Sunday, May 22, 2011
The beauty of the 7-Game series is that it forces a team to demonstrate they can do something 4 times. Anyone can have a hot night of shooting or cause a cold night for their opponent. But, can you do it 4 times in 2 weeks?
And in Game 3 on Saturday Night, we saw a game that did not resemble the first two contests in any way, shape, or form. This was something totally different. In a series where both teams had a superstar scorer who simply could not be slowed down, Dirk Nowitzki had a night of shooting that was out of character (7-21) and then played his way into 7 additional turnovers. And his team won!
On the other side, Kevin Durant shot just 7-22 himself. His All-NBA sidekick, Russell Westbrook, shot just 8-20 in a game that was predicted to be a night where he took over and willed the Thunder to a win, and his 7 turnovers from the Point Guard position were not going to help at all.
A 7-Game series can blot out all of the anomalies. This isn't March Madness where a night of hot shooting can carry Cinderella through to the next round against Goliath. No, this is the NBA Playoffs. Where form usually holds. And the best team usually wins. When you have to win 4 times in 7 games, the truth is often told.
And the Mavericks think that favors them. Partly because youth is a wonderful attribute if the game comes down to a loose ball or a fast break. But, if it comes down to wily tricks and a mental game of precision, patience, and execution, then Jason Kidd, Shawn Marion, Dirk, and the "old men" of Dallas feel that the youthful exuberance of the Thunder might show up at just the wrong time for OKC and be a lesson that the kids will need to learn for future reference.
And I think we saw that as well on Saturday Night.
After losing Game 2 at home, it was quite interesting to see the way the Mavericks started Game 3 at a very hostile setting up in Oklahoma City. Determined to defend from the opening tip shows that this is a team that A) understands the rare opportunity to be this deep in the playoffs in this position and B) has the ability to play better defense when it sets its collective mind to the task.
The Mavericks could not slow the Thunder offensively in those games in Dallas. That is a 2-way street in the NBA. You can defend, but against any defense in the NBA there are players that can get and make shots that demoralize your efforts. So, the Mavs had to bring the intensity and effort and the Thunder had to miss shots. As unlikely as both of those seemed after that clinical exhibition in the 4th Quarter of Game 2, both fell right into place in Game 3 for a Dallas effort that was swarming and decisive.
What was the turning point in Game 3? Well, there might not have been one. Or, perhaps it was the opening tip. Or, the DeShawn Stevenson 3-pointer to make the score 3-0. That was the first lead of the game. And there would be no lead changes.
None. Rarely in the NBA do the events of the 1st Quarter have a major impact in the outcome of the game. Big leads are exchanged routinely in the first 3 Quarters of these contests, only to have the game finally determined in the final 5 minutes. And in many ways, the game was sealed in the final few clutch moments for the Mavericks that looked like they were happy there was not a 5th Quarter as their 23 point lead was shaved down to 4. But, in other ways, the first few minutes of the game were the crucial ones. Dallas looked ready to play and Oklahoma City looked very unsure and unsettled.
And maybe determination is all that separates things on Mavericks "good nights" versus their "bad nights". Because in Game 3, the Mavericks spent the early parts of the game defending everything. Blocking shots, getting rebounds, double-teaming, and stepping in passing lanes. They defended from the start like there was no option to lose on Saturday. They wanted their home-court advantage back and there seemed to be little Durant, Westbrook, and their mates were going to do about it.
Then, offensively, how is this for determination early? Stevenson's wide open 3 started the proceedings, but after that, here are the distances for the next 6 Mavericks baskets: 1-footer from Marion, Dunk from Tyson Chandler, 2-footer from Marion, 2-footer from Stevenson, 2-footer from Dirk, and a 4-footer from Chandler. 6 baskets from a total of 11 feet away? That is called taking the ball hard to the rack. The Mavericks opened the game with full effort and energy on defense and then spent the early going in the 1st Quarter attacking the rim. After Chandler's 4 footer, the Mavericks had raced to a 15-6 lead, and the game was already shaped.
For all of the cliches about the NBA game that tell us no lead is safe and nothing in the 1st Quarter is generally relevant, we see that this veteran Dallas squad had the sense and the ability to take this game and this opponent and this crowd by the scruff of the neck and impose their will on it. And to think they did it on the road and without a normal night of dominance from their superstar makes the win all the more impressive. This team has enough veteran savvy and enough talent that clearly still has something to give that they proved they could survive a night like that and grab a badly needed road win.
Jason Kidd and Shawn Marion in particular should be highlighted in this game rehash. Kidd brought The Fugees to mind as he played his enemy like a game of chess. His work on both ends of the court is so cerebral. He knows where to be. He sees the game before it happens. He still must execute by making the shot or defending the man, but there may not be 5 players in the history of the game with a higher basketball IQ than Kidd. The fact that the Mavs are where they are with a 38-year old Point Guard is very difficult to comprehend, but the only way that is possible is if it is based on a brilliant PG who can make up physical slowness with mental quickness. And as he baits another defender into free throws or with his eyes can look off backside help to set up another lob pass and dunk, you realize you are looking at something very special when you watch Kidd. He is at the heart of last night's victory and his 13 point, 8 assist, 6 rebound, and 4 steal stat line confirms it.
And then Marion, who might be the least-talked about key piece to this team right now. Last night, when nobody can shoot the ball with any level of accuracy, here is Shawn hitting 9 of 13 shots. Why? Because his shots are taken from spots on the floor where you can generally consider high percentage. He gets most of his points in transition and off broken plays, but when he scores, that is a good indication that much of it is being generated from defense. Always a good sign. And, if you add to his huge scoring night by pointing out that he is defending Durant for a good portion of the evening, you can see why it would be very easy to call Marion the key to last night's victory. With the long arms and athletic skill set, Marion can bother all manner of players in this league. If you don't have a guy like him on your roster, you are really up a creek without a paddle in this league where scoring is so key. But, as understated as it sometimes might be, there is no question that Marion is a key part of this run.
Kidd and Marion. Add in Peja Stojakovic and you have 3 players who were elite in the NBA about 7 years ago. The fact that those players were front and center for a massive win in this playoff campaign suggests we may be looking at the NBA version of the "Over the Hill Gang". Guys who were discarded as old and past-their-prime coming together and rising up in such a way that they can move within 2 wins of the NBA Finals. Not as periphery players at all. But as key parts of a team that counts on them to win games along the path on nights where other aspects of the attack are not operating smoothly.
And they certainly did.
As I did on twitter last night, allow me to remind Mavericks fans, who specialize in self-loathing, a simple point about Game 3; There are no style points. You either win or lose. Then, you take your win without qualifications and complaints. This is a road win in the Western Conference Finals. To spend a ton of time spinning negativity into a game that you never trailed is missing the point. That team won a very difficult road game in a tough environment without the help of officiating in that 4th Quarter and without Dirk ever looking much like Dirk (although his 4 Field Goals in the 4th Quarter were welcomed and appreciated). The Thunder pushed and pushed as hard as they could in that 4th, but the Mavs weathered the storm to take a 2-1 series lead.
A few other thoughts and observations:
* I refuse to believe that Nick Collison has solved the riddle that the NBA has never solved. How do you stop Dirk Nowitzki from scoring? He is unguardable, right? Then why is Collison giving Dirk so many fits? Is it the manner in which the match-up is officiated? Does Dirk look a bit fatigued? I am not sure. But, make no mistake, Dirk did not look himself in Game 3. And I suppose he is certainly allowed a night like that given what he has been doing. But, I don't like to see him leaking out to the 3-point line. It is possible much of his position is determined by Rick Carlisle's strategy in the huddle on how to counter Scotty Brooks' defending ideas, but I still don't care for it. I need Dirk in the high post or on that mid-post near the baseline, trying to replicate his efforts in Game 1. But, to win a game like that shows that this team is as good as many hoped. What a test to survive without Nowitzki dragging you along.
* Speaking of Brooks, what a job that guy has. Half of his timeouts seem to be spent boosting morale and assuring the guys on the team that they are good enough, strong enough, and doggone it, people like you. I know the Thunder are young, but they certainly are a confidence based team. When the shots are falling, they are jumping and screaming and as energetic as can be. But, when they are finding hoops are hard to come by, the shoulders droop and morale plummets. This is why the veteran Mavericks have an advantage. Composure is such a key element in the playoffs, and if you can drag a young team into the deep waters of a poor shooting, ugly, defensive struggle, then they might become their own worst enemy. And I think for large swaths of that Game 3, this was the case.
* I don't want to ignore the Thunder rally at all. There is a very clear feeling of uncertainty and uneasiness that is all throughout the Mavericks and their public when they have a big lead that is beginning to fade. Whether it is the memory of the Portland Game 4 that causes this or the maybe it is that game's scar that keeps the team from a total collapse again is anyone's guess. But, early in the 4th Quarter there was certainly a segment of the game that was the old familiar script of the Mavericks conceding easy shots and free throws on defense but settling for 3-point heaves with the shot clock expiring on offense. They did snap out of it with some clutch shots from Dirk and Jet late - just in the nick of time - but everything they were able to get in the final minutes was scrapped for and earned. And surviving desperate rallies in those situations make everyone tense and unsettled, but for the team, it is important to encounter those situations and emerge with a victory.
* Subplots are everywhere now. Where does this series go from here? What planet does DeShawn Stevenson call home? What Spanish football club is signing James Harden after his amazing dive and sell job on that Tyson Chandler elbow? Was that Brendan Haywood contributing? Did Dirk start or finish that scuffle with Westbrook? And further, is Westbrook aiding or sabotaging the Thunder's efforts? We are now officially in the best part of any spring series - where we have developed story-lines all over the two rosters and their is some general disdain between the two squads. Neither team wants to blow this rare opportunity and composure is being tested everywhere you look. As a fan, there is very little that compares to the drama, adrenaline, and excitement of a best-of-7 playoff series. What great stuff.
And for the Mavericks, I again reference what might be their slogan this year: "This year is Different". It may or may not be, as I weigh everything about the Mavericks in the "Dirk Era" against the Lucy and Charlie Brown football narrative. But, very few Dallas teams (if any) were capable of that Game 3 win with Dirk and Terry (3-12) looking so out of sorts.
They were determined. They defended. And they defeated. And with that result, they have insured themselves a successful road trip to Oklahoma by seizing home court advantage back. Now, as we look to Monday, we wonder if they might stomp out the entire youthful rebellion in Game 4 or see this series evened again with a promise of 7 full games.