Saturday, April 16, 2011

What it would take

This blog has been obsessed with Dirk Nowitzki over the years, and I think it's justified. Apart from 1988, the Mavericks have had virtually no success as a franchise apart from the years he’s been on the team. And it’s often been noted that this regular season, Dallas was 55-18 with him in the lineup, and 2-7 without him.


I want to look at last year’s playoffs and talk about the Mavericks’ identity as a team, and what Dirk means for them. His numbers for the Spurs series last year were strong (26.5 points and 8 rebounds on 54.7% shooting), but I want to focus on one game––in fact, one quarter––where I think the Mavericks lost the series, and in a sense I think they lost it because of Dirk.

His biggest weakness, in my opinion, is his struggles to make something happen when opponents play rough and he gets angry. I don’t mean angry like his 50-point WCF barrage after Tim Thomas blew him a kiss in 2006, but rather angry like when Bruce Bowen or Udonis Haslem is holding him and shoving him 17 feet from the basket.

If the refs are calling fouls in Dirk’s favor, he can barrel into the lane and get to the free throw line anyway; but when he doesn’t get calls, his angry playing often just ends up in missed shots and turnovers. Or sometimes, he seems to check out of the game completely.


Consider what happened in game 3 against San Antonio last year. During the third quarter, Antonio McDyess started holding and shoving Dirk every possession, and Dirk lost it. You could see he was angry, shoving back and flailing his arms, trying to get the refs’ attention. He got bullied.

Dallas started the third quarter with a 14-point lead. Dirk’s stats for that quarter? He shot 0/1 FG, 2/2 FT (after being flagrantly fouled), he got 1 rebound, 3 turnovers (including an offensive foul on George Hill), and 1 technical foul. But aside from the numbers, you could see that the Spurs got into his head. When he did get the ball, it was obvious he had no interest in shooting or making a move. He’d catch it and just pass it to someone else on the perimeter.

Dallas’ 14-point lead turned into a 7-point deficit by the end of the quarter. Dallas ended up losing the game by 3.

Dirk wasn’t the only one with a problem that quarter. The whole team only scored 11 points. But on all those possessions where the rest of the team was missing 12 shots and committing 4 turnovers, what they needed was for their best player to take his share of shots and keep his mind in the game. Aside from the fact that Dirk probably would have hit a higher percentage than the rest of the team was hitting that quarter, they needed him taking shots to keep the offense flowing, and to help the team keep a mindset to win with.


If Nowitzki had kept his head in the game, it’s easy to imagine a 3-point swing and a win that game for the Mavericks. Then the series goes 7 games, and the Mavericks probably win game 7 at home. Nothing guaranteed, but that first-round series was winnable.

Now, there are two different ways to look at the series. One is that the Mavericks should have won easily, and that saying one quarter swung the series is kind of missing the point. The other way to look at it is, if Dirk were tougher mentally, the Mavericks could have won anyway.

Any of course, you could say the same thing about the 2006 Finals. The officiating in favor of Dwyane Wade was of course a factor there, as was Wade’s brilliance in hitting big shots. But the other main thing going on was that Dirk got bullied by Udonis Haslem and others in that series; and while his numbers were still pretty good, and he had some big moments, the Mavericks needed him to be consistently brilliant. It didn’t quite happen. To put it another way, they could have won even despite the officiating, if Dirk had held it together more consistently.


And here we see the problem with these Mavericks. Dirk has to play out of his mind for them to win a playoff series, and even then it’s regularly not enough. One bad quarter from Dirk might swing a whole series, if the other team can stick on its game. Put yourself in that position, and imagine if you’d hold up knowing you had to be on your best game for every moment of a seven-game series. I’m sure there are players who can do it, but I’m pretty sure Dirk can’t.

As always, of course, I have to stress that it’s very rare for a single star to have to stay on his best game like that. Shaq and Kobe could take turns being the hero, as could Duncan/Ginobili, Pierce/Allen/Rondo, and most recently Kobe/Gasol. (Remember that last year Kobe shot 6/24 in game 7 of the Finals while Gasol saved the series for the Lakers.)

But for our Mavericks, we’re left with this problem: no one has shown that they’re ready to step up consistently and make big plays if Dirk doesn’t do it. Butler was pretty good in last years’ playoffs, averaging 23 points and 7 rebounds on 44% shooting, but he’s injured now. Terry and Kidd have been erratic in the playoffs recently. And Dirk has a decent amount of mental toughness, but it’s clear he doesn’t have enough to keep things together consistently by himself.


Dirk will have a lot of good moments against Portland this series, but at some point they’ll start bullying him, and the refs won’t call things in his favor. If Dirk can turn that frustration into strong moves to the basket, Dallas will beat Portland in the series. If Terry and Kidd can step up their games and score consistently, Dallas will win even if Dirk *can’t* get past the physical defense. But if neither one of those things happens, my money is on the Blazers for the first-round upset.

Friday, April 1, 2011


I haven’t posted here in almost two years, but the drubbing by the Lakers last night is enough to get a guy thinking.

I should say up front I haven't read anything beyond the espn daily dime for the day, so hopefully I'm not just repeating what everyone else is saying.

My wife and I went to our favorite pizza place to watch the game last night, and fortunately the place closed at 12:30ET so we had to leave before the game got too ugly.  We were dreading it going in, and now it's hard to even care.  The Mavs' play has seriously lagged lately, and some of the Dallas media folks (Mike Fisher and Mark Followill) were analyzing on a podcast the other day who the Mavericks should be more worried about in the first round.  I don't think the Lakers are worried whether they can take Portland or New Orleans.

But what's worse is what I saw last night, and not just the score: Lakers laughing after big plays, Kobe going into overdrive and breaking up a Mavericks fast-break.  And then there's Matt Barnes. He was on the Warriors when they embarrassed Dallas a couple of years back, and last night after Terry almost got in a fight with Steve Blake (?!), Barnes was walking around Terry taunting him.  And what was he saying?  According to Terry, “same thing he's been saying since he played for Golden State, which is a bunch of nothing.” There’s no way I believe Terry on that point.

They're already in our heads, and the playoffs haven't even started.  They're already paving ground to beat us mentally in the second round, if we even make it there.  We could have only lost by 5 last night, and I'd be just as convinced.  Barring a miracle, this team is done.

But were we ever not done?

I’m thinking of the ends of movies where the plot twist hits, and they show you scenes from earlier in the story that you suddenly realize you misunderstood. This is where my mind is going with the Mavericks right now. I'm sure people have outlined all this before, but it’s never hit me quite the way it’s hitting me today.

Flash back to 2003, when the Mavericks beat the Sacramento Kings in game 7 of the second round to go to the Western Conference Finals. (By the way, that was an insanely entertaining playoff series.) Dirk injured his knee in game 3 of those WCF, and the Mavericks lost in 6 after giving the Spurs a run for their money; the Spurs went on to win the title that year. You had to wonder, what if Dirk had been healthy?

But look at it another way: What if Chris Webber hadn't blown out his knee in game 2 of the Sacramento series. Would Dallas have won?

Then look at 2006. Dallas beats the Spurs in 7 games in the second round, then Phoenix in 6 in the WCF. We lose to Miami by 6 in the Finals, partly due to two of the most atrociously-officiated games I’ve ever seen, and partly because we fell apart mentally.

But look at it another way: What if Duncan was completely healthy for San Antonio? (He put up big numbers in those playoffs, but it was a well-known fact he suffered much of that season from plantar fasciitis.) Don’t we think a little extra mobility for Duncan might have swayed game seven in overtime on the road? And what if Amare Stoudemire hadn’t been out for the year for Phoenix? Would we have beaten *either* of those teams?

So what’s left?

Of course, *maybe* we would have won all those playoff series even without the injuries (minor or major) to key players on the other teams.

But consider this: if Webber stays healthy and we lose to the Kings, and if Duncan is healthy and we lose to the Spurs, here's the Mavericks’ playoff history in ten straight 50-win seasons with Dirk:

2001: lost 2nd round
2002: lost 2nd round
2003: lost 2nd round
2004: lost 1st round
2005: lost 2nd round
2006: lost 2nd round
2007: lost 1st round
2008: lost 1st round
2009: lost 2nd round
2010: lost 1st round

The tally: in ten years we have *never* gotten past the second round without the other team's best big man being injured. Our actual record in playoff games over that span: 49–57.

The point of the NBA is entertainment, and the Mavericks have not let me down from that perspective, whether in the regular season or the playoffs. Also, Dirk’s numbers have been stellar in the playoff (as I’ve argued over and over), and that includes the last couple of years. What’s more, we’ve legitimately won plenty of playoff series along the way, so it’s not like a McGrady–type curse or anything.

No, it’s much more mundane. Once we have to compete against the best, we’re just not that good, and it’s looking more and more like we never have been.