Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The Small Game

Call this the corollary to my post called The Big Game, in which I defend Dirk (in comparison with Tim Duncan) on how he shows up for deciding games of playoff series. Dirk’s Mavericks are 4-0 in game 7’s, 5-0 if you count a game 5 back when the opening rounds were shorter. Duncan’s Spurs are only 1-1 in such series.

Now for the catch: there’s a good reason Duncan’s Spurs have only played two game 7’s, and it’s that they quickly put away the teams they’re supposed to beat. The only game 7 Duncan lost was against last year’s Mavericks. The game 7 he won was a couple of years ago against the Pistons, to win the championship. Then consider that San Antonio has only ever lost 4 playoff series that Duncan was playing in: last year’s Mavericks, Shaq and Kobe’s Lakers (twice), and Stockton and Malone’s Jazz; all four of those squads went on to the finals.

The point is, in all of their other series, when they were playing inferior teams, San Antonio won quickly; they never let inferior teams get past 6 games.

Contrast that with Dirk’s Mavericks, who in past years have taken seven games to beat both the 7th-seeded Blazers, and the 5th-seeded (but 7 games behind Dallas in the standings) Rockets.

Once the Mavericks are facing elimination, they’re a pretty solid 9–6 (60.0%). However, in playoff games where they aren’t facing elimination, Dirk’s Mavericks are an anemic 30–35 (46.2%). And in the first games of playoff series, they’re an embarrassing 5–9 (35.7%); 2003 is the only year they’ve won more than half of their series-opening games.

All of this explains how Dirk’s Mavericks have a winning record (8–6) for playoff series but a losing record (39–40 entering this season) in playoff games.

The good news is, these Mavericks have never lost a series after losing game 1 at home. Before Sunday night’s embarrassment, they had blown their home court advantage in the first game of a series three times: to Sacramento in 2003, to Houston in 2005, and to Phoenix last year. In the Houston series, Dallas lost their first two in a row at home. But Dallas went on to win all three of those series. In fact, the only playoff series Dirk’s Mavericks have lost with homecourt advantage is last year’s finals.

All that is to say, these guys don’t exactly put people away. Dirk’s numbers in game 1’s are solid (25.5 points, 44.9% FG, 12.2 rebounds), but his teams seem to lack fire in those games. And what’s worse, in recent years teams have found that Dirk is easy to fluster. However, he’s also very good at making adjustments. (See “Dirk's best bounce-back games” on this site.) And by the end of the series, when gimmicks have run out and ability is what remains, Dirk usually turns out fine.

There are no guarantees (cf. last year’s finals), but we should confidently expect that Dirk will be a different player in Wednesday night’s game. Expect him to be better prepared to pass out of double teams, and expect Terry and Howard to scorch the Warriors with open jumpers all night.

I’m not saying I’m really looking forward to watching the game, but I find consolation in knowing that history at least means something.


Jeremy said...

The Mavs have a losing playoff record during the Dirk era? I never would have guessed.

scoots said...

Yeah, they've only got two sweeps--one against the Wolves, and then last year against the Grizzlies. Other than those two, until last year’s Phoenix series (which the Mavericks won 4-2) every playoff series they won had gone to 7 games.

Or to put it another way: until last year’s Phoenix series, the Mavericks had won every single series that had been a sweep or had gone to the limit, and they had lost everything in between.

If you pretty much only win in 7, and you lose a bunch of series 4-1, you end up with a losing record pretty quick.

scoots said...

I should add: as of last year, the rules appear to have changed somewhat. In the 2006 playoffs the Mavericks went 14–9 overall (60.9%), and they only faced two elimination games, which means they went 13–8 (61.9%) when they weren’t facing elimination. A lot of that has to do with Memphis rolling over and dying, but putting away Phoenix in 6 was encouraging.

On the other hand, Dallas did have a 3–1 lead on the Spurs before letting them push it to 7.

Mat said...

Fascinating reading, as usual.

As a Mavs fan, I WANT to rely on Dirk to do what it takes. And history suggests that he will. But this nagging feeling of nervousness when he gets the ball cannot be explined with numbers. Why is is that when I see that backside double team shooting over to where Dirk is going to turn, I just know he's going to cough it up?

His stroke is sweet, his high post moves are sick. But his athleticism when driving to the hole leaves something to be desired (save last year's Game 7 winning drive against the Spurs.)

I will be in attendance tonight at the AAC, please let me leave with happiness in my heart...please.

scoots said...

Yeah, it doesn't help that Hollinger has an article today (it's insider, so I haven't read it) claiming the Warriors and Nuggets have a chance.

I'm not sure how the statistics of one game can suggest who'll win––as if Dirk's going to average 14 points and Baron Davis is going to go for 33/14/8 every game.

But I agree--there's the nagging, nauseating feeling that hangs around. I really wish tonight's game were already over so I could either feel better or else start to detach myself from the season to avoid getting my heart broken again. I swear, it's pathological.

micah said...

It is hard to remember the roller coaster ride the playoffs usually are from one year to another. Looks like this coaster is starting like most - an uphill climb. I'm ready for tonight to be over too!

ryan b said...

I know how you feel, Scott! I hate the anxiety of waiting and wondering if the game is going to turn out. It looks like these next two days will be without the gut-wrenching nervousness since we won.