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Friday, November 09, 2007

Mavs Down Warriors in a Fast Paced Shootout

The Dallas Mavericks defeated the Golden State Warriors 120-115 in a rematch of last season's most exciting first round playoff series. One regular season win does not avenge being on the wrong end of perhaps the greatest upset in NBA history but it does once again reaffirm what I have said numerous times about the Warriors: contrary to popular belief, the way to beat them is not to slow the game down but to speed it up. I pointed out during last year's playoffs that the numbers clearly show that this is true. If you watch Golden State closely, then you understand why this is the case. As I wrote in the above post months ago, the Warriors play like a bunch of Gilbert Arenas clones: "Arenas shoots from anywhere at any time and when he is hot everything is beautiful. Of course, sooner or later bad shot selection catches up with you" (Arenas' Wizards are 0-4, a subject that I will discuss in my next post). The Utah Jazz ran Golden State out of the gym in the second round of the playoffs and the Jazz did it again last week.

Six Mavericks scored in double figures, with four of them getting more than 20 points: Josh Howard and Jason Terry had 24 points each, Dirk Nowitzki had 22 points (plus 11 rebounds) and Devin Harris had 21 points. Baron Davis led the Warriors with 37 points, while Kelenna Azubuike--a second year forward who started in place of the suspended Stephen Jackson--had 27 points, 11 rebounds and four assists. Nowitzki only shot 6-15 from the field but he had the best plus/minus score (+13) of any player in the game. He is criticized for not posting up the smaller Golden State players who guard him but Nowitzki is not a postup player; he didn't lead the Mavericks to the 2006 Finals by posting people up and he didn't lead the Mavericks to 67 victories in 2007--winning the MVP in the process--by posting people up. Nowitzki is a great faceup shooter who is an above average driver, a very good rebounder and an improving passer. Golden State Coach Don Nelson drafted Nowitzki and coached him for years, so he knows better than anyone what Nowitzki can and cannot do--and, just as importantly, what Nowitzki is comfortable doing. That is why Nelson uses all of these zone defenses against Dallas and why he puts the short but muscular Davis on Nowitzki; Nelson is trying to bait Dallas into posting up Nowitzki, taking him away from his comfort zones. Nowitzki does not have great post moves and any time he puts the ball on the floor in the post area the smaller, quicker Warriors players swarm him, resulting in forced shots or forced passes. Nowitkzi is tall and lanky, with a high center of gravity; he is never going to bull over a fireplug like Davis, nor is he going to overpower Al Harrington, Andris Biedrins or Jackson (who often guarded Nowitzki during last year's playoffs). What Nowitzki needs to do is catch the ball on the wing, facing the hoop; if his defender crowds him, then he can drive, draw an extra defender and pass to the open man. If his defender backs up, then he can shoot right over him; if the defender is as short as Davis he can shoot right over him whether or not he backs up. This is why Dallas should be pushing the ball and running as little halfcourt offense as possible, even if this goes against what Coach Avery Johnson ideally would prefer to do. When the Mavericks push the ball Nowitzki can get a lot of open jumpers without having to worry about being double-teamed; even if you try to play a slowdown game against Golden State as soon as the Warriors get the ball they are off and running; what ends up happening is you fight in the halfcourt against their zones and traps for 24 seconds without getting a good look, then they get the ball--make or miss--and run it down your throat. That is how Dallas lost to Golden State in last year's playoffs. Dallas and Utah have better individual players than Golden State and they have better teams, so neither squad should be afraid to get into a running game with the Warriors.

A sequence that happened at the end of the third quarter should help make all of this clear. With less than a minute remaining, Nowitzki caught the ball near the top of the key. He was facing the hoop with Monta Ellis guarding him. Instead of turning his back to the basket and trying to post Ellis up, Nowitzki simply took one dribble and drilled a foul line jumper over the much shorter Golden State guard. Yes, it is true that Charles Barkley--who even in his playing days had a rear end wide enough to be on both sides of the lane at the same time and who was also an explosive leaper--would have backed Ellis into the first row and dunked on him; yes, it is true that Tim Duncan would have backed Ellis down, made a little bank shot and drawn a foul. Nowitzki has a different body and a different game than those guys and that did not stop him from leading his team to a playoff series win over Duncan's Spurs two years ago. Within five seconds of Nowitzki's jumper nestling through the hoop, Golden State pushed the ball up the court, resulting in a Biedrins dunk--make or miss, the Warriors are running. Dallas now had the ball with 46 seconds left, enough time to go "two for one"--in other words, shoot with more than 24 seconds on the clock, thereby making sure that the Warriors cannot take the last shot of the quarter. Instead of playing in attack mode, which might have led to another Nowitzki jumper, Dallas slowed down for over 20 seconds and ended up with an off balance attempt by Harris; Golden State could have held the ball for the last shot but instead they rushed the ball up the court and Ellis scored a layup four seconds after Harris' miss. See the pattern? Whether the opponent plays fast or slow, Golden State plays fast and often shoots in five seconds or less. You might think that you can grind it out in the post against Golden State's smaller players but they are athletic, physical and tough--the postup game is fool's gold against the Warriors unless you have a guy like Duncan or Utah's Carlos Boozer and even then it is not easy (Boozer had 12 points in 42 minutes in Utah's blowout win over Golden State last week). Dallas ended the quarter with another grind it out possession and Stackhouse managed to make a very difficult bank shot over two defenders as time ran out. In less than a minute, the Warriors scored two fast break layups, while Dallas' offense produced a Nowitzki jumper, an off balance miss by Harris and a very tough shot by Stackhouse. The only Dallas possession that had any fluidity was the first one, when Nowitzki caught the ball, made a quick faceup move and nailed a jumper. That is how he and Dallas need to play against Golden State and if they played that way the whole game they would win by 15 points--even with Stephen Jackson back in the lineup.

TNT's Mike Fratello correctly identified another problem that Dallas often has against Golden State. Early in the fourth quarter, Nowitzki was double teamed in the left corner and he passed to Trenton Hassell, who caught the ball and hesitated for a moment, seemingly unsure what to do. Fratello said that when Nowitzki passes out of the double-team whoever catches the ball must immediately attack the open seam in the zone defense and make the Warriors pay for trapping Nowitzki. This is a good example of how things can go wrong that the superstar gets blamed for by the casual fan but are not really his fault. Teams don't trap mediocre or bad players; they trap players who are dangerous. That is why Nowitzki and Duncan and Kobe Bryant and LeBron James see so many double-teams. Once a great player is being trapped he must quickly and accurately read the situation--the score, the time left on the shot clock, who is open--and decide whether to split the trap, shoot before it gets there or pass to a teammate. If the great player passes the ball, then it is up to his teammates to be productive and to use the resulting four on three advantage to score. In addition to playing too slow at times versus Golden State in last year's playoffs, Dallas also did not make the Warriors pay for putting two and sometimes three people on Nowitzki and that same hesitation was evident by Hassell on this particular play.

Dallas won this game but Barkley and Kenny Smith correctly noted that the margin for error was small, that Jackson may have made a difference and that the Warriors were one open Davis three pointer from possibly sending the game to overtime. Reggie Miller brought up the old cliche about styles making fights but in this case it is very true; Dallas is very uncomfortable doing what it needs to do to beat Golden State. Think of it this way: in a wide open, up and down game with a lot of three point shots, who do you think is going to shoot more accurately in the long run, Dirk Nowitzki or Baron Davis? Dallas should welcome the opportunity to turn the game into a shooting contest between those two players--not to mention the fact that Terry, Stackhouse, Howard and Harris also are more than capable of outshooting their Golden State counterparts.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:09 AM

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