Monday, April 19, 2010
No Answer. For once, it is so glorious to have those words describe someone in a Mavericks jersey as opposed to someone in the enemy colors. It is often thrown around easily in NBA circles, but the theme going into the Mavericks match-up with the San Antonio Spurs was that the Spurs would have absolutely "no answer" for the Mavericks' talisman, Dirk Nowitzki.
And through Game 1, it is clear that sort of rhetoric was on the money. Dirk was the centerpiece of the opening contest, and 36 points later, he turned out to be the clear player of the game.
Only 2 teams in the last decade have eliminated the San Antonio Spurs from the playoffs. One of those teams has won 4 Titles in the decade and will be thought of as the dynasty of the decade (the Lakers). The other team to take down the Spurs has been led by the tall German who seems to always have their number, Big Dirk.
For all of his moments where the league has seemed to find a formula for slowing Dirk down, the one organization that has never had someone who can mess with him seems to be the San Antonio Spurs. Oh sure, they won their share - especially early in this decade (thanks alot, Steve Kerr) - but even back in the early days of the Mavericks run, Dirk always seemed to get his. Well, as age and maturity have played their roles, it appears now that the Mavericks are now the favorites in these match-ups, and that is almost entirely because of the simple defensive match-up that Greg Popovich has to consider - and then lose - to Dirk.
Last Night, Dirk scored from all sorts of angles and strategies. Then, late, when the Spurs were reduced to Hack-a-Damp and triple teams to slow down the German, he passed beautifully to set up wide open daggers from his mates. He gets everyone easier shots when he is feeling it, and if they knock them down, the Mavs will be in for a long march this spring.
Meanwhile, both teams were offering plenty of new blood to attempt to tip the scales in their direction after the 2009 match-up between these same two teams in Round 1. The Spurs returned Manu Ginobili - who was awesome - and debuted newcomers Richard Jefferson (awful), DeJuan Blair (barely played - who does he guard?), and the type of long-armed defender that should slow Dirk down, Antonio McDyess. The trouble is, at the age of 35, McDyess looks like he has about 10 minutes per half to try and bother Dirk, and even so, the challenge for Nowitzki seems exciting as he takes turns abusing McDyess and then his trusty side-kick, Matt Bonner.
For much of the night, it appeared that the Spurs were attempting to be stubborn and were going to let one of those two try to slow Nowitzki all by themselves. I believe over the next 2 weeks we are going to see that Popovich and the Spurs are going to try to "Make someone else beat us". And that is when we will truly see the value of the acquisitions of the last 12 months.
Anyway, a very satisfying Game 1 victory for the Mavs, and now the subplots begin:
* Lost in all of this Dirk talk, of course, is the stellar showing from the core of the Spurs. We all know that they did not win titles because of Matt Bonner. They have rings because Tim Duncan is Tim Duncan, and Ginobili and Tony Parker have been proper helpers in that quest. The three of them all look up for a long series as Duncan scored 27 in a very efficient evening, Ginobili did whatever he wanted at points for 26, and Parker looks like he is returning to form with 18. Clearly, that has never been the problem, and last season, with Ginobili out, you will recall that Parker and Duncan were flat-out awesome. But, it was the Spurs supporting cast that got them beat last year, and although many of the faces have changed, you still have to wonder how hard it is for new players to figure out a comfortable role for themselves in that Big 3 culture. It seems like every time they try to add a wing player who can cause the opponent trouble (Mason, Jefferson), they always fade into the background because their are only so many balls to go around. The one exception to this rule is the guy who hangs at the 3-point line and waits for his chance to bang home an open look (Bowen, Bonner, Horry). Otherwise, for all of Pop's genius, in the back end of this decade, it always seems that the supporting cast is a bunch of spares - and maybe they are. But, maybe, it is because the Big 3 have not figured out how to integrate the whole thing together. We will continue to follow this story line closely. With the miles on all 3 of those spectacular players, they need help now more than ever before.
* I thought Caron Butler was awesome in Game 1. Just what the doctor ordered. I know the trade was far more complex than Josh Howard for Caron, but when you watch the Mavs like we do, you cannot help but remember Josh and compare the two constantly. It appears at this particular moment, that Caron's strengths are things that Josh possess. He loves collisions. He loves to go strong to the rack. He has swagger. He wants a rumble. He drinks Tough Juice. In one sequence early in the 4th Quarter, he hit a 2 from 18, took a charge, caused a steal, and then had that crazy step-back 3 in Keith Bogans' face. Now, hopefully, he will not allow hitting jumpers affect his decision making on offense (a huge Josh Howard flaw - hit one jumper and suddenly there were no more drives). But overall, I have been wondering what sort of element will Caron bring to this things, and through 1 game of the playoffs, I love it. And see, this is what makes that trade so genius. Butler and Haywood are not only solid NBA players who can make a difference in any game they play, but they also somehow possess the perfect make-up of skills to compliment the Dirk, Terry, Kidd launch attack from the perimeter. These new guys take the ball at the rim. They are physical and will cause problems in the paint for the opponent. This will be tested, especially on the road, but I do think that Mark Cuban/Donnie Nelson were able to acquire players who do what you couldn't.
* Matt Bonner is 6'10. He has an offensive arsenal that includes a very impressive ability to knock down any open 3-pointer he is given. That is worth something. But otherwise, you might rather have me out there. His running tear drop attempt in the lane is just sad for a big man. Nick Van Exel did that because he had no choice. You know, because he was the shortest man on the floor. Bonner plays in the paint like his is 6'1, and that is something that must make Spurs fans crazy.
* The playoffs are no place for rookies if they play for veteran coaches. Roddy Beaubois and DeJaun Blair are both rare finds for their teams and had wonderful freshman years. But, in the playoffs, they likely won't play too much in the early going. Beaubois is 3rd choice at the point, and when Kidd pays 41 minutes, that doesn't leave much. Blair is just in a spot where he has nobody to guard. If he plays with Duncan, then who guards Dirk? If he plays with Bonner or McDyess when Duncan is watching, then who guards Damp or Haywood and who gets rebounds? Blair is very interesting, but he is always going to have a very odd role because for all of his talents, he is still a 6'7 player with a 7-footer's mobility.
* Erick Dampier, I must admit, does match-up well with the Spurs. We saw this last year and we saw it again in Game 1. He gets in Duncan's way, despite not being able to justify minutes against many other opponents. The Hack-A-Damp was amusing, and when he knocked down 4 of 6, Pop was off looking for another plan. In Game 1, Dampier played 30 minutes and Brendan Haywood played 18. It seems that this split should be 24/24 or even 30/18 for Haywood, but I guess they really like Damp vs Dunc. 12 rebounds were nice, and so was the defense. But, his hands still make him an annoyance on offense. And, he was 5 for 12 from the line overall, so fouling him does make some sense.
* Seriously, is Roger Mason that useless? I remember hearing some of my Spurs friends tell me that he is the answer for what they have needed. I think they have backed way off that claim and are now wondering when he expires (this year). They just can't find a worthy weapon that can help them the way Jason Terry can help the Mavs off the bench.
* That random guy on the bench who looks like he won the "win a chance to sit on the Mavs bench in full uniform" contest is Matt Carroll. He signed a 6-year, $27 million dollar deal in 2007.
* I cannot believe how great Jason Kidd is playing. His performance last night was brilliant on many levels. The open 3's that he seems to make with greater regularity when the shot means more, the passes that result in 11 assists, the defense on Manu where he tips passes that other guys don't tip, and just the overall way he makes basketball look so easy. He is the type of athlete that the more you watch, the more fun he makes the sport. Like Messi on the soccer field, reading the game story the next day is not enough. You have to watch him, and notice what he does and what he sees that nobody else does. Oh yeah, and at 37 years old, he is the oldest guy out there.
* And lest I forget, it is certainly worth noting how valuable Shawn Marion can be if only because he is extremely long and disruptive on defense. He runs the floor, he guards your best player, and he doesn't need too many shots to be happy. I cannot believe this team was giving huge minutes to Antoine Wright last season and now have Caron Butler and Shawn Marion on the wings. Count me amongst those who appreciate the roster turnover of the last 12 months.
It is only 1 game. 14% of a 7-game series. But, the Mavericks are off to a very fine start. If they get a 2-0 lead heading through (edit fixed!) Texas, I am pretty sure the Spurs will have a new member in their huddle back in San Antonio, Mr. Doubt.