Friday, April 29, 2011

The Morning After: Game 6: Dallas 103, Portland 96 (4-2)

Closing Time.

It is a bit early to say the Mavericks have completely rewritten their legacy and reputation.

It is a bit early to say that now the Mavericks are able to win on the road in the playoffs again.

It is a bit early to say that the Mavericks can no longer be bullied in the post season with physical and intimidating play.

It is a bit early to say the entire NBA is on notice.

But, closing out Portland in 6 games by demonstrating enormous tenacity and courage after a devastating loss in Game 4 that was enough to awaken any doubt in all members of the organization is a very nice start in that direction.

Winning a playoff series should never be minimized. And I am pleased that this team now has a few days to catch its breath and move along in an orderly fashion to Los Angeles. There is plenty of time to speculate how that marquee battle will play out, but for now, I think it is time to give due where it properly belongs.

As someone who picked Portland to win this series, it was certainly not a given in my mind that the Mavericks had progressed enough mentally to where they could suffer major adversity and respond in a way that you would expect a veteran team full of composed and experienced warriors to respond.

But, they obviously have quieted any of those doubts and doubters with their last 2 games. They looked calm and collected (save for 2 over-and-back calls at the most crucial moments of last night) and with great precision weathered the early storm and then answered with enough fury to quiet the normally crazed arena.

In fact, it is almost safe to say that the Mavericks have finally learned from their disappointments a bit. The game last night was set up to follow the normal scripts of perimeter shooting, paintless offense, and a loss of composure due to calls not going there way.

But, when you look at last night's game, you see the Mavs outscored Portland in the paint in their own building (44-42) and would not settle. Don't get me wrong, they needed some clutch tough shots from Jason Terry and Jason Kidd, but this was a much more determined and varied attack that knew they would need to take a few bruises to be successful. We have seen this attack on a regular basis in the home white uniforms, but when the Mavs go on the road this time of year, they generally have a far more meek attack that is not rewarded with free throws and dunks.

Not in Game 6.

And Dirk Nowitzki does it again. I would like to assume you are aware of his production on a nightly basis. In 6 playoff games he had no games of less than 20 points. 28, 33, 25, 20, 25, and 33. He scored 164 points in this series - 60 more than any other Maverick - and is proving that he is still as deadly a weapon as he was at any point of his career. Further, he now has that rare ability to make an entire arena groan with pain when he merely releases an open shot. There is no question how this league fears the big German and how when he gets rolling there is often no stopping him.

But, it takes more than Dirk. Heck, in my estimation, maybe his most dominating playoff series since '06 was the Denver series in 2009. In that series he had games of 28, 35, 33, 44, and 32. But, the Mavericks were not competitive, really, losing in 5 games. You see, no matter how many critics he has in his own city, the fact is that Dirk has delivered many times in many situations. The problem was that he could not always drag his entire team to victory (and neither could Kobe Bryant before he was given proper help in 2008). But, perhaps this year is different.

And maybe it comes back to trade that was made on July 14, 2010. A trade that frankly disappointed most locals (again, including myself) because the feeling was that Tyson Chandler was an interesting player when healthy - a rare occasion for the big man. It was Chandler and Alexis Ajinca for Eduardo Najera, Matt Carroll, and the Erick Dampier trade chip. Of all of the big ideas the Mavs told us about involving that trade chip, nobody thought it would be for a starting center who had only started 72 games in 2 years.

But, there he was in Game 5 and Game 6 realizing all the potential that Mark Cuban and Donnie Nelson were imagining on that night in July. He not only provided post play on both ends of the court that no Dallas big man in the "Dirk era" could even dream of, but he is also very possibly the William Wallace element that this Mavericks team always seems to be missing. Is he the alpha male? No, that is Dirk. But, he seems to provide a level of courage and fight for all of his mates that is both contagious and imperative. Is he the guy that makes keeps the bullies away from his buddies? In effect, yes, he is.

That was a very big win. Not perfectly pretty, but that never matters in the NBA post season. I cannot stress enough how important this win is. If you beat Portland at home in Game 7, you still advance to play the Lakers. But, you do so with that road performance monkey on your back and that lack of confidence that you can close a deal when the opponent, crowd, and officials seem to all be against you.

That win took guts and some great moments on both ends of the court. It reminds you of some of those trademark road wins we saw back in 2006. Dirk is unstoppable and the team is resilient. A truly great win for the franchise that should really help this team to relax and go play with some renewed energy.

Other thoughts and observations:

* Clearly, it is tough to overlook the Chris Johnson moments of last night. For a guy who played 4:44 in the entire game, you do get the feeling that his name will be cemented into Trailblazers lore for his role in the game. With Portland up 33-22, Dirk drove by Johnson with a basket and a foul. Dirk yelled the customary "And 1" to whoever was listening, and this caused Johnson to leap to his feet and try to face down Dirk. To Nowitzki's credit, he seemed completely oblivious to the rookie's strut, and after hitting the free throw, Dirk went about his business on defense. He collected a defensive rebound when Johnson, now showing how angry he was, inexplicably grabbed Dirk's face on the way back down the court. This caused a flagrant foul and you could say provided the launch point for a very impressive Mavericks' show of force to end the half. The Mavericks went on a 30-10 run to finish the half in the final 9 minutes, and many will point to Johnson as the guy who "poked the giant". For those of us who fancy ourselves as Mavericks' historians, we have seen cheap shots that have caused the Mavericks to become more fragile and timid, so to see this answer from Dirk himself was another sign that he mentally is as strong as we have ever seen. He handles adversity like a seasoned veteran, and with help from his mates, the Mavericks went to the locker-room with a big lead and a bunch of confidence. Johnson did not return to the game.

* I think we all wished we knew a bit more about which Jason Terry will arrive from game to game and night to night. Heck, imagine coaching this team and trying to figure out what he can give you. But, where would this team be without his big moments? Gigantic shots last night at such key times and the thing about Terry is that almost all of his points are of the tough shot variety. 22 points and a monster 8 assists as well. This is why it is so tough for the Mavericks to move on without him. He is right at the heart of many of their big wins. Sometimes, you have to take the good with the bad.

* What a game from Gerald Wallace. I think many of us expected a much larger series from him, but in an elimination game he played far and away his best basketball. Relentless attack of the rim and 13 points in the 1st Quarter as that avalanche of momentum put Dallas on their heels. Despite missing plenty of time in that key Mavericks 2nd Quarter with back issues, he led the Blazers in scoring with 32 and rebounding with 12. When guys like me lament about Dallas missing out on an attacking wing player who competes with fabulous ferocity, that Game 6 was why. He seems to be a real X-factor some nights.

* 5:28 to go in the game, Mavs lead 86-83. Coming out of the timeout, they call a play where Dirk gets the ball inside and looks to kick it out for an open 3. Instead, Wallace is sitting on the pass like a Cornerback looking for a "pick 6". Wallace shoots for the pass and ends the play with a thunderous dunk to cut the score to 1 (86-85) after trailing by 17 late in the 3rd. Could it happen again? Could the Mavericks seriously lose a giant lead in the same arena to the same team? Next time down, Jason Kidd nails the biggest shot he has made as a Maverick. A 3 pointer to push the lead back to 4 and quiet the crowd a bit. Terry hit another tough shot for a long 2 and the lead was back to 91-85. At the time of those shots, the whole tidal wave was crashing down on Dallas again. And the guys who missed huge shots in Game 4 were ready, willing, and able to knock them out and send Portland to the summer in Game 6. Redemption is very nice.

* As a long time admirer of Marcus Camby's game, I am shocked at how little a role he played in this series. Perhaps my fear for his potential impact was misguided at this stage of his career.

* Who else in the basketball world would you want at the line sealing a game than Dirk Nowitzki? I only remember him missing clutch free throws in the playoffs one time - and I don't like talking about that game anymore. Last night, 11-11.

Well, it wasn't easy, but the Mavericks proved how much predictions matter. They simply took care of their business and played well enough to suggest they were the better team in at least 5 of the 6 games. That was well done and well earned.

Now, let's see.... About that 2nd Round....

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