Is Dallas Done? Lackluster Performances, Nowitzki's Injury Cast Doubt on Mavs' Playoff ChancesThe Dallas Mavericks' season may have ended with 3:18 remaining in the third quarter of their 88-81 loss to the San Antonio Spurs on Sunday. That is when Dirk Nowitzki landed awkwardly after blocking a shot, his left leg crumpling at a grotesque angle under his body. Nowitzki had to be helped off of the court and he was unable to put any weight on the injured leg. Early word out of Dallas is that he will miss at least two weeks but a more detailed announcement is expected from the team later today. The Dallas Mavericks were hardly tearing up the Western Conference even with the 2007 NBA MVP playing at a high level and losing Nowitzki for the bulk of the remaining regular season games could very well make the Mavericks the odd team out in the nine team race for eight Western Conference playoff berths. Amazingly, the Mavs have yet to beat a team with a winning record since acquiring Jason Kidd, the All-Star point guard who was supposed to be the missing ingredient to fuel a championship run for a team that made it to the 2006 NBA Finals and had the best regular season record in the NBA last season (67-15).
After hearing about Nowitzki's injury, Hubie Brown said, "Nowitzki is taken for granted. He comes to play every night." Brown added that Nowitzki contributes scoring and rebounding while shooting a high percentage both from the field and the free throw line but for some reason a lot of critics "nitpick" his game. I agree completely. We all know that Nowitzki is not going to go down to the low post on a regular basis but as a face up player who is seven feet tall with almost unlimited range he is incredibly difficult to guard. He is also a very underrated rebounder whose work on the glass is even better in the postseason than it is in the regular season. He has been a very durable player throughout his career, so the games that he misses now in this most critical part of the season may very well turn into an instance of absence making the (fans') heart grow fonder; Nowitzki's critics are most likely going to get a demonstration of just how valuable he really is. Dallas Coach Avery Johnson tried to put the best possible spin on the situation, telling ABC's Michelle Tafoya that several of his players have been requesting more playing time so now they will have opportunities to show what they can do.
The Spurs played solid defense throughout the game but they looked terrible on offense. They shot 30-91 from the field (.330), with Tim Duncan shooting just 7-21, including 1-10 in the first half. Duncan finished with 19 points and 13 rebounds. Manu Ginobili shot 2-8 in the first half but he really stepped up in the second half, shooting 4-7 and finishing with 26 points, eight rebounds and six assists. He was the driving force behind a 19-0 San Antonio run that lifted the Spurs from a 54-42 deficit at the 6:24 mark of the third quarter to a 61-54 lead with 1:45 remaining in the third quarter. Although most of that comeback happened before Nowitzki got hurt Nowitzki's injury seemed to suck all of the life not only out of the Dallas crowd but also the Mavericks' team. Dallas stayed in contact the rest of the way but never managed to tie the score.
The Spurs have now won three games in a row after going through a stretch where they lost six out of seven games. Their 47-23 record is just three games worse than their mark at this time last season but the West is so tough that they would only be the sixth seed if the playoffs started today. Of course, the standings are so tightly bunched together that they could easily be the top seed by the end of the season. It seems like many "experts" spend most of the regular season either ignoring the Spurs or trying to make the case that they are too old to win the championship again--and then after the playoffs are over they have to backtrack from their earlier remarks. The reality is simple: unless Tim Duncan sustains a serious injury, the Spurs are still the team to beat. There are a few teams that have a decent chance of doing that this season but the onus is on those teams to prove that they can beat the Spurs four times in a seven game playoff series. The Spurs' defense is so stifling that even with Duncan, Ginobili and Tony Parker all shooting terrible percentages in the first half Dallas only enjoyed a 40-36 halftime lead. Parker never did find his stroke and the 2007 NBA Finals MVP finished with just 13 points on 4-21 shooting. How many teams play good enough defense to overcome that kind of bricklaying by one of their key players? The Spurs may not shoot that poorly again the rest of the way but they will play that kind of defense night in and night out.
The Spurs' main advantages over their rivals are, in order, Tim Duncan, great team defense, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. However, a fourth advantage is their great composure. They are mentally tough and do not get rattled by anything that happens, from poor shooting to hard fouls by the other team to any other kind of adversity. For instance, late in the third quarter, Dallas swingman Jerry Stackhouse did not like the way that Ginobili was boxing him out so he threw Ginobili to the ground and then delivered a glancing blow to Ginobili's face with an open hand. The referees inexplicably called a foul on each player, a ruling that ABC's Jeff Van Gundy rightly criticized, because Stackhouse clearly was the only one who committed a foul; Van Gundy went so far as to label the play "dirty," though Mark Jackson felt that it was simply a foul but not a dirty play. Stackhouse also received a technical foul on the play. Ginobili did not hop to his feet and do the macho posturing that is so common in the NBA and he certainly did not throw a punch and run like Carmelo Anthony did last year when Anthony escalated a situation that did not even initially involve him in the first place. No Spurs' players did any macho posturing and no one from the team left the area of the bench. The idea that if everything does not go exactly your way that you have to completely lose control of your emotions is false. The Suns sure could have used that kind of composure during last year's playoffs, when their overreaction to a foul by the Spurs' Robert Horry led to suspensions for Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw. When the Spurs come on to the court their one and only objective is to win the game, not to prove how "tough" they are and not to receive recognition for their individual achievements.
posted by David Friedman @ 3:41 AM