Hanging out in the shadows cast by the debuts of Dwight Howard, Steve Nash, the Princeton Offense and the return of Kobe Bryant was the Dallas Mavericks, a team everyone assumed would play the role of wrestling jobber — hang around for a few minutes, show off a few moves, and then take that fall late in the match. No Dirk Nowitzki, no Chris Kaman and no star should have meant no chance, but the beautiful thing about opening night is that all is equal, even when it isn’t.
The lasting image of the night wasn’t a Howard dunk or a Nash lob, but rather second round draft pick Jae Crowder, all 6-foot-6 of him, shoving a forearm into the back of 7-foot Pau Gasol, battling a fight on the block that he shouldn’t have had a chance in. That was the story all game long, as the Mavericks pulled off the upset, 99-91.
You see, there are just some things most NBA teams cede to their opponent. Usually a point guard can come up the floor with very little pressure — maybe they get turned once, or have to go through their legs, but the pressure is token at best.
And when a 7-footer has a chance at an easy dunk? Usually undersized forwards don’t hack at their arms like they’re chopping down a tree. You give up the two points and live to fight another day.
These are like the little unwritten rules of NBA basketball. Most teams observe them.
The Dallas Mavericks do not.
The Lakers should have known they had a fight on their hands the second Darren Collison began to implement a one-man full court press, making Steve Nash work just to get the ball across half court. When Pau Gasol lobbed three straight passes to Dwight Howard over the top of the defense — only for a swarm of Mavs to come-a-hackin’ — that should have been an indicator of the night that was in store for the Lakers. Nothing easy, everything earned.
It actually ended up being the Lakers who made it too easy for the Mavs. There’s a reason post play in the NBA has fallen off drastically — it’s not as effective against today’s quicker defenses. The Princeton Offense, in it’s most optimal state, is supposed to present the Lakers with multiple options. It’s not a set of rigid plays — it’s a way to enable players to read and react. Problem was, the Lakers didn’t read and react — they had already predetermined what what they wanted to do based on their opponent’s size.
The Lakers saw the height of the Dallas big men, and went there repeatedly. Nevermind that Elton Brand is one of the best post defenders in the league — the Lakers just kept marching straight forward with chaos surrounding them from all sides, seemingly impervious to the fact that Dallas was happy to engage in this type of battle. This was the Mavs utilizing Guerrilla Warfare at its best, and Darren Collison (17 points, 4 assists, 2 rebounds) running his team and controlling the tempo much better than Nash did.
Of course, there are a few reasons Lakers fans shouldn’t panic. The whole “first game together in a new system” thing is one, but even more importantly, the Lakers still hovered around 50 percent shooting from the field all night. Point the finger at the free throw shooting before anything else, as the team went 12-for-31 (38%) from the charity stripe. Yes, Howard is dreadful from the line, but that probably won’t happen again.
It’s also hard not to imagine a player as smart as Nash figuring out the balance between getting others involved and running his game in the pick-and-roll. The Lakers could benefit from a more varied attack offensively than they displayed tonight, but the inability to get back on defense is the more pressing issue. Steve Nash can only serve as a speed bump stopping the break, and the Lakers defense suddenly loses a lot of wallop when Dwight Howard is on the wrong side of halfcourt.
Was it a rocky start for the Lakers? Yes, but let’s wait and see how the Lakers look when they get to play their own game — just as soon as they find it.