Tag: 2010 NBA Playoffs

NBA Playoffs: The Mavs fight to stay alive and look damn good in doing so

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caron butler.pngIn the first four playoff games between the Mavs and the Spurs, each game was decided by just a few possessions. Dallas edged San Antonio in Game 1, the Mavs were within two points during the fourth quarter of Game 2, and the Spurs’ took Games 3 and 4 by a combined seven points.

Then in Game 5, Dallas through the series blueprint out the window, and rode the wave of their own desperation to a decisive 103-81 victory. Facing a 1-3 deficit, the Mavs had no other choice. They’ll still need to secure a win on Thursday to give themselves a shot at the series, but at least Dallas lives to fight another day.

The heroes of Game 5 were undoubtedly Caron Butler (35 points, 11 rebounds, three steals) and Brendan Haywood (eight points, eight rebounds, four blocks), who ironically enough were both the subjects of recent mini-controversies over Rick Carlisle’s distribution of playing time.

Butler didn’t see a second of floor time in the second half of Game 3, and his inefficient scoring style has been considered by many to be a reason why the Mavs have struggled to top the Spurs. Haywood received his first start of the series on Tuesday night, and responded to his unearthing by grabbing six offensive rebounds and getting to the free throw line 12 times. These were keynote performances by two of the Mavs’ mid-season acquisitions, and should Butler and Haywood maintain the theoretical foundation for their success — Butler’s improved shot selection and Haywood’s increased intensity on the boards and defensive focus — there’s no reason why Dallas won’t pose a legitimate threat to San Antonio.

Dallas exploded out of the gate in similar fashion to their opening statement in Game 4, only this time around they protected their double-digit lead with offensive balance and superior defense. With Butler (and the rest of the Mavs, for that matter) looking to attack the basket more than ever, the Spurs’ defense faced a rather difficult test. Even San Antonio’s impressive team defense couldn’t hold against a Dallas team attacking from all angles, and the game was already decided by the midpoint of the third quarter.

The heavy lifters on both sides received plenty of rest, as Gregg Popovich had officially thrown in the Ian Mahinmi towel by the end of the third. Tony Parker led the Big Three in minutes with 26 (and in points with 18; Ginobili and Duncan scored 18 combined), and though Dallas’ starters lasted a bit longer, Butler was the only Maverick to log more than 32 minutes.

The Mavs looked confident and impressive with their backs against the wall. Dallas looked to push the ball at every opportunity, and their effectiveness in transition helped to establish an offensive rhythm that carried over into their half-court sets. Game 6 will bring its own challenges, though, as Butler isn’t likely to drop 30+ points again (much less in such an efficient manner; Caron shot 50% from the field and didn’t turn the ball over once), and the atmosphere in San Antonio won’t offer the same fuel for the the Mavs’ fast break.

This team seems prepared, though. Butler’s ascent was accompanied by a team-wide offensive improvement, due to both the more favorable pace and improved player movement. The reason the Dallas offense became bogged down Games 2, 3, and 4 was due to too many Mavericks camping out along the perimeter while Dirk went to work. As impressive as Nowitzki is, that strategy is doomed to fail, and fail it did. With more transition opportunities and better movement once the Mavs settle down, the Mavs could perform far better offensively in Game 6 than they did during their last trip to San Antonio.

Dallas was the best road team in the Western Conference during the regular season, and they’ll need every bit of that visiting team mojo when they face the Spurs in San Antonio on Thursday. 

NBA Playoffs: Phoenix and Portland are finding a stylistic middle ground

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The Phoenix Suns and the Portland Trailblazers are stylistic opposites, and it’s been largely assumed that the winner of the series will be the team that can assert their own stylistic preference on their opponent; if the Suns can make the Blazers run, Phoenix would seem to have the advantage, and if the Blazers can force the Suns to slow down, Portland would be presumed to have an edge.

I can understand the logic, but I’m not sure I agree. Instead, I’d propose that neither team will be able to force their style onto the series conclusively, and both teams will be left with a back-and-forth between the Suns pushing the pace and the Blazers grinding the game down to a mechanical halt. Instead, the winner of the series (at least based on the four games so far) will be the team that can better acclimate themselves to the style of the other, with the series depending on how the Blazers can both run and defend the break and how Phoenix can operate.

First, consider Paul Coro’s account of the pace of Game 4 from the Arizona Republic:

It might have taken a double take to recognize the Suns, who scored 87 points, hardly resembled the NBA’s best-shooting team and often walked up the ball to give Portland the pace it wanted. Previous Suns teams starved for a stretch such as the one Saturday in which Portland missed 12 shots in a row over 8:29 of the second half. But the Suns scored just 11 points and did not take the lead during that span.

“If you walk it up and they get in a half-court situation, I think their defense is as good as anybody’s in the NBA,” Gentry said. “Our wings have to run. Steve (Nash) has to push it. Our bigs got to get down so we can run drags and step-up. It’s not one person. It’s the way we’re approaching it from a team standpoint. That’s something we have to get away from right away.”

A perfectly reasonable perspective given the way the game went, and in particular the Suns’ 87-point total. That said, the difference in pace between Games 2 (90 possessions), 3 (89), and 4 (88) was negligible, despite the radically different results. It’s not as if Games 2 and 3 were out-and-out track meets, the Suns were just much better at containing Andre Miller than they had been in Game 1, and their offense thrived after finding a rhythm in the open court. For Phoenix, it’s no longer paramount that they push the ball at every opportunity, but that they use the open space of the break to establish offensive momentum.

That’s where the Suns failed in Game 4, but it shouldn’t shock anyone to find out that the Blazers won the day using the very same plan of attack. Portland outscored Phoenix on the break 16-4 in Game 4, and the number of note is the Blazers’ 16, not the Suns’ 4. Once Portland was able to get free points and establish their offense on the break, Phoenix’s defensive adjustments weren’t quite so stifling. Things became substantially easier for the Blazers as they opened up the game, despite the clear departure from their style.

The winner of every game thus far has been the leader in fast break points, but every game has also been more in line with Portland’s average page (90) than Phoenix’s (97.6). The fastest game of the series was the Blazers’ Game 1 victory, and the two run-and-gun Suns wins were in games with very few possessions. Those aren’t signs that either team is struggling with the sense of identity, but rather that the series itself has become something of a compromise.

NBA Playoffs: Close wins are good enough for the Spurs, who are finding new and exciting ways to best the Mavs


When they entered the playoffs, the San Antonio Spurs were not considered a championship contender. Their late season success was chalked up as something of an aberration, and though many picked them to ‘upset’ the Dallas Mavericks in the first round of the playoffs, that’s not exactly the same as declaring the Spurs fit to battle the Lakers, Cavs, and Magic for NBA supremacy.

That time is not yet upon us, but based on how impressively they’ve handled their first round matchup with the Mavs, it could be quite soon.

San Antonio came back from a 15-point first half deficit to take a 3-1 series lead and push Dallas one step closer to the season’s edge. It was hardly easy, and the reason the Spurs may soon be considered contenders for the conference title is not because their wins over the Mavs have been particularly demonstrative. Rather, San Antonio’s three straight wins were in very competitive games, and the Spurs’ ability to close out their opponents remains a crowning achievement.

Dallas had been successful all season in besting their opponents in close games, but that success hasn’t translated well to the playoffs. Instead of Dirk Nowitzki hitting game-winners or Shawn Marion getting crucial stops, it’s been Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili hitting daggers and Antonio McDyess playing clutch defense. A few shots here and there or a few bounces of the ball and this series is quite different, but for the most part the Spurs are making their own luck.

It’s not as if San Antonio is relying simply on their opponents’ failings to determine the outcomes of these games; the Spurs’ defense has reached new heights over the last three contests, and their ability to play Nowitzki aggressively without giving up open shots to the Mavs’ shooters has been crucial.

“They ran at me from the get-go,” Dirk Nowitzki said, “on the block and on the dribble they came after me. When I was isolated on the free throw line, they came at me as well. After the game I had two days ago they weren’t just going to watch me shoot. They were aggressive tonight and got the ball out of my hands.”

That said, the Spurs don’t win Game 4 without a phenomenal night from George Hill, who was able to make up for the offensive shortcomings of San Antonio’s Big Three. Tim Duncan (1-for-9 shooting), Manu Ginobili (4-for-16), and Tony Parker (4-for-9) combined for just 31 points. Hill had 29 (11-of-16 shooting) on his own, and his jumper was almost eerily smooth.

He was hardly alone, though. Even though the stars didn’t come out in San Antonio, Richard Jefferson (15 points), DeJuan Blair (seven points, seven rebounds), and Antonio McDyess (10 points, eight rebounds), had hugely productive nights, with the impact of the latter two in particular hardly captured by their final stat lines. If not for Blair creating possessions on the offensive glass or McDyess’ physical, effective defense on Dirk Nowitzki, the Mavs could very well be rallying behind a 2-2 mark and the series headed back to Dallas. Instead, an inscription above each American Airlines Center entryway reading “Abandon hope, all ye who entere here,” will greet Mavs fans in Game 5.

Dallas not only had a chance to win Game 3, but to see their 15-point lead evaporate in Game 5 is flat-out painful. The Spurs honestly are not that much better than the Mavs, but its impossible to refute San Antonio’s ability to execute. This game was incredibly physical, particularly in the second half, and though the Mavericks were rattled by the physical play and their sputtering offense, the Spurs were not. As a result, San Antonio outscored Dallas 29-11 in the third quarter, and the Mavs surrendered a prime opportunity to seize the series’ momentum.

“Because this team has been there so many times and in this position, when it gets so close and tight like that I don’t think we panic,” Antonio McDyess said. “I think this is a team that always stays on one pace and never gets panicky. We always pull it out when we do that.” 

For Dallas, that third quarter should hurt, and it will. San Antonio just has an edge right now in terms of their energy and execution, and while the probability of the Mavs winning three straight games isn’t impossible given the makeup of their three straight losses, it’s an uphill climb that the no. 2 seed never hoped to face.

NBA Playoffs: Dwyane Wade isn't quite ready for his season to be over, goes bonkers in the fourth to down the Celtics in Game 4

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Dwyane Wade had six turnovers, missed eight shots, and botched five free throws in Game 4 against the Boston Celtics. Other than that, he could do no wrong. An enormously impressive 46-point, five-rebound, five-assist performance stands testament to that, and Wade’s performance was capped off brilliantly by scoring 17 of Miami’s 30 points in the fourth quarter.

To put in perspective just how impressive Wade and the Heat were in the fourth:

  • Miami went scoreless for a little over three minutes in the fourth…and still outscored Boston 30-15.
  • The Heat had five straight three-point possessions, and six over the course of nine possessions (H/T: NBA.com’s John Schuhmann)
  • Wade went 4-of-4 from three-point range in the final frame, with three of those makes coming within the quarter’s first three minutes.
  • Miami went on a 19-3 run over the first five minutes of the fourth.

Wade and the Heat played like a team desperate to survive, and for once Dwyane had a little help: Quentin Richardson became the first non-Wade Heat player to score 20 points in a game this series, and Michael Beasley dropped 15, including an invaluable tip-in with 1:27 left in the game.

Oddly enough though, both teams played out the game’s final minutes as if they wanted to lose. Ray Allen — a 91.3% free throw shooter this season — missed three of four from the foul line in the game’s final minutes. Dorrell Wright and Mario Chalmers were forced into impossibly difficult shot attempts as the Miami offense was slow to develop. Rajon Rondo missed a wide open layup that could have brought Boston’s deficit to two at the 2:17 mark. Dwyane Wade looked to push the ball after a Celtic turnover and ended up giving Boston the ball right back. Neither team looked particularly polished to finish out a pretty close game, but the Heat were able to rely on incredible production from Dwyane Wade and just enough scoring, defense, and hustle from the rest of the rotation.

The Celtics still isn’t too much to worry about, though. Boston’s defense was very impressive for much of the game, and barring Miami’s dominant transition game in the first quarter (mostly due to flurry of Celtic turnovers), the C’s were able to lock down defensively and make things awfully difficult in a half-court setting. Even the subs were relatively strong in that regard, or at least strong enough to not surrender any substantial advantage to Miami. Boston withstood a hell of a first quarter from Miami and still came back to make the game competitive, and that should make an already confident Boston team even more so.

After all, Rajon Rondo (23 points, nine assists, three turnovers) was able to deep into the paint with ease, even against Miami’s pressure defense. Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, and Kevin Garnett combined for 49 points on 54% shooting, but they just didn’t have the scoring volume to keep up with Wade’s fourth quarter surge. If not for that explosion, this game easily goes to Boston, and that’s worth remembering. Wade had a 20-point night from a streaky teammate, 15 points from the inconsistent Beasley, a solid team defensive effort, and a decent night from Mario Chalmers, and he still needed to put up one of the finest performances of the season to pull out a victory much closer than the nine-point final margin indicates.

A win is a win, and the Heat have certainly saved some face in avoiding a sweep. That doesn’t change the fact that Boston is the superior team, and while watching Wade completely dominate the final quarter is a joy in itself, it’s not indicative of some series-changing swing. 

NBA Playoffs: The Spurs take another close game against the Mavs, heap all the pressure onto Dallas

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The last two games have represented a phenomenal opportunity for the Dallas Mavericks: rather than the 1-2 deficit they now face, the Mavs could very well have been blocking off travel dates for the second round as the proud owners of a 3-0 series lead. Instead, the San Antonio Spurs showed in both games what makes them such a formidable foe — not only to the Mavs, but to any team in the league — and their late-game performance last night made Game 3 an excellent companion piece to their Game 2 showing.

Tim Duncan (25 points on 18 shots, five rebounds, four assists, five turnovers), Tony Parker (23 points on 10-of-16 shooting), and Manu Ginobili (15 points, seven assists, five rebounds) were resolved and effective, as each provided fantastic contributions made even more impressive by the game’s snail-like pace (84 possessions). Opposite them were Dirk Nowitzki (35 points on 23 shots, seven rebounds) and J.J. Barea (17 points, four assists, four rebounds), who improbably kept Dallas competitive despite seeming completely outmatched.

This was just a fantastic performance by the Spurs’ team defense, and their ability to make the Mavs think twice about every shot attempt was a huge factor. Dallas, on the other hand, gave up too much ground to Tim Duncan and Tony Parker when matched up man-to-man, and their switch to the zone in the third quarter wasn’t enough to counter their lack of offensive balance.

Part of the reason the Mavs’ offense was so Dirk-heavy was due to an impromptu benching of Shawn Marion and Caron Butler; Marion played just three and a half minutes to start the third quarter and Butler didn’t play in the entire second half.

Caron’s benching was understandable, as he was completely invisible (save his three turnovers) in his 15 first half minutes. Shawn on the other hand, was the primary defender on Manu Ginobili and had limited Manu to a scoreless first half. The three-guard lineup of Jason Kidd, Jason Terry, and J.J. Barea (playing alongside Dirk Nowitzki and Erick Dampier) keyed the Mavs’ third quarter surge, but one can’t help but wonder if Dallas could have been more effective on defense in the fourth with Marion on the floor.

Instead, Ginobili drove through the heart of the zone for several key scoring possessions in the fourth, and while Dallas kept the game close, they were unable to respond. That difference highlights a key theme throughout the game: the Spurs were willing to get the ball inside, even if they were stopped at the rim, and the only Mavs determined to do the same were J.J. Barea and to a lesser extent, Dirk Nowitzki.

Dallas is going to need to get to the line more against San Antonio’s impressive defense, and while they showed they were capable of doing that very thing in Game 1, the whistles weren’t quite so friendly at the AT&T Center tonight. Woe are they, and regardless of any issues the Mavs had with the officiating, they’ve now magnified the importance of the almighty Game 4: a win rights the ship and presumably removes any doubt as to the Mavs’ ability to perform (not that any such doubt exists in the locker room, as the players themselves remain convinced of their own ability to win the series), while a loss on Sunday would force Dallas to win three straight elimination games.