Monday, May 09, 2011
For the first time in the Phil Jackson era, his team was the victim of a 4-game sweep. 65 playoff series in that decorated and amazing career, and nobody had put this team to sleep in 4 games. And yet, the Mavericks, a team that was unanimously mocked and discredited at this time of year from pretty much all precincts is the team that did something that Phil had never dealt with before.
And in the irony of all ironies, it was the source of the disappointments that turned into the weapon of execution during this weekend in Dallas where the Mavericks' took down the 2-time defending champions in a series where the result was unexpected, but not as much as the swiftness of said result.
Alas, the 3-point bomb did all of the major damage.
To Mavericks fans, this is enough to make them laugh uncontrollably more than cheer - as Peja Stojakovic and Jason Terry take turns from behind the stripe and barely even make the net move as the scoreboard keeps counting upwards.
You see, the 3-point shot is what started this story. It was what made the Nelson duo (Don and Donnie) fall in love with the 18-year old from Germany back in 1998. This 7-footer was a giant who had 3-point range. As they stacked their draft board, that was more impressive to them than a typical college basketball superstar like Paul Pierce.
The 3-point line was what explained the fascination of Wang Zhizhi and Raef Lafrentz. The 3-point line put the Mavericks in place for many 50-win seasons. It was a glorious recipe for regular season success.
And yet, year after year, the 3-point line also represented something of a negative connotation to so many Mavericks' fans. It represented the idea that in the playoffs, when the opponent would get physical, the Mavericks would rely too much on this long-distance shot. No matter how many great shooters you could assemble, there would come a time in the spring where trading 23-footers for 2 and 3 footers from your opponent would ultimately be the cause of death of another post season run.
And too often, this run would end in the 1st Round. And before long, the 3-point line, and all of its devastation, would actually be held against the Mavericks as a method that is not suitable for post-season success. I have always believed that the triple is a wonderful flavor of frosting, but if you try to make it your cake, your season will end in tears.
So, you can see the irony, I assume, when the final death-blow to the Los Angeles Lakers was a 3-point exhibition that equals or surpasses any performance in the history of the game. The Mavericks have proven that they are no longer a passive team that shies from contact to the more gentle area of the court by necessity. Rather, they now have a more proper combination on their team of physical inside presence, smothering defense, and still deadly perimeter shooting. It is not their cake, but there are days like Sunday where they make the 3-point shot look like the most deadly weapon in the game.
It is almost impossible to describe the onslaught of Sunday to those who did not see it. To fans of video games, the explanation that somebody entered a "cheat code" before the game seems likely. The Mavericks simply could not miss.
The Lakers hit 5 3-point shots in the game on Sunday. The Mavericks hit 4 in the 1st Quarter, 7 more in the 2nd Quarter, 4 more in the 3rd Quarter, and ended it with 5 more triples in the 4th. That, of course, was a 4th Quarter that held absolutely no bearing on the outcome of the game, because the lead was 86-62 when it started.
20 3-pointers. Peja was 6 for 6. Jason Terry was 9 of 10. Five other Mavericks hit a triple, too - including Brian Cardinal.
Those of us who have complained for years that too many 3-pointers usually lead to an untimely demise of Dallas had to shake our heads in wild wonder. It was surely a performance that could not be duplicated - but as it was happening, it was clear that this was one of those days where everything you thought you knew was clearly wrong.
For lack of a better explanation, the game seemed like a symbolic statement for those who follow and those who dismiss this franchise. The statement appeared to be something of the following; everything you knew about Mavs basketball before 2011 is irrelevant. Despite the attempts of so many in the media (and yes, my write-up after Game 4 of the Portland series is a great example) and in the grandstands to suggest that 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2010 have haunting ties to every move the Mavericks' organization makes - this team doesn't care what we think.
This team appears to consider the 2011 composition of their roster to be a committed, determined, and most importantly, different team than those that have come before it. Regardless of the great accomplishments and disappointments that other teams led by Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Terry, Donnie Nelson, and Mark Cuban may have been part of, after watching this Los Angeles series I am starting to suspect that those history lessons may not be applicable to what we are seeing in May of 2011.
This team is not using the 3-pointer as a crutch. This team is using the 3-pointer as a dagger.
The way they run their offense against a notable defensive stalwart like the Lakers was a clinic that basketball coaches and teachers will study for years. The Lakers were so frustrated that they first became disheartened, then turned on each-other, and then, some of them decided to dismiss themselves from the proceedings by getting ejected. It is true - the Lakers, who rightfully boast 16 rings, were swept out of a series at the hands of a back-up Point Guard from Puerto Rico, an oft-injured big man from the Bobcats, a "washed up" 3-point marksman who the Raptors released because he could not get healthy, and of course, Dirk, Jet, and the old gang. And the frustration and stress that the Mavericks placed on the mighty Lakers all can be traced back to the 3-point line.
It is quite a beautiful thing to watch when it works. Like the 3-run home run and the 70-yard bomb, I certainly do not recommend you try to win that way very often, but when everything is clicking, there is simply nothing the opponent can do but pray. If they close out the 3-point line, then JJ Barea, Jason Terry, and Jason Kidd drive by them to either go all the way to the rim or to find another player who has been exposed from a panicking defensive rotation. And if they don't close out the 3-point shooters, well you saw what happened then.
And while we are at it, we would be foolish to not consider Game 3 in this same conversation. That night, the Mavericks were not hitting their shots. The Lakers were doing a great job of keep the lane clogged and challenging perimeter looks. All looked lost with 5 minutes to play, but then, without warning, the Mavericks nailed several huge 3-pointers to bring the roof down and grab a victory from the jaws of defeat.
The fact is this - the reasons that so many picked the Lakers in this series were both historical and strategic. The Lakers have earned every benefit of the doubt in the post-season and the Mavericks have not earned much of anything in that regard (until now). But from a simple X's and O's standpoint, the ability for the Lakers to control the paint seemed like a recipe for too much reliance on shots from great distance. Unless you are going to make so many of them. Then all bets are off.
The new and improved 2011 Mavericks have done a fabulous job of running from the position of being doubted. They were not a strong pick against Portland for most and very few outside of Dallas were daring to think the Mavericks could deal with Los Angeles (Charles Barkley is a notable exception). But, something crazy happened in that 48 hours between the Brandon Roy 4th Quarter of Game 4 in Portland and Game 5 back in Dallas. I expected the same old Mavericks to crumble from the immense pressure and history and emotional baggage that they carried with them. I never imagined it would send them on a 6-game (and counting) win streak that would capture the imagination of anyone who ever believed that maybe this Dirk story could have a moment with him holding a trophy.
Any talk of a trophy is still 8 wins away. That is right, the Mavericks have won 50% of the games necessary to capture the ever-elusive NBA crown. And, they are now officially on everyone's radar. Regardless of who they play in the next round, many of the old critics will now forecast Dallas as the "team du jour".
But, now that we know that everything we thought we knew about the Dallas Mavericks is wrong, who amongst us is ready to doubt them? After Matt Barnes promised us that they were the same old Mavericks and that he had "given the NBA the blueprint" to punk the Mavs and dismiss them, we saw how well that worked.
The recipe is complicated and it arrived with unpredictable timing: 3-point shooting and defense. A driving point guard and a 2-headed center combination that can elevate and foul hard. A superstar that has a look in his eye that he now fully understands his powers. A cold-blooded sixth man who wants to take the shot to cut the throat. A coach that can fly under the radar at times and still coach the pants off the greatest coach of our generation. A number of role players who can win a game with their contributions.
I will not lie. I did not see this coming. But if you ever follow a team this closely for this many years, you cannot help but feel great for those guys who have had to hear people doubt them for years at a time. They still have plenty of work to do and will not receive ultimate vindication from all points unless they can keep going for another month, but what we just saw is worth savoring for a day or two for anyone who has invested in Mavericks' basketball. It proved that this edition of this franchise is capable of "doing it".
They exorcised some serious demons in one symbolic afternoon of basketball. They sent a dynasty home and ended the coaching career of a legend.
But, that isn't what they play for. They know that they have finally found the proper combination, it seems, and while some franchises have 16 titles, this group would give anything for 1.
Rest up. You deserve it. There are many battles yet to fight.