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Thursday, January 03, 2008

Mavericks Follow Correct Prescription, Run Warriors off of the Court

Anyone who visits this site regularly knows that I have repeatedly insisted (most recently in this post) that teams should not be afraid to run against the Golden State Warriors and that the Dallas Mavericks could have avoided their upset loss to the Warriors in last year's playoffs if the Mavericks had pushed the ball up the court instead of trying to slow the game down. These truths were once against confirmed in Dallas' 121-99 win over Golden State on Wednesday night. Dirk Nowitzki scored a game-high 29 points on 9-16 shooting, adding eight rebounds, six assists and three blocked shots. Nowitzki had a game-high plus/minus rating of +25. Five other Mavericks also scored in double figures, including Josh Howard, who had 19 points and a game-high 13 rebounds as Dallas outrebounded Golden State 50-35. Stephen Jackson led Golden State with 25 points but he shot just 8-21 from the field, including 1-5 from three point range. Baron Davis, who terrorized Dallas during the playoffs, had just 10 points and six assists, shooting 2-14 from the field. The first time these teams played this season, Dallas also won a fast paced game--120-115--but some people tried to diminish the significance of that victory because Jackson did not play due to being suspended by the NBA.

During a first quarter timeout, Dallas Coach Avery Johnson told his team, "Keep pushing the ball. Run for layups." The Mavericks followed his advice and led 36-23 after the first 12 minutes. Golden State Coach Don Nelson loves to go after whoever he thinks is the opposing team's worst defender and/or whichever individual matchup he thinks is most in favor of one of his players. His starting lineup did not include a traditional center and it soon became obvious that the Warriors were focused on trying to exploiting the fact that Dallas center Erick Dampier was guarding Al Harrington, who is really a small forward. The Warriors may have won that battle on the surface--Harrington outscored Dampier 14-4 in the first quarter--but the Mavericks won the war and had the lead because they took many of their shots within eight seconds on the shot clock, thereby preventing the Warriors from setting up the zone defenses and gimmicky traps that caused Dallas so much trouble during last year's playoff series between these teams. A major mistake that Dallas made during the playoffs was changing a starting lineup that had gone 67-15 during the regular season. There is no reason that the Mavericks cannot beat the Warriors using their regular lineup. Harrington's early points proved to be fool's gold, while Dampier provided a strong inside presence throughout the game, taking advantage of scoring opportunities in the paint, setting solid screens, getting rebounds and blocking shots. Dampier finished with 13 points on 5-5 shooting, seven rebounds and three blocked shots, while Harrington did not do much after his first quarter outburst and ended up with 21 points.

Dirk Nowitzki's fast break layup put the Mavericks up 40-25. It is very important to note that when he took that shot only four seconds had gone off of the shot clock. Having your seven foot tall, MVP player shooting a layup is much better than slowing the game down and having him try to score in the post against a swarming defense. Nowitzki's three pointer at the 3:54 mark put Dallas up 58-40; he took that shot after just six seconds had gone off of the shot clock. As I've been saying for months now, Nowitzki is a face up shooter, so it makes no sense to slow the game down and have him grind it out in the post with defenders trapping him as the shot clock winds down; push the ball up the court, have Nowitzki spot up and then the guards will either score layups or if the defense collapses to stop their drives then Nowitzki can drain open jumpers/three pointers all night long. For some reason, in the closing minutes of the first half Dallas decided to "exploit" the alleged mismatch of Davis guarding Nowitzki or Howard on the post. The Mavericks got nothing out of these possessions; on one occasion, Howard bricked a turn around jumper and five seconds later Davis drove to the hoop and was fouled by Nowitzki. The Warriors will push the ball relentlessly regardless of what their opponents do; slowing the game down only leads to bad shots and turnovers (both of which are caused by defensive pressure and poor decisions made with the shot clock running down) that make it easier for the Warriors to score in the open court. Could there be a worse sequence from Dallas' standpoint than a missed shot that five seconds later leads to a foul being committed by the Mavericks' best player? Davis made both free throws to cut Dallas' lead to 60-50. Dallas missed a shot but retained possession when Golden State knocked the ball out of bounds. Howard received the inbounds pass, went one on one versus Mickael Pietrus and took a tough jumper over Pietrus and Davis, who arrived in time to double-team Howard; Golden State rebounded the miss and three seconds later Jackson scored a fast break layup, cutting Dallas' lead to 60-52 at halftime.

Harrington scored 20 points in the first half, while Howard and Devin Harris had 13 points each. Nowitzki contributed 11 points, four rebounds and four assists and Dampier added 10 points, five rebounds and two blocked shots. Nowitzki shot 3-5 from the field and picked apart double teams with good passes that led to scores. NBA TV's Rick Kamla said during the halftime show that Nowitzki had not played well in the first half; I'm not sure what game he was watching, but when someone shoots .600 from the field, his team is up by eight and he is on pace for 22 points, eight rebounds and eight assists I'd call that a pretty good performance. Kamla also said that Dallas needed to slow the game down, apparently not noticing that Dallas was leading and the Mavericks got the lead by playing at a fast tempo. The Mavericks shot 55% from the field, a far cry from how poorly they shot during last year's playoffs when they insisted on slowing down the game. They also held the Warriors to 42% shooting; the Warriors kept the game close by shooting 7-12 (.583) from the three point line and forcing nine turnovers, many of which happened in the half court, not in transition.

The Mavericks opened the third quarter by running a screen and roll play with Nowitzki and Harris. Nowitzki caught a pass from Harris, took one dribble and drained a jumper right in Jackson's eye. There is simply no reason for Nowitzki to post up Jackson, which invites double teams and takes Nowitzki out of his comfort zone; whenever Nowitzki faces up Jackson he can simply use his height advantage to shoot over him, either right after the catch or, like in this instance, after using his dribble to get Jackson to backpedal a bit. On the Mavericks' next possession, they inexplicably did not go back to what worked, with Harris instead driving wildly to the hoop and getting his shot blocked. Ironically, Nowitzki recovered the ball at the three point line, set himself and hit another jumper. On Dallas' third possession, Nowitzki posted up Jackson, backed him down and then took an off balance shot in the lane that rolled off of the rim. Meanwhile, Golden State, employing their customary questionable shot selection, bricked shots from all angles. After a Jackson miss, the Mavericks ran out and Eddie Jones hit a jumper after just three seconds had run off of the shot clock, putting Dallas up 67-54. After that, other than one face up jumper by Nowitzki, the Mavericks went away from what had been working and instead slowed the game down and failed to get the ball to Nowitzki in positions where he could face up and go to work. Meanwhile, Jackson exploited smaller defenders in the post, Golden State hit cutters for layups and Dallas often struggled to get off good shots in the half court set. By the 1:30 mark the Warriors had cut the Mavericks' lead to 83-80; Dallas led 89-85 by the end of the quarter.

Nowitzki posted up Jackson early in the fourth quarter but instead of taking an off balance shot he launched a smooth turnaround jumper that swished through the net and put Dallas up 91-85. Soon after that, the Mavericks finally went back to the Nowitzki screen and roll play; this time it led to a three point play as Jason Terry made a layup and drew a foul. Then the Mavericks forced a Davis turnover and pushed the ball up the court, with Howard driving to the hoop, scoring on a drive and drawing a foul. His free throw put Dallas up 97-85. After a Warriors' backcourt violation, Nowitzki posted up Davis, drew a double team, passed the ball back out and the Mavericks reversed the ball to the corner for an open Howard three pointer that made the score 100-85. The Warriors never mounted a serious threat after that point, plagued by turnovers and some wild shots that missed badly. In one sequence, Nowitzki blocked two Jackson shot attempts before snaring the defensive rebound.

The Mavericks did not push the ball quite as much as they could have and at times they got away from the things that they do best but they took advantage of enough fast break opportunities and Nowitzki face up shots to get the win. If the Mavericks had played this way against Golden State during the playoffs they probably would have swept the series.

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:10 AM

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