Tuesday, April 26, 2011
We called this one a significant "gut check" game in which many questions would be answered.
And, to the credit of the Mavericks - a team who has their guts questioned at nearly ever turn this time of year - they answered the questions with great comfort in Game 5 with a relatively simple victory in front of the home fans.
Early on, the Mavericks looked tentative and unsure, as a child approaching the water that is trying to decide whether or not it really wants to do this.
The Mavericks looked tentative, except the new guy. The player who doesn't have years and years of emotional baggage. Tyson Chandler, the newest key addition to the Mavericks, arrived last summer and is only now making his first impression on the legacy that is Mavericks playoff basketball.
We saw pretty early this season that he was already the best center in franchise history and filled the description of the "dream acquisition" that Dallas had always hoped for. Young, athletic, passionate, and very, very tall. If any of those adjectives are missing, he isn't the total package. But, what makes Chandler such a difference maker is the fact that he seems passionate enough to stand up. Last game we discussed how the Mavericks desperately needed someone to "stand up and do something about this". And maybe the ignitor had to be Tyson Chandler.
He set the tone very early. By design or not, the Mavericks went right to him and purposed to get him the ball in the paint. He responded by converting a few chances, but more importantly, he dominated the glass. 7 rebounds early in the 1st Quarter as the tone was being set. But, he surely was not done - he finished with 20 boards for the game.
Of those 20 rebounds, 13 of them were on the offensive glass. Apparently, only Shaquille O'Neal and Moses Malone have ever had more offensive rebounds in a playoff game. He absolutely gave the long lineup of the Blazers fits. He was aggressive and full of energy. In the type of way that inspires those around him, Tyson Chandler and his memory that is not filled with playoff disasters, shook of Game 4 and led his team.
Once Tyson won the initial surge and showed some battle - including a mix-up here and there with various Portland players - it sure looked more comfortable for many Mavs to take that cue and turn up the aggressiveness to an impressive high.
And then there is Dirk. Dirk, who rightfully or wrongly gets the blame when things like Saturday occur, just kept doing what he does. Carrying the majority of the mail for this franchise every time he steps on the court. On Monday, he played one of the most determined games of his career. He understands his role at this juncture of his life better than he ever has. The team needs him to purpose in his mind not to settle. He understands that many of his teammates are happy to take his cue and settle on their shots, too. You wish everyone could play their game independent of how Dirk plays his, but that is not the team that was built here. They needed Dirk to go hard to the hoop. Take punishment. Get to the line. And be impossible to defend.
And in Game 5 - the 3rd Quarter being the finest example - Dirk would not settle. He was playing a very determined game that showed that he is both an exceptional perimeter shooter and a useful interior player on offense, too. That was just what the doctor ordered for Game 5.
The Mavs didn't need to just win Game 5. They needed to claim the court back. Portland had owned them in the paint in Game 4 (4th Quarter points in the paint, 18-0) and the Mavs were going to have to physically seize that lane back into their possession. And to their credit, 40 points were scored in the paint by the Mavericks - enough of a claim on things that Portland now feels on their heels again. Which is erasing a comfort zone Portland had built in the trip to the Northwest.
Tyson and Dirk. That is a combination that gives you hope. Dirk has always been there. But when both are going strong, this no longer appears to be a passive, timid, jump-shooting team that is not built for the warfare that is the NBA Playoffs. When Tyson is in foul trouble or Dirk is content to settle for 22 footers, then the team looks vulnerable, like those familiar failures of years gone by.
Monday night was such a key for this team to prove that they are not like other Mavericks teams. They showed that this is not Erick Dampier in the post anymore. And that is why Tyson Chandler may be exactly what Donnie Nelson and Mark Cuban hoped he was last summer.
The work is certainly not done. Another win is needed before they can bury Portland and advance, but there was large dose of confidence received from that Game 5 show of force. Perhaps they needed an emotional leader who could also play center better than anyone before him.
This is why you went after Chandler. And he might be why you still have hope in the 2011 playoffs.
Other thoughts and observations:
* Certainly a not-so-subtle key to how the game is going to be played does come back to how it is officiated. The premise that it comes down to Dirk and Tyson often comes back to the mitigating circumstances of whether or not the game was going to be handled by the referees in a way that allows the Mavs to function. Will Dirk get any calls when he drives to the rim? Or will they "let him play"? Will Tyson Chandler be allowed to bump into players as he battles for position? In Portland, Tyson was called for a number of fouls that were less than obvious, but the refs were eager to keep tension low. But, in Game 3, that meant that Tyson was not going to play hardly at all, and in Game 4 it meant that he would be facing major foul trouble down the stretch. And that issue changes the game he plays. A flaw in the NBA game remains that the tone of the entire affair is so easily affected by the officiating crew. Surely, all sports deal with this issue to some degree, but nothing close to the NBA game, in my estimation.
* I must confess I had a rather indifferent opinion of Andre Miller all of these years since he was at Utah at the NCAA Final 4. But, in this series, he has proven that he is a very capable playoff point-guard with a solid offensive game. And when it comes to match-ups, he is more of the sort Jason Kidd matches up with rather than the quick Chris Paul types that become an issue over 7 games. Miller's strength is obviously enough to give JJ Barea fits, but Kidd can contain him better. Again, last night, Miller was arguably the Blazers' biggest threat for much of the game on offense. It still is difficult to wrap your arms around the premise of him scoring 52 points in a game as he did in Dallas last season, but he is more than capable.
* Speaking of the Blazers offense, it is worth noting that the always-impressive LaMarcus Aldridge has had a diminishing point total in each of the first 5 games of this series. From 27 points in Game 1, to 24 in Game 2, 20 in Game 3, 18 in Game 4, and now just 12 in Game 5. I would like to tell you that this will continue, but the truth is that he is more than due for a huge game in Game 6. I suppose this idea will correspond with whether or not Chandler is in foul trouble again back at the Rose Garden. And make no mistake, it sure seemed like they were allowing Tyson to give Aldridge a nice nudge when LaMarcus would get the ball in the post in Game 5. Stay tuned.
* I received plenty of emails about the Dallas crowd last night, many of them annoyed at the volume in Portland compared to the lack of volume in the American Airlines Center. They want Dallas fans to be louder. I have two theories on this. The first is the "one horse town" theory. For reasons that are obvious because that is there one team, San Antonio, Sacramento, Utah, and Portland always will have louder crowds who are more loyal and supportive than multi-franchise crowds in cities where if the basketball team is disappointing, then it is time to throw the energy behind the baseball team. The second theory is that Mavericks fans are as psychologically damaged as some of the players from these last several seasons of playoff disasters. So, at Mavs playoff games of high tension, you can feel the crowd is nervous and uncomfortable rather than energetic and insane. I am not saying that it is ideal for both of these theories to play a role, but I think in both cases there is a combination of reasons that keep Mavericks crowds a notch behind.
* Shawn Marion was exceptional last night with his energy on both ends of the court, too. As this series has gone along, it is worth nothing that Marion has been able to put his stamp on the game as well. 4 steals and 14 points really help the cause and it is worth noting that Marion gets his points in scramble-mode. The Mavs never run offense for him, so when he is getting production, it means they are doing well in transition and 2nd chance situations.
* According to Chuck Cooperstein, the Mavs are 14-0 this season when Dirk shoots 10 free throws or more. That number speaks quite loudly.
* This season, the Mavericks and Trail Blazers have played each other 9 times. The home team has won ever single game. Quite clearly, if the road team can break through, they will advance. But, who is betting on either road team winning in this series?
So here we are. In series that are tied 2-2, the winner of Game 5 wins the series 83% of the time. That is a very interesting statistic, but I also want to remind everyone that Dallas is 2-18 in their last 20 road games. It is vital that they demonstrate they can win a game on the road, because chances are that even if they do advance, they will not taste home-court advantage again in 2011. In the sense of the series, Game 6 is not mandatory. But, in the sense of the big picture, Game 6 is strongly suggested.
Prove you can deal with a hostile setting, no help from officials, and momentum going against you. Prove that when the circumstances are not ideal, you will not become meek and settle for long-distance prayers.
Basically, prove you are not the "same old Mavericks" anymore.
Game 6 in Portland awaits.