Author: Rob Mahoney

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In Dirk Nowitzki’s moment


Dirk Nowitzki will never hear the end of the question. In the ensuing days, weeks, months, and even years, he’ll be posed the same inquiry over and over, so many times that his answer will grow repetitive but never robotic. The very thought will always invoke the same emotion he felt on this night, this perfect June evening in Miami, when the work and the effort and the torment and the perseverance all manifested itself into something undeniably beautiful.

“Dirk, what does it feel like to finally win an NBA title?

Innumerable media members, friends, family members, former teammates, and strangers alike will pose that question to Nowitzki. Just as many columnists will discuss what this day means for Dirk’s legacy, and to Nowitzki as both a player and concept. But nothing will ever properly capture Nowitzki’s night. Those columns will ring with empty assumptions, even from those who know Dirk best. The water cooler discussions will touch on Nowitzki’s strife without fully understanding its depth or impact. Even Nowitzki’s quotes will come up short, as the one-time league MVP and now-time Finals MVP will undoubtedly struggle to put this moment into words. It’s no slight against Nowitzki, who is as well-spoken and charismatic as professional ballplayers come; these events, placed atop a mountain by context and history, just aren’t accessible within the simplicities of language.

Nothing, save for those sensory images that have been immortalized in Nowitzki’s mind, will ever do this perfect June evening in Miami justice. But we’ll keep asking. We’ll keep asking because we’ll all try desperately to get there — to that place where one of the NBA’s most tortured stars was finally able to find his serenity. We’ll keep asking Nowitzki, over, and over, and over, in the hopes that one day his slight smile will bring us just a bit closer to what he felt the night he reached the pinnacle.

These are the stories that we, as human beings, want to reach out and touch. So few realms offer the dramatic flair of professional sport, and great though our own lives may be, there’s a reason why we tune in to see Nowitzki and his Dallas Mavericks pull off an improbable run to the NBA title: the emotion of these stolen moments is absolutely intoxicating. It provides a vicarious high unlike most anything else on this planet, even if we are only offered the smallest glimpse into the life, mind, and heart of a jubilant victor. We know in our heart of hearts that there’s no all-access pass into Nowitzki’s experiences, regardless of how many times he answers the same question. But even knowing that fact shouldn’t stop anyone from asking, nor will it. Nowitzki’s journey has been so exceptionally riveting that, frankly, we’d be crazy not to crave its finale. We all want to dig our hands deep into that catharsis and let Nowitzki’s elation wash over us, so much so that even the harsh limitations of reality won’t prevent us from trying.

Once the celebration on the floor had concluded, an endless mass of media members stood in line outside of the Mavericks’ locker room. Some held cameras and others clutched recorders, but even these sacred record-keepers stood waiting for more than transcription fodder. They wanted to cross the threshold into a space that unquestionably belonged to Nowitzki and his teammates; the temporary home of NBA champions. They wanted to see a star with tears in his eyes, to hear the unbridled celebrations of a team victorious, to smell an entire world doused in champagne.

This is why we watch. It’s why we love this game and its players. It’s why we invite basketball into our homes and our families, and invest our hard-earned dollars in a league that will break a player like Nowitzki down for over a decade, only to finally offer him that which he has for so long deserved. The NBA theater is certainly grand, but the draw isn’t to watch absurdity unfold from an auditorium seat. We ache for the ability to understand — to comprehend the magnitude of this perfect June evening in Miami, and what it meant to the distant but familiar protagonist of a career-long narrative.

We’ll gather up the champagne bottles, parse through archives filled with photos, and pose to Dirk the same question that he’s already been asked oh so many times. Yet there is an inescapable truth laced throughout those fragments, beckoning us to savor that which we’ve collected while never being satiated:

The only thing that we truly want is more.

NBA Finals: Dallas tops Miami in Game 5 with an outlier, but what of it?

Miami Heat v Dallas Mavericks - Game Five

The Dallas Mavericks took a 3-2 series lead on Thursday night with a 112-103 win, but their tremendous offense — the propulsive force that allowed them to pull within a single victory of taking the NBA title — was immediately tagged as an outlier, and saddled with all of the negative stigma that statistical improbabilities tend to attract. Dallas won the game, but only because they hit “tough” (NBA speak for low-percentage) shots. Only because the Mavericks converted that which should not have been converted. Only because they defied who they are, and managed to jump outside the curve for a swim in the unsustainable.

There’s no escaping the basis of that very idea; Dallas’ hot shooting was indeed an outlier. Single games are, after all, a playground for the aberrations of small sample size. The Mavericks made 68.4 percent of their three-point attempts and posted a 65.9 effective field goal percentage, numbers far above the expected values for any team in the entire league. Yet there still seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of the mean — the statistical average to which we expect all teams to regress — in basketball. The Mavericks’ mean shooting averages aren’t the most common outcomes for their performance, but simply their most central. They won’t hit those marks in every game, and may not hit them in any game at all. Averages give only the illusion of stability, and though much of basketball is dependent on skill, effort, and execution, we perhaps underestimate the role of randomness (and by extension, variance) in deciding makes and misses, wins and losses.

“You get hot, you get on a roll, and you can have a night like that,” Rick Carlisle said. “They don’t happen very often. Last time we had a shooting night like this was Game 4 against the Lakers. That’s why you just keep working your game, and that’s why you stay persistent, you keep defending, you keep systemically stepping into shots that are there and you’re going to have some breakthrough games.”

Teams that consistently and effectively work for open shots within their offense will always have the upper hand, but all players and teams are subject to the will of the odds. They’ll have hot shooting games and cold ones, and these occurrences are so common and prominent in sports culture that we’ve developed a corresponding vocabulary. Maybe Jason Terry was “in the zone.” Maybe J.J. Barea was “on fire.” Both seem possible or even likely, but the idea is hardly outrageous, especially considering how poorly both have shot in these NBA Finals.

The Mavericks’ amazing shooting in Game 5 merely moved the needle in a positive direction, away from Dallas’ off-setting 4-of-19 (.211) shooting from outside in Game 4. Lost in the declarations of the Mavs’ overachievement was the fact that prior to Game 5, Dallas’ effective field goal percentage in the Finals was actually down significantly from their overall playoff average. Plenty of that has to do with Miami’s impressive defense, but this kind of performance was overdue in bringing Dallas closer to reasonable expectation. The Mavs didn’t really surge forward with their shooting in Game 5, but were merely getting back on track.

“This was our highest scoring game of the series,” Shawn Marion said. “We were bound to get one easy [offensive] game sooner or later. It was just a matter of when it was gonna happen. We should be due for another.”

Maybe the Mavs are. Regardless, did we not expect a degree of oscillation? Was there really an honest expectation that Dallas would be right in line with their shooting averages every single night, without room for error in either direction? Outliers are inescapable. They help to define mean levels of performance, even as they inherently rebuke them. They show the level of success or failure that a team is capable of, if only in extreme circumstances. Yet when we reduce the sample to a single game, those extreme circumstances are more likely to occur than ever. There is no mitigating volume; this is a singular performance by a particular team in a particular game, and yet many act bewildered at the sight of anything out of the ordinary.

Underneath the incredible magnitude of this contest was just a team shooting over its head for the better part of 48 minutes. In a series this competitive, that alone is enough to tilt things in the Mavs’ favor, but it doesn’t make this outlier different from any other. This particular occurrence is granted import through context, but the numbers themselves are the same as they’ve always been: up and down in an endless and inexact flow between two extremes.

NBA Finals: Mavs win Game 4, but all eyes are on LeBron


The Miami Heat lost Game 4, 83-86, in part because of LeBron James. That’s okay. Players are allowed to have off nights. They’re allowed to struggle. They’re allowed to be passive once in awhile, and frankly, it’s human nature to ease off the gas from time to time. But in doing so, they strengthen the possibility of their team losing, and open themselves up to a very specific criticism. Having a bad game isn’t some great evil to be met with moralistic damnation, but it is worthy of an accurate appraisal, and the reasonable exploratory questions that will inevitably follow.

So, I’ll bite. I’ll ask the question we’ve all asked ourselves, with an acknowledgment upfront that neither I nor any other basketball scribe hold all the answers: What the hell happened to LeBron James?

It makes little sense to discuss LeBron’s struggles without making note of the incredible defense played by the Dallas Mavericks. They didn’t pit Shawn Marion or Jason Kidd or DeShawn Stevenson against James and leave that poor, solo defender to their own devices; every Maverick on the floor was tuned to James’ frequency. They had his pick-and-rolls swarmed. They had his jump passes covered. They had five defenders functioning in harmony in an attempt to limit the best player in the NBA, and they succeeded. The pressure is still on James to find his way out from under the constant zone coverage geared to thwart him (and he’ll have to do better than the brand of idle facilitation he tried to fly with in Game 4) but Dallas did a hell of a job in executing their game plan.

That said, most dimensions of James’ struggles were of his own doing. It’s difficult to mount a defense of a star player who refuses to go to his strengths, even as he faces a talented defense geared to stop him. After all, accessing those strengths regardless of circumstance is James’ job. He’s paid and revered for his ability to do what no one else can, and when that ability fails him, his very identity as a player comes under fire by whisper. Playing poorly for a single game doesn’t make LeBron James anything less than he was a day ago, but it introduces the idea — however fleeting and faint —  that the greatest basketball player on the planet can be contained. It’s a hushed message that will neither be confirmed nor denied on this night or even in these NBA Finals, but one that observers of the game everywhere must grapple with.

There’s no problem with James initiating the offense or playing the roll of a creator for others, but his Game 4 struggles didn’t stem from merely assuming point guard duties in the face of an aggressive defense. James didn’t pass; he passed poorly. He turned the ball over four times to hedge the impact of his seven assists, and committed a handful of near-turnovers that didn’t quite blemish his stat line but nonetheless halted the Heat offense.

James may be the closest thing this game has to perfection, but even he has his limits, his moments of hesitancy, his in-game vices. In a way, Game 4 didn’t tell us anything about James that we didn’t already know; James is a man of immortal talent guided by mortal sensibilities. That isn’t an indictment so much as a reality, and it’s no more true of James than it was of Jordan, Bird, Magic, or Wilt. The game’s greats are safe in their critique-proof pantheon, but those players had poor games, too. Accounts of those games don’t often show up in mythologized magazine sidebars or rosy retrospectives, but they’re there — the nights of maddening turnovers, a quick trigger, disinterested defense, or just horrible matchups — buried beneath lore upon lore.

James struggled to even get into the flow of the game, much less produce within it. But he’ll be back. He’ll be back, and we’ll all feel rather silly for wondering where he’d gone off to, as if a failure to engage in fully actualized basketball had somehow shifted James into another dimension. LeBron didn’t disappear. He didn’t cower. He didn’t back down from a challenge, or engage in any other sin of purely rhetorical relevance. He had a bad game at a horrible time, and we’re right to wonder why. We’re right to try to understand, just as I’m sure LeBron himself will try his damnedest to wrap his head around the events of the last few hours. It’s all very confusing, and jarring, and odd. But it’s nothing new. Individual failure is inherent to the game, and as much as we’d like to pretend that LeBron’s Game 4 shortcomings were further evidence of some inescapable character flaw unique to him and other miscreants alone, the product of James’ sin wasn’t so different from that which occasionally tarnished all of those who came before him and all who will come after him.

Basketball — even on the NBA’s biggest stage and for its biggest star — can be a struggle.

NBA Finals: Miami endures, wins Game 3 to take a 2-1 series lead over Dallas

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Game 3 of the 2011 NBA Finals was a 48-minute spectacular. It was a heartbreaker and a series changer. It was valiant, defeating, and entertaining, and it was decided by an incredibly slim margin. With a single bucket — a Chris Bosh baseline jumper, to be exact — Miami topped Dallas, 88-86, in a riveting game between well-matched foes that no self-respecting basketball fan could soon forget.

Yet as we try to explain the game’s final, uncompromising two-point differential, attention will naturally be drawn to items of similarly minimal magnitude. One could — and surely will — argue that the difference in the game was a foul call, an errant game-winner, or a single costly turnover. The truth is none of the above, or really, all of the above and more. The Heat won Game 3 because of a flurry of convoluted, interrelated factors that go far beyond the scope of a single play, and extend outward from player rotations into just about every aspect of team play.

“This series is turning out to be an absolute series of endurance, mental and physical,” Erik Spoelstra said. “We didn’t expect anything less than the competitive physicality of this game tonight. Our guys really competed. At times it was a little uneven, but we found ways to make plays on both ends of the court, to grind this game out in a very enduring win.”

That Spoelstra placed so much emphasis on endurance is fascinating, and fitting. Play-specific strength isn’t important; without longevity and consistency, the Heat would have been in no place to win this game, and the Mavericks would have been in no place to compete in it. Dwyane Wade’s fantastic performance didn’t come in a quick burst, but started with a pair of amazing finishes and ended with a well-executed 2-3 pick-and-roll with LeBron James some 46 minutes later. Wade may not have been brilliant for every second he was on the court in between, but his continued impact was undeniable, and to reduce his performance to anything less than the fantastic sum that it was — for the sake of creating a small, manageable talking point, no less — would be a damn shame.

The same is true of the entirety of the performances of both teams. It wasn’t just Chris Bosh’s ability to hit the game’s final made shot that put the Mavs away, but Spoelstra’s willingness to run James and Wade in a pick-and-roll, their ability to execute it, Udonis Haslem’s fantastic screen to free Bosh for the jumper, and the incredible medley of factors that led to that point. The Mavs defended that 2-3 pick-and-roll in a particular way for a particular reason based on the complexion of the game and all that had happened up to that point, and to isolate that particular sequence as a sole determinant for the game’s verdict is disingenuous considering the context that created it.

You have to look at it all and weigh it all when coming to terms with why Miami won this game, and took a 2-1 series lead.

Weigh Dallas’ turnover problems, and the defense that caused them. Jason Kidd began his evening with some big shots, but also a few careless passes; Kidd had two giveaways by the end of the first quarter (in a low-possession game, mind you) and finished with four. J.J. Barea matched Kidd’s four turnovers, and Dirk Nowitzki contributed three of his own. As a result, Dallas had a pretty horrible turnover rate for much of the game, and their poor (but less horrible) final turnover rate of 16.9 is only such because of a stretch of careful play.

Weigh the free throw disparity in what can only be considered an oddly officiated game. Loose ball fouls galore helped to send the Mavs to the free throw line 27 times, while the Heat attempted just 15 free throws. Dallas needed the respite of the free throw line; Miami’s half-court defense was downright oppressive, and to be able to score without expecting a rotation was invaluable for the Mavs.

Weigh Dwyane Wade. He was that good, and Dallas had no counter for his post-ups, his isolations, or even his three-pointers.

Weigh the absence of Brendan Haywood. Ian Mahinmi played eight minutes as the Mavs’ back-up center, and acquired five fouls in the process. His single-game plus-minus was a -6, in part due to Mahinmi handing out free throws and generally looking lost on defense. It’s no real fault of Mahinmi’s; he tried (sometimes to his detriment, or as Rick Carlisle said: “I thought Mahinmi’s energy was good. At times, [he was] maybe a little too energetic, but that was expected.”), but he’s just not the caliber of defender, rebounder, or finisher that Haywood is. The Mavs missed the luxury of having a reliable center behind Chandler, and while the effects of Haywood’s absence are most conveniently measured in what Mahinmi did or didn’t do, we also can’t neglect the impact of fatigue and foul aversion on the play of Tyson Chandler.

Weigh Chalmers’ work as a spot-up shooter, and the indirect influence that his mere presence had on the development of plays. Weigh the Mavs’ incredible team defense against LeBron James, anchored by Shawn Marion and Tyson Chandler. Weigh the injury to Chris Bosh’s eye, which may have played a part in him missing a handful of jumpers and scoring opportunities. Weigh Jason Terry’s tendency to fire up quick jumpers under duress, likely in the fear that shots wouldn’t be coming his way all that often against this particular defense. Weigh Joel Anthony containing Nowitzki one-on-one, until Nowitzki again proved that such a thing impossible.

Weigh all of these numerous individual elements and then some, and never lose sight of the fact that huge, interrelated factors and themes decide the outcome of any game — even one decided by a single made basket. Bosh’s jumper wasn’t the difference, even if it did provide the ticks on the scoreboard that brought Miami to a “good enough” 88 points. It was all of it. All of this, all of Wade and Dirk and LeBron and Ian Mahinmi and all of everything. That might not make for the same compelling narrative as a spotlight on a single play, but such storylines betray the endurance that makes great games great.

NBA Finals: Dallas tops Miami in Game 2 with an incredible fourth quarter comeback

Dallas Mavericks v Miami Heat - Game Two

From where we sit now, it’s so easy to look back at the dissipation of Miami’s 15-point fourth-quarter lead and point incredulously at what went wrong. The answers for what ails the Heat are always so obvious; their flaws are so glaring and fixable that armchair coaches across the country typically resolve them before Mark Jackson even finishes his outro heading into the commercial break.

Give it to LeBron. Give it to Wade. Run the pick-and-roll. Pass it to the open man. The answers are always right there in front of James, Wade, Erik Spoelstra, and the whole damn basketball-loving world, treated in retrospect as if an unbelievable Maverick comeback were some kind of inevitability. Treated as if all along, this one had been destined to end in a 95-93 Dallas victory.

As good as the Mavs have been while playing from behind in these playoffs, a 15-point lead is still a 15-point lead. The Mavs had plenty of time to erase each of those 15 points, but the idea that such an incredible run should be expected is flat-out delusional. There was no question that Dallas was going to execute to the best of their collective ability, but considering how disruptive the Heat defense had been throughout Game 2, this was a wholly unpredictable result.

“We’re up 15,” LeBron James said. “If they go on a 12-0 run for the rest of the game, if we don’t score another basket, we still win by three. Defensively we just have to be more in tune and not allow a great team — a great offensive team — to get as many great looks as they did down the stretch.”

But-but-but —

Why didn’t the Heat double Dirk Nowitzki on the game-winning possession, as they had for much of the game?

“At that time, they had carved us up enough on that,” Erick Spoelstra said. “We left open some shooters, and they made us pay. We tried to do it with our normal defense. He made a heck of a drive. We cut him off one time, he spun, our help defense came, and he made a high-arcing lay-up — I believe with his left hand.”

Spoelstra’s decision makes sense, given the circumstances. Jason Kidd had just drained a three thanks to the opening granted him by a double on Nowitzki. Jason Terry had nailed a wide open baseline jumper just minutes prior because of another pass out of a double by Dirk. The Mavs had come back because the pressure on Nowitzki was perhaps too strong, too overt.

But why not use that oft ballyhooed ‘foul to give,’ that would undoubtedly have saved the game?

“It’s easy to say it right now,” Spoelstra said. “You know, we’re aware of it.”

“We talked about it. We’ve been in that situation before. We didn’t use the foul. Obviously, it looks like right now you could second-guess that, but we didn’t take it.”

With Nowitzki’s awareness, Spoelstra’s position is entirely defensible. Even if the Heat had attempted to take their foul to give, it’s possible that Dirk could have risen up above off-balance coverage to sink a jumper, or somehow turned a foul on the floor into a two-shot affair. Nowitzki shooting free throws would have been a miserable outcome of that defensive possession, even considering the look that the Heat eventually surrendered.

Basketball fans everywhere will have to be content with the fact that the Heat played well in Game 2, but simply not well enough. The defense was strong for so long, Dwyane Wade played some truly phenomenal basketball, and the Heat point guards even showed up in a big way — Mike Bibby connected on 4-of-7 three-point attempts, and Mario Chalmers hit a game-tying three in the final minute that very nearly sent the game to overtime. Then the Heat broke down, or imploded, or whatever term of self-destruction you prefer, but didn’t do so in any way that could be construed as simple or logically absurd. The only simplicity in Miami’s loss was the fact that guarding a fully functional offense is damn difficult, and that scoring on a Maverick team locked in and ready to attack the pick-and-roll is a serious challenge.

Maybe no elements of this game of this will carry over into the next, or maybe what transpired over the final seven minutes of this amazing comeback will generate an entirely different dynamic for the series going forward. All we know is that we don’t know, but once these Finals are said and done, fans across the country will argue that they always knew the Mavs’ Game 2 victory would change everything or nothing, with the wisdom that only hindsight provides.