Tuesday, May 03, 2011
The entire conversation this morning could have easily been about the Mavericks' coming unraveled at another key juncture or another key playoff game. Composure, despite being the focus of so many conversations, always seems to be the undoing of the Mavericks at just the wrong time when we discuss the playoffs.
And, Monday night, after leading most of the 2nd Quarter, the Mavericks managed to take a small deficit right before halftime and make it bigger because Jason Terry and Dirk Nowitzki lost their minds for a brief second. What certainly should have been 5 turned quickly into 9 when Terry decided to contest a 60 foot desperation heave at the buzzer and accidentally caught part of Lamar Odom's arm. To make sure it was a horrible situation, Dirk then got irritated at Ron Artest and threw an elbow that cost the Mavericks a technical foul and another point.
Coming out of halftime, the Mavericks had the ball 3 times and committed 3 turnovers. The Lakers converted that into 3 baskets (including one from 3-point range) and the lead went from 49-44 to 60-44 in about 1:22 of basketball time.
And because composure bit the Mavericks yet again in the rear end, they quickly sacrificed Game 1 at the Staples Center.
That could have been the story. But, it wasn't.
Instead, partly because the Mavericks did not panic and partly because the Lakers went quickly to autopilot with their 16 point lead, Dallas was able to climb back into the game. Slowly but surely, Dallas chipped away with a wonderful combination of hitting shots, getting stops, and attacking the paint with the athletic bodies that can do that sort of thing.
The Lakers played the role that we see Dallas play sometimes - a team that has been successful, but relaxes when they are pretty sure they have a proper working margin. The Lakers defense and offense dropped in intensity and before anyone in the arena could stop looking at their phones, Corey Brewer - yes, that Corey Brewer - nailed a 3 from the corner and the Lakers' lead was just 64-61.
From that point on, Dallas stayed within a reasonable distance. Never taking the lead nor falling behind by more than 8 for last half of the 3rd Quarter and the first 11:30 of the 4th.
Dirk made a key shot with :40 left - one of his amazing wrong-foot conversions in the lane that make people marvel at his gifts - and then the Kobe Bryant committed a poor turnover as he tried to draw and kick out to the perimeter. Jason Terry jumped the pass route like a DB and the Mavericks had the ball with just a 94-93 deficit and :20 to play.
20 seconds later, the Mavericks had made 3 out of 4 free throws, Jason Kidd had forced a turnover, and Kobe Bryant missed a shot that most of the free world expected him to make.
Game over. And Dallas proved plenty of things to the basketball public and maybe even themselves. Perhaps, the most important of these items was that they could play and win a game of NBA crunch time basketball with the Lakers and Kobe himself - at the Staples Center and in the playoffs - and take the win.
For those of us who thought the Mavericks may have to prove they are not psychologically at a disadvantage saw plenty to indicate that Dallas is up for this. It is only Game 1. And, that is a game the Lakers dropped in Round 1 as well. But, the Mavericks continue to show time and time again that this is not the wounded performer from Dallas we have seen for the last 5 years. This team seems to have resolve and purpose in May.
And as Mike Fisher tweeted last night, "The MAVS have won as many road playoff games in the last 5 days as they'd won in the previous 5 YEARS."
Game 1 to Dallas.
I understand in this business we are obligated by sports law to remind everyone it is just one game in a best of 7 series, but for Dallas, I think this game was vitally important to what could be down the road. They certainly have a long way to go, but they appear to be in the process of figuring out just how good they can be in situations like these. There are a lot of miles on the tires of pretty much everyone the Mavericks put on the court, but at the same time, they are finally seeing their powers combine for positive playoff results.
And a 23-point lead that they surrendered 9 days ago in Portland may have triggered everything we have seen since. Adversity, which used to bring Dallas to its knees, has perhaps brought the team together in a unified and determined way we are not used to seeing around here. So much so that a 16-point deficit at the Staples Center in May did not rock their foundation a bit.
It makes you wonder what this team might be capable of in the next few weeks.
Other random thoughts and observations:
* The Lakers fell into a familiar trap that makes you ponder how to defend Kobe. The trap is that his complimentary players sometimes get lulled into watching him play. The idea is that Kobe gets hot and you must get him the ball. As an opponent, you never want Kobe Bryant in the zone, but there seem to be time to single-team him and let him get going - thus, rendering the others on the court as passengers for the Lakers. Also, Phil Jackson indicated after the game that the Lakers felt like they gave the game away. And while that may sound like an insult if you are the Mavericks, you can definitely see it from the Lakers perspective. A close examination of the 3rd Quarter shows Ron Artest in particular taking and missing three 3-point shots in 3 minutes. They settled for shots in the same way the Mavericks did in the Rose Garden with their big lead. The point to all of this is to show that the Lakers are highly susceptible to the same traps the Mavs fall into at frustrating times. It is the NBA game. You must stay focused, because your opponent can make up ground in a hurry if you don't. I understand why the Lakers are kicking themselves this morning.
* It isn't said often enough, so let me say it here: the Dallas defense is better than you think. Last night, it generated 8 steals, 8 blocks, and held the Lakers to 42.9% from the field. It also scrapped its way to 35 defensive rebounds and just tried to make the Lakers earn their points. When LA decides to attack the rim, like they did in the 2nd Quarter, they have awesome muscle. But, the fact is that Tyson Chandler, Shawn Marion, and their mates are quite effective at times holding their ground. Not NBA-best effective, but also nowhere near the "no-D in Dallas" teams we remember from years gone by. It is not always obvious and there are times that it slips, but when that Chandler is leading the charge, they can really cut off traffic in the lane at times. His late-game swat of a Pau Gasol post move with 1:43 to go was a thing of absolute beauty. And then Jet's steal in the last minute and Kidd's steal with a few seconds to play were both huge plays and they all happened on the defensive end.
* There was snickering over the weekend when a member of the Mavericks suggested that Dallas was "built to play the Lakers", but when you do consider that this team has the ability to rest Tyson Chandler and bring in a fresh-as-a-daisy Brendan Haywood, you can see the point a bit clearer. If the Lakers can roll out Gasol, Andrew Bynum, and Lamar Odom as trees to compliment Artest, Bryant, and Matt Barnes as wings, then you better have some big guys to protect the rim. Chandler and Haywood can do that reasonably well. Then, the Mavericks acquired about 4 guys who at least have a chance to cover Kobe for a few minutes: Kidd, Marion, Brewer, and DeShawn Stevenson all take their turns. So, do they have a few trees? And do they have a few guys to try to make Kobe work? Well, that is what that quote was supposed to mean.
* Everyone loves the NBA, but when a game is well after midnight, you still have to wonder why the league cannot figure out how to play :20 of basketball in less than 12 minutes of real time. If I was commissioner, I would take half of each team's timeouts and make them the "20-second timeout" variety. But, I suppose you cannot play as many commercials, and we wouldn't want to lose those.
* And speaking of defense on Kobe, I do think we should recognize Kidd's fine work at the most high-leverage moments of the game. He is not a candidate to chase Kobe for very long, but in the final few possessions, Kidd does very well against Kobe over the last few seasons. Now, let's be honest, Kobe still had a great look at the 3-pointer to win the game after Bynum set him free on a screen, but I do enjoy Jason Kidd muscling up on Bryant. And, maybe just maybe, Kidd gets the benefit of the doubt from the officials when he covers Kobe that Brewer or Stevenson never would. In small doses, I like what Kidd is able to do.
* According to this, Kobe Bryant now has missed his last five game-tying or go-ahead postseason field goal attempts in the final 24 seconds of the fourth quarter or overtime. I still expect him to make every one of them, but perhaps perception and reality are not on the same page here. Do the Mavericks have the better closer in this series? Surely, not, right?
That was a very strong win. They proved again that they can win on the road in the playoffs (after a 2-18 spell, they have now won back-to-back away from Dallas), they proved they can outlast the Lakers in a tight playoff game, and they proved they can steal home-court advantage away.
They simply had to get a split in Los Angeles early and that is in the bank. Now, they must get very greedy in Game 2 and effort to grab another game if at all possible. Think of this series as still just in the 1st Quarter. There is so much basketball to play. But, so far, the Mavericks do not look at all impressed with what is in front of them. There is something different about this 2011 team at this moment in time.
Does this new vibe have staying power?