Author: Rob Mahoney

Dallas Mavericks v Miami Heat - Game One

NBA Finals: Miami balances star power with rebounding grit in Game 1 win


All that it’s taken for the Miami Heat to win games in this year’s playoffs is the ability to maintain reasonable margins. They go on runs, they shut down their opponents’ offensive options, and they stretch their legs with displays of supreme athleticism, but the body of the single-game narrative — the initial 43 or 44 minutes, as it were — is merely a precursor for the ludicrous feats of strength to come. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, and co. aren’t merely closers, but the wielders of an unthinkable power; they keep games reasonable so that when the game dwindles to a close, their fundamentally unreasonable level of talent and ability can win most any game outright.

The Dallas Mavericks witnessed Miami’s explosive closing power firsthand in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, which was competitive until James and Wade said otherwise. The Heat sealed the game with insane shot-making and excellent chemistry, as the possibility of a Maverick comeback faded suddenly and violently despite the best, futile efforts of Dirk Nowitzki. Neither team played well enough offensively to dominate the initial game of the championship round, but Miami’s brutally effective late-game execution put a winnable game just out of reach for a Dallas team accustomed to late game heroics of their own. The result was a 92-84 Heat win and a 1-0 series lead.

There are elements at work in the game of basketball worth putting under the microscope, but the powers that enable James and Wade to do what they d are hardly worthy of such scientific examination. There are so few answers to be found in the dissection of expert shot-making; the cliché that big players make big plays is only so out of necessity, as the defining moments in sports of all ilks so often escape the bounds of logical analysis. “Sometimes it’s not about the schemes,” Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra said following Game 1. “Sometimes it’s about transcending that with your effort, your athleticism, and your ability.” Wade and James are certainly no strangers to such transcendence, and their collective excellence provided the enduring snapshot of the 2011 NBA Finals’ opening salvo.

Still, if the Heat’s showing in Game 1 could have been distilled down to the performances of Wade and James alone, the Heat would be left looking for answers after a disappointing home loss. Miami was only in a position to win by way of their offensive rebounding (Miami collected an offensive board on roughly 35 percent of their misses) and scrambling defense (Dallas shot just 37.3 percent from the field overall), two aspects of the Heat’s performance that often go unnoticed thanks to the glare surrounding the team’s brightest stars.

“I think rebounding killed us tonight,” Shawn Marion said. “For the most part, we think we had chances to get a hold of this game and we let it get out of our hands.”

However, Marion’s diagnosis isn’t as simple as pointing a finger at the Maverick big men. Tyson Chandler may have had just four rebounds and Dirk Nowitzki a decent but insufficient eight, but the Mavs’ approach requires a better team-wide effort in attacking the glass. James, Wade, Mike Miller, Chris Bosh (who was especially effective on the glass, and grabbed a game-high five offensive boards), and Udonis Haslem are all strong positional rebounders, which makes the battle on the glass far more complicated than simply how well Chandler boxes out Bosh and Nowitzki boxes out Joel Anthony.

Plus, the defensive scheme that the Mavs are forced to rely on due to the slashing brilliance of James and Wade creates a position of inherent rebounding disadvantage, regardless of whether Dallas is working man-to-man or in their vaunted zone.

“Our bigs have to be active, containing their great players on the perimeter,” Mavs head coach Rick Carlisle said. “So it draws them away from the basket some…Look, a lot of the game is a scramble. We have to keep five guys in there. We can’t have that kind of deficit [on the glass]. You leave too much to chance.”

That was precisely the problem for the Mavs in Game 1. Dallas may execute their offense better than any team in the entire league, but they are still victim to chance; to the probabilities of a ball falling through a metal rim. Even with the near-robotic muscle memory of a talented shooter — like Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Terry, or Peja Stojakovic, for example — and the patient ball movement of a well-run offense, nothing is guaranteed. Shots will still be missed, and in the Mavs’ case in Game 1, plenty of makeable shots were. Dallas shot just 38.7 percent on shots within nine feet of the basket, and while Miami’s defense certainly played a role in challenging many of those attempts, not every floater, layup, or short jumper was contested enough to expect a miss. The Mavs just didn’t convert on a lot of the attempts they usually make (or draw fouls on), and the fact that a lot of those errant attempts came from an area of the floor that usually yields highly efficient looks only made matters worse.

The Mavs know where they need to improve. They know that the rebounding deficit needs to be slashed, and that their shooting percentages need to shoot upward. Yet while some of that is imminently fixable (if nothing else, we should expect the Dallas offense to return to its sweet-shooting form as Carlisle devises even more ways to create open looks for his team), the connection between the defensive coverage and rebounding troubles presents a legitimate quandary. Contesting the penetration of James and Wade is a full-time job in itself for any defense, but committing too heavily to that prevention puts bigs like Chandler out of position to compete on the glass. The Heat have an ideal combination of defense-drawing talent and hard-working rebounders, and though the riddle that such a combination produces isn’t necessarily unsolvable, it should give Carlisle and his staff plenty to think about between now and Thursday.

NBA Playoffs: Mavs win with offensive potency despite the absences of Butler and Beaubois

Oklahoma City Thunder v Dallas Mavericks - Game Five
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As the Dallas Mavericks are doused with the effusive praise that comes with being a conference champion, let’s not forget that their incredible accomplishments have come despite their two X-factors watching in suits from the sideline.

It’s odd to discuss a team headed to the NBA finals in terms of substantial setbacks, but there’s simply no other way to address the season-ending injury to Caron Butler and the gradual irrelevance of Rodrigue Beaubois. Both were supposed to be significant players for Dallas this season, and it’s a testament to the team’s depth and the efficacy of those available that the Mavs stand atop the Western Conference.

Butler is by far the more significant loss, as the Mavs knew exactly what he could offer this particular team during this particular season. Dallas’ early success on both ends of the court was because of Butler’s adjustments to better accommodate the team; gone was the ball-stopper of a year ago, and in his place stood an effective perimeter defender willing to move within the offense and play within himself.

The Mavericks were a tremendously successful and dynamic team with Butler in the fold; imagine them as they are now, but with an effective, involved version of DeShawn Stevenson. Butler connected on 43.1 percent of his 3-point attempts and 45 percent of his attempts overall — notably improved marks from his initial half-season of adjustment in Dallas following the 2010 trade deadline. He seemingly found his place within the offense and the team as a whole, and though Butler posted a PER of just 14.2 (relatively average, but low by the standards of his career), his value in terms of defense and shot creation far exceed that number.

As for Beaubois, this season’s Mavs lost out on an unquantifiable potential impact. He was the team’s second-best per-minute scorer a season ago, and an efficient bucket-getting machine. This year was supposed to be an extension of that same theme, a development and growth of Beaubois as a player and a point guard. Yet as much as Beaubois’ future was discussed in terms of what could be (both from a skill and positional standpoint), all of that rhetoric was a thinly veiled assessment of what would be.

Beaubois was deemed untouchable by Mark Cuban because he was seen as a sure thing, and public assessments of his game were equally optimistic. At worst, Beaubois would be a tremendous scorer capable of driving and shooting his way to 20-point nights on the regular. His length and athleticism give him great defensive potential, and his relative inexperience with the game left plenty of growing room for Beaubois’ budding passing and ball-handling abilities.

Beaubois may still hold those same natural predispositions for NBA effectiveness, but this season — one in which he was held out of 54 games because of complications surrounding an offseason foot injury — has understandably tarnished his perceived potential. Something for Beaubois never really clicked this season; his scoring instincts misled him, and he oscillated between periods of extreme passivity and offensive overextension. The scoring that had been at the core of Beaubois’ game deserted him, and while he still scored 17.1 points per 36 minutes, Beaubois’ efficiency plummeted. At moments, he looked like a dime-a-dozen undersized two guard, capable of scoring in bursts but largely inefficient.

Yet despite the losses of the actual and the potential, the Mavs persevered. Shawn Marion stepped into more minutes and an expanded offensive role, the kind which had been denied him by Dallas’ almost superfluous depth. Peja Stojakovic recovered from the mysterious back injuries that had kept him off the court in Toronto, and became a semi-regular contributor. Yet even more importantly, Jason Terry and J.J. Barea rebounded from their slow starts. Barea didn’t top 40 percent shooting during a month of the regular season until January, and his 3-point shooting hit almost comical lows in the mid-teens. ‘JET’ improved his field-goal shooting by 6 percent between January and February, and hasn’t looked back.

Neither player was limited by the system or even the clutter on the depth chart, but simply had failed to tap into the specific strengths of their games during the season’s opening months. Throw in a fully transcendent performance from Dirk Nowitzki, and you have the current, actualized product.

They didn’t need a big trade for a quasi-star wing or any kind of revamp — just consistency. Just an established effort to work through the season with the players available, with the knowledge that guys like Terry and Barea were better than their performance indicated. Rick Carlisle, Donnie Nelson, and Mark Cuban knew that Marion was still a capable offensive player. They knew that Stojakovic could contribute in spots, and while he couldn’t replace Butler, he could at least hedge the loss of his perimeter shooting. And perhaps most importantly, they knew Nowitzki could still act as a sufficient centerpiece without additional help, and Jason Kidd could be trusted to pull everything together on both ends.

This run to the NBA finals required the perfect mix of ingredients and circumstance, but so do all runs to the finals. It’s only because of the persistence of this roster, coaching staff and front office that this group was able to grow, thrive, and take the Western Conference by storm.

NBA Playoffs: Bulls bounce Hawks, will need more from Boozer vs. Heat

Chicago Bulls v Atlanta Hawks - Game Six
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Chicago’s Game 6 dominance was in no way a surprise. Though Atlanta has played effective basketball at various points during this series, games like this one fall in line with the initial assessments of the Bulls’ superiority.

The Hawks exceeded most projections of their playoff performance, but their postseason success didn’t change the fact that the Bulls were, and are still, the better team. Their defense is more reliable. Their offensive execution is more consistent, even if the end product is flawed. They had the best players in this series on both sides of the floor, the better bench, and the superior coach. The Bulls were going to win this series because, ultimately, they’re the Bulls. Call that oversimplified analysis if you will, but being the considerably superior outfit is typically enough to win a playoff series, even if Atlanta figured things out for a game or two and a half.

The Bulls we saw on Thursday night were the fully functioning model, geared to bother the hell out of the opponent’s offense and skilled in doing so. Atlanta posted an effective field-goal percentage of just 37.2 percent, a commendable mark even against an opponent known for their troublesome tendency to settle for contested jump shots. It’s common NBA rhetoric to say that an offense “got whatever looks it wanted,” but in this case, Chicago’s defense consistently forced Atlanta into whatever looks that it wanted. Luol Deng, Ronnie Brewer, Omer Asik, Taj Gibson, and Joakim Noah dictated the outcome of this game with their ball pressure, and the Hawks’ 14.2 turnover rate only stands as further evidence of the Bulls’ ability to cause trouble on D.

Offensively, Chicago had it easy. That tends to be the case when Carlos Boozer is working to find open space and — even more importantly — actually hitting a shot or two. Boozer hasn’t had the most impressive playoff run thus far, but he’s absolutely essential to Chicago’s success going forward. Atlanta and Indiana put up a fight, but neither is even close to Miami in terms of two-way efficacy.

The Heat defense is going to test the Bulls’ offense in ways it hasn’t even seen this postseason, and Boozer will have to keep working and finishing if the Eastern Conference finals are to be anything other than the end of the line for the Bulls. It’s odd that Chicago’s second-best offensive player has become something of an X-factor in these playoffs (an impact player with the potential to come and go, but hardly stable), but that inconsistency has historically been a part of Boozer’s postseason game. Deng, Noah, and the Bulls reserves may be able to compensate for Boozer’s lack of production on his less effective nights, but performances of this ilk are what the Bulls will need almost every night out against the Heat.

Jeff Teague did an incredible job of taking over the point guard responsibilities for the Hawks on a moment’s notice, and in spite of the fact that coach Larry Drew had consistently chosen to keep Teague on the bench over the course of the regular season. His success came on a borrowed opportunity, but Teague’s scoring was brilliant and his playmaking promising. Atlanta doesn’t have much hope for internal improvement, but Teague does provide a lone bit of hope.

I won’t miss these Hawks, and you shouldn’t either. There won’t be some summer night where we collectively long for a Joe Johnson iso or a Josh Smith ill-advised 3-point attempt. This team was confounding and irritating, and it’s never pleasant to see skilled players conquered so often by their own vices.

We should all miss the Hawks of Games 1 and 4 though, that brilliantly talented and athletic club that would show up from time to time. They’re capable of running a prolific offense and a versatile defense, and harness the power of an interesting, dynamic group — from Johnson to Teague to Smith to Horford — in concert rather than as a solo performance from a self-ordained virtuoso.

Either way, we bid farewell to both the good Hawks and bad, and greet what’s sure to be a phenomenal Eastern Conference finals series with open arms.

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NBA Playoffs: Mavs drop the Lakers in four, sweep away a dynasty

Los Angeles Lakers v Dallas Mavericks - Game Four

Somehow, it only took the Dallas Mavericks four games to prove wrong just about every prediction and every presupposition that existed going into their series against the Los Angeles Lakers. The Lakers appeared bound for the Finals to pen a fitting final chapter of Phil Jackson’s coaching career. The Mavericks were supposedly the lesser team, haunted by ghosts of playoff runs past. Andrew Bynum was supposed to rule the paint, and Kobe Bryant the perimeter. There was talk of legacies and pedigrees, and the reigning champs were working toward a seemingly inevitable sprint into June.

The Lakers were the best team in this series on paper, but the Mavs created a disconnect between preconception and reality. There were close games and blowouts, but virtually nothing went according to plan. Bynum was largely contained, despite his precedent of excellence against Tyson Chandler in the post. Bryant had some big scoring nights, but occasionally hindered the flow of the Laker offense and barely attempted anything other than jump shots. The Mavericks were anything but the lesser team, and despite what any player or team’s reputation in this series would have suggested, the Lakers’ run ends here.

The defending champs were swept out of the playoffs in the second round in thoroughly embarrassing fashion, capped by a 122-86 demolition job by the Mavs. It was painful and embarrassing for the Lakers, but grant credit to the aggressors; while the Lakers disgraced themselves with their abysmal effort and lack of composure in Game 4, it was the Mavs’ execution that exposed the Lakers in every game of this series. L.A. was forced to respond repeatedly to Dallas’ ball movement and timely defensive rotations, and clearly wasn’t up to the challenge — a point made clear with each ridiculously open three that the Mavs took in Game 4, and the offensive possessions that grinded to a halt against Dallas’ defensive pressure.

The Dallas bench was incredible, as Jason Terry, Peja Stojakovic, and J.J. Barea powered the reserves to 86 combined points — the same as L.A.’s overall total. That’s an absurd boost from a group of non-starters, but not exactly inconceivable given the context of this game. The Lakers simply had no interest in chasing either Terry and Stojakovic around staggered screens — nor in stopping Barea on his drives to the rim, with the sole exception being Andrew Bynum’s cheap shot/flagrant 2 foul in the fourth quarter — and the Mavs offense swelled as a result. Terry tied an NBA playoff record with nine made three pointers (in just 10 attempts!) and Stojakovic made all six of his three-point attempts, most of which came without a defender in an eight-foot radius.

L.A. may have a fantastically talented core and the greatest coach in NBA history, but for 48 minutes — or four games, really — none if mattered a bit. The Mavs played as close to a perfect game as one could imagine, and scored 132.6 points per 100 possessions to the Lakers’ 93.5. That 39.1 efficiency margin isn’t a gulf or an ocean, but some expanse that doesn’t exist in our universe in physical terms. There are barely even words to describe how demonstrably better the Mavs were than the Lakers in Game 4, despite the fact that L.A.’s playoff lives were on the line, as was the last hurrah of a living legend.

No Laker is shielded from blame, and no Maverick should be without praise; this was a comprehensive team-wide dominance of the highest order, and the embarrassment in L.A.’s locker room should only be matched by the incredible pride of the home team.

NBA Playoffs: Derrick Rose breaks free, torches Hawks for 44 in Game 3 win

Chicago Bulls v Atlanta Hawks - Game Three

The Atlanta Hawks managed to bother Derrick Rose in the first two games of this series by using their bigs to clog the middle of the floor on Chicago’s screen-and-rolls, but Rose seemed to have an epiphany of sorts in Game 3; rather than play conservatively in an attempt to exploit the Atlanta defense with a perfect pass to the open man through the stilted defense, Rose attacked that floating coverage and forced the Hawks to convert deterrence into actual defense. It didn’t quite add up for the Hawks, and the lightning-fast Rose kept his head up and his dribble alive in order to shift all the pressure on Atlanta’s passive defensive front. Once he established a rhythm on floaters, the rest of Rose’s game came easily; 44 points from the MVP later, the Bulls walked off the court with an easy 99-82 win, and a 2-1 series advantage.

The Bulls didn’t shoot extremely well from the field overall (46.8 percent from the field) considering their level of offensive success (Chicago scored at a rate of 125.3 points per 100 possessions), but Rose’s incredible efficiency, the team’s accuracy from three-point range, and another strong offensive rebounding performance provided the Bulls with all they needed to thump the Hawks. Atlanta isn’t quite reeling, but they’re going to have to revive their inexplicable rebounding prowess from Game 1, or tweak their strategy to keep Rose under wraps, or do something drastic to shift the balance of this series. As the better team, Chicago had the opportunity to stay the course; their defense was going to come around, as was Rose. But after two losses, Atlanta has lost merely by being who they are.

We know the characters and sadly, the plot of this series, barring a rewrite. The Bulls are a team defined by their diligence, and the Hawks a team defined by their vices. Rose will go to work against the Hawks defense, Joakim Noah will scrap his way to every offensive board in sight. Chicago’s defense will grind and grind and grind, and the Hawks’ offense will settle and settle and settle. Josh Smith will keep taking long jumpers to a chorus of boos from his home fans. Joe Johnson will stop the ball. Atlanta will work away from everything that works, and even when they get a productive night from Jeff Teague or a more balanced scoring effort than they’re accustomed, a team in Atlanta’s position is forever left wanting more. They’re not without hope, but as an outmatched team facing an elite club with a truly amazing player (the best in the league, according to MVP voters), they’re also without a foundation for victory should all things remain constant.