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.