Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Morning After: Game 2 - Mavericks 101, Blazers 89 (2-0)

I will assume that you have been locked into Mavericks' playoff basketball for many, many years. I will also assume that you are quite familiar with the fact that this team has been carrying around plenty of mental baggage since June of 2006.

The opponent has not mattered, really. Pretty much every opponent has taken advantage of this wounded mentality and put the Mavericks to the sword over the course of a 7 game series in the playoffs. The one exception was a San Antonio team in 2009 that lacked one of their most key parts, Manu Ginobili. In the other 4 playoff series since the 2006 collapse in Miami, the Mavericks have a record of 6-16. 6-20 if you include losing the final 4 games of that same Miami series. 10-22 if we include that win over the Spurs. Any way you slice it, the Mavericks have proven that their fragile psyche is not just a theory - they have proven that it is real at it shows up in playoff boxscores. When you only win 10 of 32 playoff games over a stretch, the conclusion seems quite simple: This team is just not good enough anymore.

But, after watching Game 2 of the Opening Round series against the Portland Trailblazers, many of us are left wondering if the skies are changing.

That game last night was impressive. On many, many different levels. The Mavericks were a determined bunch. They did not allow themselves to be taken advantage of. They fought like the game meant everything to them. They battled like they were the better team.

Importantly, they did not allow the Danny Crawford storyline (The 2-16 record in playoff games in which he officiates and a truckload of pieces of data that indicate he doesn't necessarily offer Dallas the benefit of the doubt) to take shape. As a long-time observer of this team in the "Dirk Era", I can't help but notice that it often seems 2nd nature for this team to allow adversity to take them out of their game. If something attempts to derail their train, over those last 32 playoff games, the Mavericks train has obliged and plunged off the side of the cliff.

So, when we see the team - led by their talisman, Dirk Nowitzki - fight with the resolve and confidence that has been missing for several years, one is left to wonder if this is merely an aberration or a sign of this team turning over a new leaf. Either way, the battle last night resulted in a very clear and resounding Game 2 victory, and a 2-0 series lead as the teams pack for Oregon.

It is easy to talk big about defense being the new calling card. It is easy to point at regular season statistics and suggest that improvement on that defensive end is clear. But, it is not always easy to show it in one of these 2-week street fights where your conviction will be questioned over and over. Portland, as we talked about after Game 1, seems to have the personnel that chases the Mavericks out of the paint and provides a very difficult match-up. There are no Toronto or Milwaukee games in the playoffs. Just 7 consecutive tests against a Portland team that most have picked to beat you.

And when people pick against Dallas, they are picking against Nowitzki. They are looking at Dirk, his credentials, his history, and his skill set and are telling him that they think it is over. So, to watch #41 play on both ends of the court with that resolve that we remember from his glorious 2006 run was something very welcome. His 4th Quarter play in Games 1 and 2 have pulled both games out of the fire and provided questions that Portland was not prepared to answer.

33 points for Nowitzki. 17 Free throws attempted. 7 Rebounds. +17 when he is on the court. And the constant positioning on the court that tells Portland loud and clear that he is not going to back out to the perimeter and shoot constant 20-footers. He is ready to battle under the rim and take the punishment that is required in the playoffs. The stretch in the 4th Quarter where they posted him up continuously and he either scored or kicked it out to Peja Stojakovic (yes, Peja!) for a 3 was quite impressive.

And when that happens - when Dirk plays like he will not be denied - then his mates often join him. A 2-0 series lead is certainly not enough to chase Portland to the offseason, but it is enough to remind the Mavericks how good they can be this time of year. I believe that the 2-0 lead is as important to the Mavericks self-confidence as it is to the series. They will spend plenty of time in the next few days looking at film that shows Portland could not keep up at crunch time with the Mavs. With a little luck and if the Mavs' fortunes truly are changing, then they can ride this momentum to the Rose Garden. Get a split in Portland and their work in Round 1 will be nearly complete.

This team has not had a 2-0 lead since June of 2006 against Miami. Let's all hope this series ends better than that one.

Other thoughts and observations from Game 2:

* Tyson Chandler seems to make all of the difference in the world down the stretch. LaMarcus Aldridge is an absolute unstoppable force over the course of 48 minutes. His offensive game seems to have very few boundaries. But, over the course of the meat of the 4th Quarter, you can see how having a player like Chandler battling in the paint is so valuable. Chandler's dunk off the feed from Terry and his constant contesting for every rebound and loose ball is so key. He checked into the game with under 6 minutes to play, but grabbed 3 key boards late and led both teams in 4th Quarter rebounds. The old cliche is applicable here: You can't stop Aldridge, but with Chandler and Brendan Haywood both competing hard, they can hope to contain him.

* Speaking of Aldridge, how did he seriously miss the All-Star game? You start to discuss forwards in the next 5 years that you would be more than comfortable building around and LaMarcus seems to join fellow Longhorn alum Kevin Durant on the short list. He has an array of moves that is quite impressive. The problem for Portland appears to be that he is about their only idea in the half-court offense in this time where Brandon Roy does not have the knees or rhythm to offer that 2nd option. Other than Andre Miller trying to abuse JJ Barea, their set offense does look like that of a #6 seed.

* Let's talk JJ Barea: When these games have such few possessions, every little stop matters. So, when he is drawing offensive fouls and then converting by diving into the paint on offense, it should be recognized. Unlike Game 1, Rick Carlisle had no desire to get Barea out of the game in Game 2. He was giving Portland fits. It is easy to focus on what JJ cannot do, but there are nights where it is obvious that he brings some things to the table that more than justify his role on this squad.

* Depending on the outcome of the season and this series, many people will discuss the pivotal moments of the season at great length. One of the moments of great importance was not on the court, but in the discussions about whether the Mavericks were going to pursue Gerald Wallace (who might have cost them Roddy Beaubois) or grab a player like Peja Stojakovic for free off the scrap heap. Given that I thought Peja had no more gigantic performances in his body that has displayed many health issues recently, I was tempted to do everything I could do pry Wallace from the Bobcats. But, the Mavericks thought that Peja was a better fit because when Dirk is double-teamed in the post, Peja would give them a perimeter weapon that they have not had in a while to make the teams pay for leaving the weakside. When Portland acquired Wallace for Joel Pryzbilla, Dante Cunningham, and a 1st Rounder, it seemed like another reason to avoid Portland and perhaps a key mistake by the front office for Dallas. Obviously, last night was just one game, but the boost Peja gave the Mavs by tying a career-high with 5 3's in a playoff game is difficult to debate. If he can do that a few times in a series, then he is just what they needed - despite his limitations in other areas. I really like Wallace's 2-way game, but he isn't going to do what Peja did last night. If an acquisition like that gets you a playoff victory, then you have to feel it was worth it to give Peja a chance to deliver. He did.

* On the play where Wesley Matthews and Jason Terry knocked heads, it became evident that Matthews was wearing 2 soccer-style shin pads on his legs. It may be my poor observation skills, but I don't believe I have ever seen that before. Actually kind of curious why he does that and how many other players are wearing them under the large shorts of this era. Just making note of that.

* I guess those of us who believe that Jason Kidd would not be able to match his Game 1 offensive performance were proven wrong. His Game 2 offensive show was equally dominant with 18 points and 8 assists. We can continue to debate how long this run will last and whether sitting out 2 games can really rejuvenate his game this much. Or, we can just enjoy this ride and see where it can take the Mavericks.

In closing, I would tell you that I feel substantially different about the Game 2 win then I did the Game 1 win. Sure, they are both wins, but in Game 1, the methods employed seemed to suggest that Portland still had some inherent advantages that would be difficult to navigate around over the course of 7 games. But, in the case of last night's game, the Mavericks stood up to most of the Portland strengths and then flexed their muscles in such a way that the Blazers did not have an answer down the stretch. Their defense looked distracted by Jason Terry running off screens and unsure about some of their switches and responsibilities. In addition, as mentioned before, their plans in the half-court did not look terribly smooth offensively.

The point is that the Mavericks looked like the better team in Game 2. They looked like the high seed and the team that has more answers to provide. As we know, the weather changes quickly and the cliche is that a series does not begin until a road team wins a game.

And here are some shocking numbers: Since closing out the Suns in Phoenix in the Western Conference Finals in 2006, the Mavericks have won 2 games on the road in the NBA Playoffs. 2-16 is their record away from Dallas in that stretch with the two wins being in San Antonio against the Manu-less Spurs in 2009. Otherwise, they lost every game in Miami, Golden State, New Orleans, Denver, and San Antonio again.

On the road in the playoffs you do not have the surge of the home crowd. You will not get calls very often and things won't look very sunny. In the last 5 seasons, the Mavericks have been beyond brutal in these road tests. Many of those 16 losses have been by double digits.

They know all that.

And on Thursday, perhaps we will all know if the weather has truly changed for these Mavericks.

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