a championship. Other than a rare miracle like Wade’s performance last year (and I think it would have been far less miraculous with fairer reffing, but that’s neither here nor there), you can’t count on your offense––even if Dirk keeps up his 29/13 on 50% FG pace––to win you a championship.

Jeremy said...

I had come around on Dirk, and now you remind me that he can't get to the rim and he can't you a stop when you need it. Arghh!!

scoots said...

Oops, my bad. But I hardly think Dirk is the reason Wade scored so many points in the finals. Josh Howard and Devin Harris are excellent defenders, but I swear the refs didn’t let them guard Wade. Either he got an open shot (which he kept making––give him credit for that), or else if the defender was anywhere near him, they gave him the foul call. Either way, I don’t think Wade’s scoring was Dirk’s fault.

That’s the problem with Dirk being 7 feet tall. Because he’s a power forward, the refs sometimes let defenders rough him up. If they called the kind of contact on Dirk that they did on Wade, it would have been a different series.

Actually, I heard that Bruce Bowen later claimed that the second round series would have been a different series if they had let him guard Dirk the way they let Udonis Haslem guard him in the finals. There was one game where Dirk was backing down Bowen for a turnaround jumper with a few seconds left, and the refs called Bowen for what looked like no foul at all. But in the finals, Dirk didn’t get many calls like that, and Wade got them every time down the court.

Here’s something: the Heat lose their first playoff game tonight, and Shaq blames it on the officiating. Go figure. Wade, wisely, appears to have kept his mouth shut.

Jeremy said...


scoots said...

Yeah, well how about this? Nowitzki burns Marion for points 11 and 12 at the 1:05 mark of the clip. Marion’s a great defender, but there’s nothing you can do when a great offensive player is doing what he does best.

Beginning with point 21 (at about the 2:25 mark) is where Dirk starts going nuts.

micah said...

Well, the first half has been terrible! Just aweful basketball. At least the warriors are playing up to the same level of stink.