Friday, June 17, 2011

Sweet Victory



“Who is that tall guy with the blonde hair?”

That was spoken at the first Dallas Mavericks preseason game of the 2002-2003 season. It wasn’t from some unruly child. It wasn’t from a senile Grandpa, who in his day, big men worked down low and chopped down trees in their spare time. It wasn’t from my former girlfriend who accompanied me to many Maverick games starting that season. It wasn’t from my Mom.

It was from me.

Yep. As an eighth grader who played basketball since fifth grade, I had no idea who Dirk Nowitzki was in 2002. I stood along side my Dad in our Platinum Level seats (thank you corporations before the economy collapsed!) just staring at this guy. Despite being a five-star nerd at the time (I still am, just hide it much better) I still had a general idea of what an NBA player looked like. After all, I watched Space Jam. I wasn’t a heathen.

Dirk stood out so much to me. A tall, lanky white dude with flowing blonde hair. There have certainly been goofier looking characters in the NBA before and after Dirk, but 99.9 percent of those guys wanted everyone to know how goofy they looked. Dirk seemed very much pleased with drifting through the layup lines, more concerned with getting his pregame shots up then mingling with the opposing team or smiling for cameras.

Being the nerd that I was, I had to immerse myself in everything. From Batman, Ninja Turtles to video games, one of my highest nerd qualities is to be immersed in whatever world I am reading or watching. To be swarmed by as much of it as possible. I loved basketball and I knew that if I really wanted to give it justice, I had to be fully and completely immersed. With season tickets and the ability to go to 41 basketball games a year, I wasn’t going to waste this chance. I wasn’t going to just sit there and be mildly entertained. I was going to know basketball inside and out, dammit.

Luckily, I had a beautiful team to watch. The 2002-2003 Dallas Mavericks were the Oklahoma City Thunder of their time – young, energetic, fast, quick and a humble and budding superstar ready to explode. There are few NBA writers that disliked watching that team (besides maybe the ones in Sacramento that had to miss so many deadlines when the Kings and Mavs battled in their epic overtime affairs.) Coached by Don Nelson, led by a dynamic scoring Big Three, I fell in love with basketball again. Basketball was just a means to an end before watching them. Something I did to get out of the house. Sure, I enjoyed it. Being four feet taller than anyone else on the court made it easy to have fun. But there wasn’t any passion behind it. It was just part of the routine. 



Watching Dirk, Steve Nash, and Michael Finely changed that. I realized how beautiful the game could be. Like a Michelangelo painting in motion. A totally blown out metaphor created for dramatic effect. Basketball was everything to me. When I was then treated to an epic playoff series consisting of two Game 7s and a heated Conference Finals against the Spurs, I was ready for more. I dug into stats and box scores like I did Pokemon trading cards. Hell, I even went into the offseason mode, trying to be an amateur GM. My first conclusion? The team needed a true, starting small-forward like LeBron James needs a better jumper. They started Walt Williams for goodness sakes! When the team picked up explosive forward Antwan Jamison from the Warriors, I was ecstatic. While Raef LaFrentz wasn’t exactly the starting center of my dreams, a lineup of Nash, Finely, Jamison, Dirk and LaFrentz seemed just as formidable as any other starting five in the NBA. 



Somewhere between that trade and the start of the season, Don Nelson officially lost his rocker. In a move that could have only been made after a few too many of his treasured Coors Lights, Nelson shipped away LaFrentz for Antoine Walker. Even in my simple basketball infancy, I was floored. Wait, doesn’t Antoine Walker absolutely suck? Just to make sure I wasn’t being influenced by superior basketball minds, I just checked a quick look at career stats. Hmmm. He can’t shoot overall (41.4 percent career FG%) he can’t shoot from deep (career 32.5 3PT%) and his much lauded appraise for being a “point forward”? 3.6 assists to 2.8 turnovers. BELCH. Even more, Jamison was moved to the bench. My dreams were shattered. The next two seasons were a blur. Some guy named Danny Fortson started at center. Mark Cuban showed off the ugliest jerseys of all time. We lost in the first round. Walker predictably ruined any wonderful team chemistry built from the 2003 playoff team. Jamison was wasted on the bench.



When I attended the first preseason game of the 2004-2005 season, I was excited to see the fresh faces after the Don Nelson mad scientist experiment ended. Nash was gone, but I wasn’t too upset. I was upset, for sure, but I didn’t think it’d ruin the team. Still na├»ve in my basketball mind, I knew controlling the paint won titles. I just watched Shaq’s Lakers and Duncan’s Spurs do it four times. Erick Dampier was fresh off his double-double year with Golden State but what stole the show was another odd looking dude – Jason Terry.

That misshapen head. The high socks and headband. The arm bands. Terry looked like he got into a fight with Dick’s Sporting Goods and lost. But what really surprised me was the guy couldn’t miss. From anywhere. I don’t remember the final tally in that meaningless preseason game but in the stands, it felt like Terry was 20-for-25 overall, 15-of-15 from three. I was mesmerized by the potential of a Jason Terry/Dirk Nowitzki pick and pop.

I won’t continue to recount the years because they were too exciting and painful. Over the next few seasons, this was when my fandom grew to unhealthy levels. I threw fits if school or homework or something came on Mavericks game night. I almost strangled my farther in his sleep when he announced no more season tickets before the 2005-2006 season. Call Dirk soft? I would find out where you lived and put a pillow over your face whenever you decided to take a nap. I was ruthless and crazed. My former girlfriend and current best friend deserves a Medal of Honor or at least a Purple Heat. I can’t tell you how many dinners were ruined when “Celtics 115, Mavericks 105” flashed across the ticker. Or how many supposed romantic evenings were interrupted by a visit to Arco Arena in Sacramento. “Sweetie! The Mavericks are three games back of the Spurs for the division title! Plus, they need to stay ahead of the Kings for home court in the first round. PLUS IT’S THE FREAKING KINGS?! WHY DON’T YOU UNDERSTAND?!” I might have ruined her entire high school years, but I can’t imagine anyone else to calm me down and bring me back to reality after a backbreaking Doug Christie three. Plus, she got to gawk at Devin Harris for two years, so she should be thanking me.

What I’m trying to say is, the Mavericks are my life. They are like a little brother, always eager to overprotect him. “HEY, DIRK CAN PLAY DEFENSE, HE ISN’T HORRIBLE. Or, “GOLDEN STATE WAS JUST A BAD MATCHUP. IF THE CLIPPERS SNUCK IN, WE’D BE HOLDING THE TROPHY.” Mainly, this revolved around Dirk. He was the most un-unlikeable player in the NBA. A tireless work ethic matched only by a desire to remain away from the tabloids and endorsements. When Dirk finally had to bring his public life into the headlines in 2009 with Crystal Taylor, the look of his face and the sound of his voice was like a downtrodden, beaten man. He acted like he committed the ultimate sin, when actuality, he just made a mistake. He trusted the wrong person in love. Something very human. But Dirk didn’t want us to know that. He wants use to believe he’s an unstoppable killing machine, incapable of feelings or emotions. A silent guardian and a watchful protector (see what I did there?) Of course, Dirk responded by dropping over 35 points plus against the Nuggets in the semi-finals. The Mavericks lost that series because Antoine Freaking Wright was their starting two guard. Seriously. The guy who just said his Mommy is the reason he’s out of the league right now. Even when Dirk got support from freshly brought in forward Caron Butler in San Antonio of 2010, it still wasn’t enough. Dirk had a sidekick perform well and they still were bounced in the first round. I just assumed it wasn’t going to happen.

Of course, 2011 couldn’t have any less hype around it. Another first round exit and the front office’s answer was to bring in a center who hadn’t played a full season in three years. As the season progressed, it became apparent that Tyson Chandler was everything Erick Dampier wasn’t. Long, quick, athletic, catching and finishing ability. I won’t try to lie to you – I was one of Dampier’s biggest backers. He was a solid rebounder, decent old-school post defender and could get your Grandma open with a screen. Maybe I was blinded by the absolute mediocrity of Maverick centers over the years. Chandler displayed something else unmatched from the center position in my time watching the Mavs: he showed a pulse. After a nasty alley-oop throw down from Jason Kidd, he’d ram the padded support of the NBA rim like he was trying to treat his shoulder like GusFrerotte treats his head. He barked at opposing teams with each block or masterful hedge on a pick and roll. Hell, the dude even made his free throws, shooting over 70 percent and flirting with 80 percent for the first half of the season. He was unlike anything I had ever seen in a Mavericks uniform. Sure, he sometimes looked overmatched against bulky low post threats, but he was Dallas’ 2008 Kevin Garnett – a true defensive leader getting his teammates to buy into what he was saying (or screaming).

But the 2011 playoffs ultimately can be told of the narrative of the two players that were expected to carry the franchise to fame and fortune in 2005 – Jason Terry and of course, Dirk. It’s not coincidence that a 2011 title correlates with Terry’s highest PER of the post season and Dirk’s legendary run. These are the two pillars to the Mavericks holy temple. The foundation of the entire Mavericks offense boils down to how these two players react in their two man game, picking, popping and shooting.

Even then, I wasn’t ready for this spring/early summer. I had my doubts and my worries but this Maverick team destroyed them all in a blaze of precise ball movement and expertly timed rotations. While I don’t normally believe in preconceived outcomes, there had to be some celestial basketball being deciding to allow Jason Terry’s desperation three to clinch Game 5 of the Finals. It made me realize something after that game. No matter how much we try to define basketball with advanced numbers and metrics, the outcome of the game is pretty much decided on who can make more shots. It’s a simple, caveman like approach to the game, but the Mavericks in spite of being athletically behind and slower than the competition, made more shots.

I will always be able to tell anyone who asks me where I was on June 12th, 2011. The image of Dirk Nowitzki rushing to the locker room as the final ticks sounded in Game 6 not only forced me to breakdown like I haven’t while watching sports before, but revealed something we already knew. Despite the mission being over, his conquest finally achieved, Dirk refused to let anyone see his emotions. He still wants to be the silent killer and he just finished off his biggest prize, punishing the Heat with a remarkable double clutch jumper in front of the Heat’s bench with under two minutes to go. That silent first pump. That tongue. It is the most we ever see from Dirk emotionally, midgame. But he couldn’t let anyone see. How dare he show himself to be some simple mere human? Dirk has always created the illusion that he was a mythical warrior. The illusion might have been broken slightly back in 2009 and again on that June night in 2011, but it didn’t matter. I shared tears with Nowitzki that night. Both our lives seemed validated after countless failures in the past, after pouring too much time into a simple sport where you throw a ball into a hoop.

That tall guy with the blonde hair. A champion, finally.


***
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Monday, May 30, 2011

Dirk? Destiny is On Line One.



It had to be the Heat.

It just had to be the Heat.


There was no other way around it. Destiny is a cop out, but you watched what I watched. You saw two of the more improbable comebacks in NBA playoff history help sway the fate of the 2011 NBA championship. As soon as LeBron took a dribble to his left and rose for a 15-footer with Game 5 on the line, I knew it was fate before it splashed through. Derrick Rose's subsequent miss at the free throw line was just more confirmation...

It had to be the Heat.

***

For games three through six of the 2006 NBA Finals, I was in Austin. I wasn't in the familiar surroundings of my house or TV back in North Texas. I was in a condo, shared with four other good friends. We were at a UT lacrosse camp, playing a sport that is totally awesome, bro.

They say misery loves company and that couldn't be any more true after that week. As soon as Jason Terry's three clanged off the back iron and the buzzer sounded in Game 6, we turned off the TV. I think someone blasted the remote into the wall. We each went into our separate bedrooms and closed the door. Heartbroken. Depressed. Pathetic. Call it what you will. That week in June of 2006 will be a moment I never forget. In fact, I think I'll take it to my grave. Yes, I care that much. And If I care that much, I can only imagine what has been going through Dirk's mind for the past five years.

***

To be honest, I didn't think there'd be much of a chance I'd be writing about the 2011 NBA Finals with the Mavericks representing the West. Sure, in December I thought this was the best team in basketball, but I have always felt that the Lakers were the trump card to however well Dallas would play. I had no fear in Portland, Oklahoma City, Memphis or even San Antonio. But the Lakers? Kobe Bryant? The best front court in basketball? The best defense in basketball (when the focus is there)? It was too much.

So after the four game sweep, I was completely dumbfounded. If this Maverick team could make the best team in the league look like they had "Clippers" instead of "Lakers" on the front of their jerseys, they could do anything. No team in basketball had a match up advantage over the Mavs like the Lakers did. How much that was the Lakers pissing that advantage away or the Mavs playing brilliant basketball will be debated for some time. But in four straight games, Dallas was better. They were better than Los Angeles, and now they're better than everyone.

Some mainstream NBA analysts like to pick and choose from the regular season what works best for that argument and forget the rest (see, OKC, POR series). Nothing infuriates me more. If we're going to look at the regular season data to conclude that Portland's offensive rebounding is going to beat Dallas, why can't we also say that Portland's miserable road record will doom them away from the Rose Garden? If Kevin Durant absolutely shredded Dallas in the regular season and will do so again in the playoffs, why can't we say that Dallas will be able to contain Russel Westbrook on some nights because of the regular season? Inconsistencies in arguments like the ones above drive me to drink.

And to a degree it is happening again. Never mind that Dirk Nowitzki has been guarded by Nicholas Batum, Gerald Wallace, LaMarcus Aldridge, Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol, Ron Artest, Serge Ibaka, Thabo Sefolosha, Kevin Durant or Nick Collison...LeBron's guarding him now! And while the narrative of the best player in the world guarding the most un-guard-able player in the world is cute, let's make the facts straight:

Dirk torched the above defenders in a variety of ways. LeBron is not any better a defender against Dirk then those mentioned above. LeBron will guard Dirk. He will be athletic and quick and have all the supposed "traits." And he will fail. Instead of focusing on this match up (that, let's be honest, probably won't even see much time to make it that significant) let's go to the three defenders who will guard Dirk the most: Chris Bosh, Udonis Haslem and Joel Anthony. 

Surprisingly, Bosh is a better defender than you think. "Like a Bosh" might have forever put an unfortunate (although hilarious) label on Miami's third wheel, but against Chicago he was easily their second best (and at times first best) player. Bosh might have succumbed to some Carlos Boozer pick and rolls and let Joakim Noah grab too many offensive boards in Game 1, but overall, Bosh was sound. He held his own against Boozer in iso situations and his offense has never been better. Joel Anthony hasn't done much in the playoffs to speak of and Haslem has enjoyed a rebirth after a devastating foot injury that has sidelined him practically all year to this point.

But here's the most shocking number in my pre-Finals research: 38.6. That was Dirk's field goal percentage in two games against Miami, by far his lowest against any opponent he faced more than once this year. Luckily, there's some handy game tape for the masses to review and it's clear that Miami has ways to make Dirk uncomfortable. Bosh and Anthony aren't easy to back down and both provide some ample length to stay somewhat close to Dirk's midrange jumper. But closer looks also reveal something else: Dirk was just missing shots. Dirk had plenty of good looks in the two Miami games and some didn't fall. After seeing how Dirk has played in the last two weeks, I doubt those kind of shots aren't going to rim out.



There is much argument over to whether we're seeing a new Dirk or not. While Dirk is otherworldly this post season, it isn't unheard of. After all, Dirk is one of three players to average 25 and 10 in the playoffs. He torched the Spurs and Nuggets in the last two playoffs. But yes, something does feel different. If it was the same, then why would the Mavs be on the verge of an NBA title instead of a first round flameout that was the fate of so many previous teams?

Dirk's always been accountable, so that isn't it. But I have never seen #41 yell and scream so much at his teammates on the court. A dumb turnover from JJ Barea? Dirk is the first one chewing him out. Inexplicable pull up jumper from Jason Terry? Again, there's Dirk. Brandan Haywood with a lazy rotation at the rim, allowing an easy basket? Dirk, once again, is right there.

Maybe it's because of Tyson Chandler, and his energy. Maybe it is being more comfortable with his teammates. Maybe he knows this year has to be the year. But emotionally and mentally, this Dirk wasn't anywhere near the Dirk in June of 2006. It's so good to see.

***

As much as Miami posses a problem for Dallas on the defensive end, the two biggest areas I have of concern on individual player defense are Miami's weakest spots -- the point guard and center. If you hark back to my OKC preview, don't underestimate the power of a Tyson Chandler not bogged down to a premier scorer. And while Chandler will be the main man to guard Chris Bosh, the Heat's front court depth is thin at best. Brandan Haywood might find himself having a monster series, gobbling up the Heat's undersized backup bigs. And remember when how good Jason Kidd was when he only had to guard Derek Fisher? Mike Bibby is Fisher's NBA equivalent now: no speed, no athleticism, no defense and an occasional made three. And don't even mention Mario Chalmers. Kidd will have the clear advantage again as the point guard and don't ever underestimate that. Kidd's legs will be fresh to make threes and perhaps guard Dwyane Wade for stretches. 

***

If 2006 happens again, it may be the end of me. It might be the end of Dirk's championship window. It might be the end of the Dirk era for Dallas basketball. 

But I know Dirk has been waiting, patiently. I always laugh at how much attention a Kobe Bryant postgame shooting session gets. Never mind the stories I've heard of Dirk heading to the bowels of the AAC after a loss, shooting jumpers and working out for over two hours. As Dirk always says, you never know when this chance will come again. Five years ago, Dirk wasted it. He threw it away. He...choked it away. There's no denying it. But he has another shot. He will get another chance. 

He will win an NBA championship. 

Dallas in six.

It had to be the Heat.

***
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Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Dallas Mavericks 121, OKC Thunder 112: Dirk! Dirk! Dirk! Dirk!



Man, Jason Terry played one hell of a game.

No?

Well, J.J. Barea was unstoppable.

No?

Fine.

DIRK. DIRK. DIRK. DIRK.


Notes


  • Dirk Nowitzki. 12-15 from the field. 24-24 from the free throw line. No threes attempted. 48 points. Game 1, in the bag. Probably the most adorable aspect of Dirk's heavenly performance was the way the ESPN crew (and Mike Breen especially) were calling the game, as if Dirk was some new thing that no one has ever heard of before. Yes he's amazing. And yes, he's done this before. Also a quick note about Dirk's game to clarify why he doesn't attempt 25 shots at the rim per game -- when Dirk starts out a game, he'll feel out his jumper. If it's working, he keeps using it. There was no need for Dirk to throw himself towards the rim every play because quite frankly, his mid range jumpers were as good as lay ups. If the well way dry? Then I'm sure we would have seen Dirk go to the basket ala Game 5 against Portland.

  • Dirk had only six rebounds and two turnovers. Step your game up Dirk, goodness.

  • Perhaps the most annoying plot to come after the game through the Twitter was the conclusion that OKC played a "bad" game and Dallas played a "perfect" game yet only one by nine. I'm fairly certain OKC played a pretty good game, at least offensively. Serge Ibaka delivered and he's been fairly absent in the playoffs. Kendrick Perkins supplied some points. James Harden wasn't awful. Oh, and Kevin Durant dropped 40 on 18 shots. Sure, Russell Westbrook shot horribly, but guess what? He's done that his entire career against Dallas. Haven't you heard? Surely someone must have told you this.... 
  • Both teams played great offensive games with some horrible defensive execution. Both teams have some room to grow and I feel OKC fans cop out of "well, Dirk isn't going to have this sort of game again" is an ignorant way to look at Game 2 adjustments. Dallas was absolutely horrendous on the pick and roll, leading to Ibaka's parade at the rim. There were some good things (trapping Kevin Durant at above the three point line with Perkins man) but once Ibaka was in the game, the Thunder exploited that. And while Russell Westbrook was only 3-15 from the field, he still had 18 free throw attempts thanks to blow bys against the Dallas guards. Tyson Chandler made sure Westbrook and Durant had to earn their points. Durant did, Westbrook...not so much.

  • Match ups baby, match ups. J.J. Barea looked like the worst thing Dallas has seen since (insert JFK joke here) in the Portland series primarily because of, you guessed it, match ups. The Trail Blazers assortment of tall guards and even longer bigs took away Barea's greatest strengths of driving and finishing at the rim and just managing on defense. In the past two series, there have been no guards that are relatively keen at posting up and with Eric Maynor and Nate Robinson as the Thunder back up PGs, Barea not only stands a chance to contribute, he could be Dallas' second leading scorer. It helps that Barea's screener was a man who had only three entire misses on the night, but there's no telling what Barea can do when he doesn't have to guard Andre Miller, Brandon Roy or Wesley Matthews. 

  • A note about the officiating -- it was some of the worst I've ever seen, both sides, in an NBA playoff game. I understand that both of these teams are experts of exploiting ways to get to the free throw line but some of the fouls on Tyson Chandler and the Thunder bigs were a bit ridiculous. Yes, two hands to the back of a post player is an automatic foul, but there were a few instances were I think the refs just assumed it was going on and gave Dirk the call. Also, can there be no murkier rule then a post defender going straight up? I thought that if the post man still leaves his feet, as long as he is straight up and not hitting arm/wrist of the shooter, it's not a foul. Three of Chandler's fouls were him leaving his feet but jumping straight up, the Thunder player go into his body and then Chandler blocking the ball cleanly. I feel these types of plays are crap shoots with the official.
  • It feels Shawn Marion played a bad game. After all, his man went off for 40 points on 18 shots and he only scored 10 points. Marion did go 5-for-10 from the field, but he went 3-5 at the rim and 2-4 from 3-9 feet. Marion was absolutely torched by Durant off the dribble as once Durant received a down screen from Perkins/Ibaka/Colliosn, he faced Marion up and after one dribble he was gone. The second half wasn't as bad, and Marion was to his credit displaying great effort but just as much the Thunder don't have a chance of stopping Dirk, the Mavs don't have a chance at stopping Durant. Then again, that was already pretty much a given.

  • Ho hum, another bad shooting night for Russell Westbrook against the Mavs. Boy, you would think that maybe Dallas has a pretty good gameplan against Westbrook, huh? Perhaps finally people will realize that yes, Tyson Chandler and Dirk Nowtizki are that big of a difference at the rim and yes, funneling Westbrook into your help defenders results in awkwardly missed 15 footers. I don't doubt Westbrook having a good game in this series, but the Mavericks obviously have a plan: go under screens, fall back, funnel into Tyson Chandler, close out on jumpers hard and trust the help defense. Until Westbrook can nail the pull up elbow jumper on a consistent basis or finish better with help defense, he will continue to struggle but also rack up the free throw attempts

  • Pretty sure Jason Kidd is the only starting point guard for a playoff team to have a good game with a 1-for-3 shooting night.

  • What a difference speed makes. After the Lakers lazily got out to Maverick shooters, the Thunder were quick to spring out to the three point line. The Mavericks two shooters most reliant on spot up threes (Peja, Kidd) went a combined 2-for-9 on three. I remember multiple instances of Peja gearing up to launch a corner three but the close out was just too good from the Thunder defense. Same for Kidd as well, as I believe he thought he had normally open looks from the top of the key disappear. 

  • So, Thunder faithful, if Dirk isn't going to "do that again," then does that mean Thabo Sefolosha and Daequan Cook won't go 4-of-5 from three again?


***
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Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Duel of the Fates




On a cool, crisp Monday evening in Oklahoma City back in December, my friends and I embarked from our hotel room onto the streets of OKC. It has become a yearly winter ritual with my closest friends, embarking on the 180-plus miles up Interstate 35, over the Red River and into Sooner country for Mavericks at Thunder. Our first trip was a success in 2009, as Dirk dropped 35 and 11 on 18 shots with Dallas dominating the second half and winning 100-86. That Oklahoma City team was still ripe, learning how to put the pieces of their talented roster together to become what would eventually be an 8th seeded team that pushed the defending champion Lakers to six games in the playoffs.

But on this December night in 2010, the stakes were different. Oklahoma City was now established, a 50-win season under its belt and Russell Westbrook taking to next step. Dallas was the old team looking revitalized after another April embarrassment, thanks to Tyson Chandler and a full-training camp's worth of Caron Butler. I won't lie, the OKC road trip isn't just for basketball. There is some serious bro bonding that would make a Sig Ep shed a single tear. We had drinks. We fit eight college seniors into a two-bed hotel room to save cash. I refrained from taking part in too much of my beloved Jack Daniels before we ventured to the arena. Don't get me wrong, I love having an adult beverage at a sporting event just as much as the next guy, but I needed a clear head. I needed to see if something deep in the bottom of my stomach were true.

I needed to know if the Dallas Mavericks were the best team in the NBA

***

The Thunder and Mavs are almost so much opposites that they're similar. Seriously. One fan base is spoiled with talented riches that are not only on average as old as a college senior, but also successful. Unless there are some big Shawn Kemp fans in Oklahoma City, these fans have had three seasons. Two 50 win seasons and one losing season. Dallas on the other hand, has had it's fair share of peaks and valleys, with each low and high point being the absolute ends of the spectrum. Teams with wins in the teens all the way to a Finals birth. One fan base is tortured to seemingly be forever cursed to never win it all for as long as the current roster stands. The other fan base is naively enjoying the best of all that can be enjoyed with basketball, not knowing anything but success and being thrilled to be apart of the ride and a long ride it looks to be. Truth is, if OKC bowed out in even four games in this WCF, I doubt the Thunder fans would actually be that upset. "Wait, we went to the Conference Finals after picking third in the draft two years ago?! YES!" Maverick fans however, would curse and rage until next season starts, an undeniable feeling of the proverbiale window finally snapping shut on the franchise's greatest player of all time.

The polar opposites continue to the actual teams in battle that do the same thing but in different ways. Both team's MVPs get their points primarily off jumpers and free throws. Except Kevin Durant is a face up nightmare, with a variety of dribble moves and curl downs off down screens to snap off that quick release and force defenders to only foul to stop him. Dirk Nowitzki on the other hand, has almost primarily gone to work with his back to the basket, using his footwork, head fakes and ball fakes to free up space, knock down that one-legged fading jumper or get fouled. Both teams rely on their point guards to keep the offense humming. Russell Westbrook does it by relentlessly attacking the basket with no fear or hesitation. Jason Kidd shies away from lay ups whenever possible, transitioning his basketball skills to  become a marksmen from three and able to turn Brandon Haywood and Tyson Chandler into double digit scorers with his passing.

Both have benches where the sixth man is often the key to each team's success. Both six men take the spot of a defensive two guard whose only job is to shut down the team's best perimeter scorer for about 10 minutes a game. 

Some will say the only difference in these teams will be experience and that's why the Mavericks will prevail. Experience is slightly overrated. Did experience lead the Grizzles over the No. 1 Spurs? Did experience lead the Warriors to stun the Mavericks? Did experience rush Dwight Howard and the Magic to the NBA Finals? Did experience allow Dwyane Wade to become Bennett Salvatore's favorite player? (I kid, I kid.)

The reason the Mavericks or the Thunder will win this series is the same reason every NBA team ever wins a playoff series -- match ups, match ups and match ups.

***

Already settled into my seat in the Oklahoma City Arena, I watched what many Maverick fans usually expect the Thunder to do to them every time: run circles around them. Durant scoffed at the notion he was being guarded by DeShawn Stevenson as he rained in jumpers over him. Serge Ibaka was swatting shots into the fifth row. Hell, even Jeff Green was taking advantage of Dirk's limited perimeter defense. 

Luckily, the Mavs had Dirk. Both teams swayed with runs back and forth. Dallas would make a push for a five point lead, the Thunder would push right back to be up four. Then, late in the second quarter, Dirk drilled a one-legged fade. Banked it off the glass after getting fouled on top of it from a bewildered Green. But something went wrong. Dirk's landed off that jumper over 1,000 times. Probably a million times by now. But this time, his knees buckled. His weight crashed down on his knees as he twisted in pain, falling to the floor. 

From our nose-bleed seats, we couldn't tell it was his knee at the time. We all assumed it was another sprained ankle and when Dirk gingerly got to the line to still make the free throw, it was also assumed that Dirk was fine. The game went to half tied at 56. Waiting in line to get myself a Bud Light (probably priced at $9) my friend Robert told me the news.

"Dad just texted me. Dirk out in second half with a sprained knee."

***

My biggest qualm with this series is how quickly some people are throwing out the regular season meetings between these two teams. Most notably, the defense the Mavericks have played on Russell Westbrook. I've read about 500 times in the last five days that "the Mavs have no answer to Russell Westbrook." Except they've had an answer. Every single time they've played against him, they've had an answer.

Westbrook is a career 37 percent shooter against Dallas. If you think that's hindered by his poor shooting rookie season, he's a 31.8 percent shooter this season. Jason Kidd might only be able to catch Russel Westbrook if 2002 Jason Kidd returned but 2011 Kidd is just as smart. Kidd goes under every ball screen and forces Westbrook to shoot a 15-20 foot jumper. The Mavericks can live with that. It also won't just be Kidd that forces the action on Westbrook. DeShawn Stevenson has been announced as starting on him with Marion likely getting some spot time as well. 

But probably the biggest underselling of this series is the impact of Tyson Chandler. While I doubt Chandler will replicate the his season averages of 12.7 points and 15.5 rebounds against the Thunder with no Green or Nenad Krstic on board, don't underestimate the power of a free roaming Chandler.

Think of it this way. Chandler's last three playoff opponents have been LaMarcus Aldridge, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. Now it'll be Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins. No disrespect to those two fine players at all, but Chandler is now set loose. He is free to roam the paint and do what he is best at: help defense. Chandler's ability to meet Westbrook at the rim was a big reason why Westbrook shot so poorly against Dallas all season.

Those are really the keys. Everything else is pretty much settled. Dirk will go off. Durant will go off. Both Eric Maynor and James Harden and J.J. Barea and Jason Terry will have their moments. This series boils down to Chandler's ability to protect the rim without a low post scorer to check and the crunch time play of Westbrook and Jason Kidd. If the Mavericks fall back into their earlier turnover demons, this series could turn quickly for OKC. I put my faith into Kidd, he's done it so far.

***

Without Dirk, the third quarter looked bleak. The Mavericks offense had been diluted down to Marion post ups and Caron Butler jumpers. Durant was cooking and Kidd's three point shot was off. When the third quarter horn sounded, I slumped in my chair. The Mavs were only down two, but how long could they realistically hold on in OKC without Dirk?

The fourth quarter got underway with multiple missed shots for both teams. You could tell each team wanted to have that lockdown fourth quarter, the kind that leaves no doubt who the better team is. The Mavs zone enticed the Thunder to shoot from the outside. And they continued to miss. Jason Terry then remembered that quarter number four was the quarter he was allowed to make shots. JET and Butler continued to put in just enough points as the rest of the team blanketed the Thunder with their defense. As I danced in my aisle among some disgruntled OKC fans, I caught some things I would always remember -- Terry antagonizing the crowd and Butler slamming the ball at half court in celebration. These Mavs are different. No other Mavs team would come into this environment, against this team and win without Dirk, I thought to myself.

As I walked through the tunnel that went from the OKC Arena to our hotel, my friends were drunk with happy. Or drunk with drunk. Either way, the Maverick euphoria was all over. I walked quietly in the back. One thought was racing through my head:

The Dallas Mavericks are the best team in the NBA

Mavs in six.



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Monday, May 16, 2011

Adrian Wojnarowski Does Not Care for the Mavericks, Apparently

A word before I begin: Adrian Wojnarowski is, in my mind, the best national NBA beat writer out there. If there's ever a breaking news story, "Woj" is all over it. And nobody is better at breaking news during the trade deadline. I almost believe that when a trade is made, a G.M. does two things -- he calls the other team to accept the trade and then he calls Woj. He breaks everything. He is the Ken Rosenthal of the NBA. Another thing that makes him great is that despite being a beat writer he isn't afraid to express his voice when he dips into his column work. Beat writers are plagued by the fine line they have to dance around between writing truthful negative stories and keeping happy sources. Woj doesn't just dance well at this line -- he single handily does his own interpretation of the "Black Swan" at the line. For example, just Google "Adrian Wojnarowski LeBron James." The man has a mean streak.

Now that I've done the usual "respecting the guy thing," I can now freely shit on this man's chest, figuratively.

I kid, I kid. The last thing I want this blog's reputation to be is a biased, ranting Maverick homer blog (or do I?) But it strikes me from Woj's playoff predictions that he isn't the biggest Maverick fan. A rundown, Tarantino-style, from West Finals and back:

West Finals: OKC in five.

West Semis: LA in five

West Quarters: Portland in four

The OKC prediction doesn't bother me in the fact that I don't believe the Thunder can win, but the way in which Woj thinks they will. For the Thunder to win in five games, at minimum they have to win two of the three games played in Dallas, one being a Game 5 elimination game. Now, OKC is a fine road team but even they only took one of three in Memphis, which clearly looks to be a less talented team than Dallas. The Thunder can beat the Mavs for sure. But in five? Without homecourt? I'm not too sure.

The Lakers prediction is probably the most sane of the bunch. Hell, even I picked the Lakers to vanquish the Mavs in five. The regular season data suggested it. Eye test suggested it. The Lakers even showed signs of coming alive by dominating the Hornets to close out the series. What the Mavericks did was surprising and the Lakers seemingly willingness to fold even more shocking. So, free pass there.

But Portland in four? This is an embarrassingly bad prediction that I can't even fathom why he would do that. It can't be for shock factor because the NBA is not the NCAA -- upsets rarely happen. If they do, it's because of a particular match up for that series. It's hard to upset a team that's better than you over the course of a seven game series. Would Butler beat Pittsburgh four out of seven? What about George Mason and UConn? There isn't much glamor to calling an upset in the NBA because people don't invest in the betting, prediction process as much. If he gets it right, cool -- here's a pat on the back and a couple of retweets. Good job.

What's so remarkable about the predictions is the guy isn't some newspaper columnist that's tied to a local region. The man knows his hoops. Being a national writer, he might not be able to watch these teams as closely as we can, but come on, PORTLAND IN FOUR?! A casual NBA fan would even know that the teams were very closely matched and the Trail Blazers had a horrible road record. I understood every reason why people picked the Blazers over the Mavs, but there is in no way that evidence supported the Blazers taking four straight games. The first two in Dallas, no less.

I'm sorry to take up an entire post on something so trite and meaningless as playoff predictions (the NBA! It's UNPREDICTABLE!) but I felt I needed to get that off my chest.

Note: My Western Conference Finals preview will drop tomorrow. I'm taking a slightly different, more narrative approach this time. Hopefully that will make more sense to you all tomorrow. Want a small taste? I like the Mavs (for once)



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Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Being Wrong Never Felt so Good



Who had Mavericks in four? Oh, that's right -- nobody. Probably not even the higher powers of this universe could have predicted such a fate for the two-time defending champions.

But Dallas is moving onto the Western Finals for the first time since 2006 and the fourth time in franchise history. An incredible implosion from the Lakers all helped by an incredible team effort for the Mavs. Funny enough, in my series preview, I stated that the only way Dallas had a chance to win is if Gasol + Bynum fail to average 35 points per game and the Mavs were blazing behind the arc.

Well....


  • Bynum and Gasol averaged 25 points per game for the series, with only two games even reaching the 30 point mark. The duo never reached a combined 35 points in a single game with the highest being 31 in Game 2.

  • The Mavericks shot 46 percent from three, which is a great number in itself. But the Mavericks made 49-of-106 behind the arc. 49 three pointers in four games. An incredible number punctuated by the 20-of-32 display in the Game 4 beat down.

The most shocking part of the series to me was the ability of Tyson Chandler, Brandan Haywood and Dirk Nowitzki to handle Gasol and Bynum in the post. Gasol shot under 50 percent for the series and only attempted 18 shots total at the rim for all four games. This was obviously not the same Gasol we've seen over the last three years and while Dirk's defense was perhaps the best I've ever seen him when guarding a potent post threat, Gasol didn't do himself any favors by straying farther and farther away from the basket. 

I knew Haywood would be able to body Bynum because he as the size and weight to do so. Chandler was a different story and while Bynum had two sparkly games, the Lakers needed every game for Bynum to be a difference maker. Chandler was benefited by the referees allowing physical play and Chandler used that to body up Bynum and limit his catches in the paint. Chandler forced Bynum to make three or four dribbles on most of his post catches and that's a huge deal. Big men don't like dribbling. It's science. 

And how nice is it to have Jason Terry back? According to the greatness that is Rob Mahoney, Terry is having his highest PER in the playoffs since, well, ever. Terry has long been known for his post season disappearances since 2006 and what we're seeing now is what we've expected to see for the last five years. Terry's long-standing role on this team has always been to be the second scorer. In the past, that well was dried up and Dirk was forced into a one-man stand against an onslaught of playoff opponents. For right now, that is no longer the case. Dirk has help in the scoring department, as  both Jason Kidd and Peja Stojakovic have also had their moments. 

Speaking of Jason Kidd, the Devin Harris trade might have officially been decided win (and especially will so if the Mavs advance to the Finals.) There's no question the fact that in in each fourth quarter against LA, Dallas out-executed the champs in every way. The Mavs ran their offense to perfection to close out every tight game in the series and that has to go with Dirk's steadiness in not turning the ball over and the grasp in which Jason Kidd has on a team's offense. Kidd might not have put up the scoring numbers like the Portland series, but he didn't need to -- he just kept the Mavericks ship from not capsizing and played some credible crunch time defense against Kobe Bryant. 

And how can we not finish with Dirk? While I plan on describing his brillance in more detail later on, he was quite simply, the best player of the series. Outplaying Kobe both in scoring and making his teammates better, Dirk simply did what Dirk do (to steal a phrase from a certain baseball manager) and drain silly fades, drop daggers and find his teammates off of double teams. An exemplary performance and one that, honestly, isn't too surprising anymore. 

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Sunday, May 8, 2011

Deuces, Los Angeles


The Dallas Mavericks have outclassed the two-time defending champions both on the basketball court and as competitors. A 4-0 sweep of the team I picked to best the Mavs in five games.

More to come (I promise this time) by the end of tonight and tomorrow morning. But for now, eat, drink and be merry -- your Dallas Mavericks are having their finest season since 2006 and just vanquished the one team that truly should intimidate you. Once again please use this as a forum to discuss a great moment for a great team.

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