Thursday, May 05, 2011
One of the most worn-out cliches in the entire world of sports is that "defense wins championships". We all say it. We all believe it. And yet, for years when the Dallas Mavericks would assemble their best chance to win a championship, it seemed it was seldom based on defense.
You play the cards you are dealt (or in personnel collection, the cards you are able to deal yourself) and for many reasons, defense was never the identity of this thing. And they continue to chase a championship to this very day.
But, in this run - which may or may not be a historic journey - it sure appears that defense is the calling card of this team from Dallas which has now won 6 of its 8 playoff games and has won more road playoff games in 1 week than they had since their haunting crash-and-burn in Miami in 2006.
Make no mistake; they were awesome at times offensively on Wednesday night at the Staples Center. But, that has been true for years - since Dirk Nowitzki has been on this team. Dirk has ebbed and flowed in his time as a Maverick, but you seldom felt that Dallas was unsuccessful because their offense was lacking.
Instead, the Mavericks defeated the Lakers (again) last night because they have finally found a defense. And, I don't mean a defense that can trouble Minnesota or Golden State in February. I mean a defense that has the World Champion Los Angeles Lakers frustrated. A defense that has the ability to stand its ground and defend the paint and the rim. A defense that doesn't remind you in any way, shape, or form of the Erick Dampier/Raef LaFrentz/Shawn Bradley defenses of the past. Those passive and grounded big men did take up some space, but never presented much of a challenge to those relentless offenses that attack the rim.
Enter Tyson Chandler and even, yes, in doses Brenden Haywood. Combined, those two large humans, who finally have the ability to help Dirk hold off enemy forces in the paint, played 48:00, grabbed 15 rebounds, challenged shot after shot, hung on the rim with great authority and never let Pau Gasol or Lamar Odom get comfortable near the rim. With a scrambling perimeter defense in front of them, they made sure that the Lakers would have to hit shots from distance to accomplish any offensive surges. Aside from the customary tough shots poured in by Kobe Bryant, the Lakers could not depend on any member of their roster to take advantage of shots from distance. And the Mavericks not only grabbed Game 2, but also left the Lakers a frustrated mess that appears to be ready to turn on each-other.
Did you know in Game 2 that the Lakers scored more than 20 points in a Quarter just once? Only in the 2nd Quarter did the Lakers ever mount an offensive surge. The rest of the time, they were all visibly annoyed at how difficult points were to come by.
That is the true difference right? There was once a time when Dallas would cringe when the refs "let them play" a physical game. In the 2011 NBA playoffs, the Mavericks have been involved in many road games where at certain stages the game switches to "prison rules" - where a foul is just not going to be called. The refs swallow their whistles like they always do and the Mavericks would always suffer the consequences. They would get bumped off the ball or have their arm grabbed on a shot and then would wince and complain to the refs as the opponent ended a fast break with a dunk.
Something - and I assume most of that something is acquiring a true defensive center who has a pulse of competitiveness flowing through him at all times - has changed. The Mavericks are now certainly not a dominant team in the paint. But, they can put up a 48 minute fight in the paint that says they will no longer be bullied. Even against the big, bad, built-for-titles Los Angeles Lakers. There is no way in 1,000 years that Dampier could have played this role in a playoff series. And now, with Haywood joining the Chandler party for his minutes, it actually looks like this team has the proper personnel to challenge the bullies in the West.
And that is why so many of you are asking if you are dreaming. This is not traditional, 1-and-done Mavericks basketball. This is not what we have seen for years. And this might explain why so many of us did not see this coming. As I have said before, Mark Cuban and Donnie Nelson's wildest dreams before they did their deal with the Bobcats last July must be coming true:
The Dallas Mavericks are no longer being accused of being soft. They are actually being accused of having the Lakers on the ropes. Given that many of us had them eliminated before the Lakers series, I will not pretend to suggest I saw this coming. But, what a nice surprise.
Now, keep them frustrated as the series returns to Dallas. Do not underestimate a coach who has 11 rings and a player that resembles Michael Jordan more than anyone in this generation. Whatever has put you in this spot - keep hammering that nail.
Other thoughts and observations:
* I confess that I was certainly tempted to write about JJ Barea at the top of this column instead of the team defense, but decided to remember what wins championships. But, that doesn't mean that anyone around here should forget the contributions to this thing made by the smallest man on the roster. He certainly is not someone that you can depend upon to take over every game or even contribute every time the Mavericks take the court. Some match-ups make sense for him and some don't. But, the effort he rolled out in the 4th Quarter against the Lakers in Game 2 will immediately go into Mavericks' lore. In a 4 minute stretch in the 4th Quarter, as the game went through a time where a Lakers surge was being withstood, JJ dominated the ball and frustrated the living daylights out of the Lakers defense. It started with a very poor turnover from Barea that resulted in Nowitzki taking out his mouth guard to fill Barea's ear with his displeasure. Dirk thought the play was reckless and that Barea can do better. This demonstrated the leadership of Dirk that wasn't always here and the guts and confidence of JJ Barea in his ability to handle the moment. Because from there, he hit a tough runner in the lane, set up Haywood for a "drive and dump" dunk, a set-up for a Kidd open 3, and another driving lay-up to boot. By the time he sat down, Dallas had pushed the lead to 15 points and the surge of the Lakers never really materialized. To those that spend their winters lamenting the fact that JJ Barea has weaknesses in his skill set, never forget those nights where they don't win without him. You could make the case that Game 2 is a game that JJ put on ice. And if you have ever wondered if they need a better back-up point guard, I give you two words: "Steve Blake". Barea is just fine for this team.
* The Mavericks had to feel great about where they were positioned in this game when they withstood the 1st Quarter surge so easily. All the city of Los Angeles could discuss for 48 hours was the desperation that the Lakers would possess in Game 2 since there is no way you want to lose both of your home games to start a Best-of-7 series. Well, the tornado of emotion and fury never really materialized as Dirk, the unlikely DeShawn Stevenson, and Jason Kidd hit big shots early to set the tone. Then, with a few easy hoops from Tyson Chandler and Shawn Marion above the rim, the Mavericks actually led after the 1st. So much for desperation and withstanding the opening salvo. In fact, the Mavericks led pretty much the whole way, it was an impressive show of strength. Lead changes in the 2nd half? That would be 0.
* I was able to speak with Mavericks-great Mark Aguirre on Wednesday before Game 2, and he went out of his way to praise Dirk for the technical foul that Nowitzki took in Game 1 for an elbow on Ron Artest. To Aguirre, this demonstrated an attitude where Dirk was not going to take any garbage from Artest, and that sometimes a technical is worth it to show your opponent that you will not be bothered with their antics. I thought of that plenty last night when Artest was basically wandering around the court looking for someone to pick a fight with. And from Tyson Chandler to JJ Barea, Artest pretty much tried everyone on for size. Whether he is allowed to play in Game 3 for his clothesline on Barea late remains to be seen. But, you could make the case the Lakers would benefit more from his absence than the Mavericks so I might not campaign too hard for that. He takes so many poor shots at odd times that you wonder if he is a thorn in the Lakers side when things are going poorly. Strange but true.
* Dirk has been so good in these 2011 playoffs that it is unreal. We have always seen the points and the amazing shots. But, we have never seen the mentality that he has right now. I don't think it can be overstated how ruthless and determined he is. He is directing traffic and barking orders. He is talking to the crowd and his opponents. He has a look in his eye that says he is on a mission that requires 16 wins. I know it is way too early to ponder how this story ends, but this is the Dirk that you always dreamed of. Unmatched skills and talent now combined with a desire that will not be denied. I hope he has enough gas in his tank to keep this going, because as a long-time admirer, I was not expecting his best showing in 2011 at nearly 33 years old. The window very definitely appears to still be open. And by the way, anyone that might still suggest that Pau Gasol is as good or better than Dirk should have their viewing privileges revoked.
* Speaking of Gasol, the Lakers best moments in the game came when they went big and physical with Andrew Bynum, Lamar Odom, Ron Artest, Kobe Bryant, and Derek Fisher. That crew caused the Mavs some issues in the 2nd Quarter. It also might explain why Rick Carlisle counters that by flooding the floor with guys that crew cannot defend - JJ Barea, for one. You really have to love the chess game that is evidenced by the substitution patterns of each coach.
* Tweet of the night goes to Bill Walton: "Marginally known reality TV stars at Staples Center stare haughtily through opera glasses, disapprovingly booing the Lakers fall from grace."
2 Wins down, 2 to go. I suppose it goes without saying that this thing is far, far from over. But, for once, the math problem is in the Mavericks favor. The Lakers are now forced to win 4 of the next 5, with 3 of the next 4 games in Dallas.
Get greedy. Very, very greedy.