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Friday, March 28, 2008

Anthony, Iverson Combine to Sink Slumping Mavericks

Many NBA fans are familiar with the classic line that Micheal Ray Richardson delivered about the floundering New York Knicks (some things never change) in the 1980s: "The ship be sinking." However, his followup response to a question about how far the team could sink is not as well known but just as priceless: "Sky's the limit." Welcome to the world of the Dallas Mavericks, whose ship is definitely sinking and the "sky's the limit" in terms of how far it will fall. The Mavs built a 15 point lead at Denver on Thursday before scoring just 35 second half points in a 118-105 loss. They are now just a half game ahead of Golden State and one game ahead of Denver in the three team battle for the final two Western Conference playoff berths.

The Mavs dropped to 1-1 without 2007 MVP Dirk Nowitzki, who is sidelined indefinitely with injuries to his left ankle and knee. More significantly, they are now 0-9 versus winning teams since acquiring Jason Kidd, who had one of his best games as a Mav (19 points, 15 assists, four rebounds, five steals). That record is not Kidd's fault; it just indicates that Dallas has not been playing exceptional basketball for an extended period of time, something that does not figure to change as long as Nowitzki is out of action.

Carmelo Anthony led Denver in scoring (32 points), rebounds (10) and assists (eight) yet he had a plus/minus rating of just +1 in a 13 point win. That is an unusual stat line but I think that the explanation can be found in his defense--or lack thereof. Anthony is a gifted athlete and he is certainly physically capable of playing good defense but often he is out of position, not in a proper defensive stance and/or seemingly disinterested. He puts up gaudy offensive numbers on a nightly basis but he gives up plenty at the other end of the court as well and that sets the tone for the entire team. Josh Howard scored 20 of his 32 points in the first half, helping Dallas to build a 70-60 lead, and when TNT's Craig Sager asked him if Dallas scored so much because of good offense, bad defense or both, Howard refrained from even trying to sugarcoat the situation and honestly replied, "A little bit of both." In the second half, Dallas started throwing the ball away, igniting Denver's fast break and enabling the Nuggets to turn that 10 point deficit into a 94-86 lead by the end of the third quarter.

Allen Iverson, the other member of the league's highest scoring duo, added 31 points and five assists and he had a game-high +16 plus/minus rating. Howard was largely silent after his big first half and the same was true of Jerry Stackhouse, who had 16 of his 18 points in the first half.

The Mavs gave up 60 points in the first half and 58 points in the second half, so the difference in the game happened at their offensive end of the court. Without the threat that Nowitzki represents they were not able to sustain their first half scoring performance, an outburst that was facilitated by Denver's lackadaisical defense. Denver Coach George Karl told TNT's Craig Sager that his team does not play good defense for 48 minutes but that they have the ability to play good defense at times. Apparently, they decided to make the second half one of those times; the Nuggets took their first lead of the second half after nearly forcing a 24 second violation, rebounding a Stackhouse miss and quickly converting that opportunity into a fast break dunk by Anthony that made the score 80-79. Dallas never seriously threatened Denver after that.

A lot of people doubted Houston without Yao Ming and Phoenix with Shaquille O'Neal and I correctly said that both of those teams would be fine. However, the people who are doubting Dallas now are correct. The Mavs were not doing so great even with Nowitzki. They have some talented players but the idea that Josh Howard is as valuable as Nowitzki is going to rapidly be revealed as erroneous. Kidd is a great leader but it seems that there is some kind of power struggle between him and Coach Avery Johnson--not so much that they don't like each other personally but rather that they have different ideas about how to play. Johnson wants to slow the game down and call his own plays, while Kidd is more effective in an uptempo game. The race for the last two spots is so close that Dallas could find a way to win a couple games and sneak in but they are obviously pretenders and not contenders this season, which is quite a drop from the status that they enjoyed in 2006 (NBA Finalists) and 2007 (best regular season record in the NBA).

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:09 AM

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