Monday, April 30, 2007

Dallas Can Still Win (Here's How)

If you are like me, you are riding the Wave of Baron Davis right now and willing the Warriors to close out this series, so that we can see more. More of the 20,000+ fans at Oracle Arena going crazy. More of Stephen Jackson going even crazier. More Biedrins free throws (and hair gel), more highlight reel shot blocking from 6'6" swingmen (J-Rich and Pietrus), more ill-advised Matt Barnes threes that go in, more Don Nelson false modesty, more of Monta Ellis' cold-blooded game face (has he ever changed his expression?), and, of course, more Baron Davis. I can recall the 2003 Playoffs, when I had a vested interest in the Sixers advancing out of the first round and being absolutely terrified of a hobbled Baron. He could hardly move, yet he was so strong and skilled and athletic that even with a bad back and a bum knee, he was completely dominant at times. Now, four years later, he is finally healthy enough to reach his full potential and the results are breathtaking. Even his dumb ejection in Game Two is forgiven at this point, which tends to happen when you personally author the two most memorable performances of the first round (Games One and Four).

All of that said, the victory party for the Warriors may be premature. Nobody from G-State has made the mistake of talking about the second round ala T-Mac in 2003, but there is a feeling in the aftermath of last night's game that the Warriors are going to get this done.

Not so fast.

There is no reason to think the Mavs will come back and win the series, but that does not mean they can't. Dallas played last night's game with both hands wrapped around its collective throat, on the road, and still nearly won the contest. They killed Golden State on the boards. They discovered (and then forgot) that nobody on the Warriors' roster can guard Josh Howard. They finally got Terry, Stackhouse, and even Nowitzki going from behind the arc. They have plenty to build on, and with only one road game left in the series, they can turn this thing around. A Game Five victory would put all the pressure squarely back on Golden State to close it out at home in Game Six. Otherwise, it goes back to Dallas for the clincher - a scenario that would finally allow the Mavs to feel like they have an advantage, since they know deep down that they are more prepared for a Game Seven. They might not be prepared for anything else the Warriors are doing, but a Game Seven - on the heels of two straight wins - is their one ace in the hole.

Of course, it is easier said then done. They actually have to go out and play ball and do it better than Golden State, which they've done only once in this series. I personally think they can do it if they follow this blueprint:

1. Go Zone. The Mavericks have mismatch problems all over the floor. No one can guard Baron Davis and Dirk simply can't guard anyone at all. Plus, while Diop is their best team defender right now and is doing a good job protecting the rim, he is getting switched into bad matchups as well. The easy solution to all this is to stop matching up and play zone almost exclusively. They went to it a bit last night (although Reggie Miller never once mentioned it) and I thought they had good success. Not only will it mitigate some speed issues, but it has two other positive side effects. One is that it will entice the Warriors to shoot more stand-still threes. Everyone seems to think that the Warriors are a great three-point shooting team, but they've been pretty average from a percentage standpoint. Not only that, but most of their makes are coming off of penetration. When they stand around and jack up shots, they are downright brutal. If the Warriors see a zone, they are likely to cast off deep jumpers, rather than isolate mismatches and attack the rim. Advantage, Dallas. The second advantage ... you know what, we'll just make it item #2.

2. Don't Foul. This is easier said than done against such an athletic team, of course, especially when they are out in transition. The zone can't stop fast break situations, but it can greatly reduce the foul problems in the half court. If the Warriors are shooting jumpers, it stands to reason that they won't draw as many fouls. And while the perception (and probably the typical reality) is that the Mavs are extremely deep, they are not deep in the contest of this series. They have a limited number of guys that can be productive against the Warriors' athletes. The list looks like this: Howard, Dirk, Diop, Stackhouse, Terry, Harris, and Buckner (sort of). Dampier, Croshere, and George are worthless right now and Avery needs to keep them off the floor. To do that, he has to limit the number of fouls called on the other six (and a half) guys. The zone will help that. So will calling a cease fire on their ridiculous flopping regime on defense, since trying to draw charging calls seems to backfire half the time. They need to avoid contact, not seek it.

3. Change Dirk's Role. This series is too fast for Dirk to do his usual thing. Which means that the Mavs should just give up on running the offense through him in that mid post area. Put him on the wing to shoot threes off of penetration. Put him in the box as a post-up player (he can be at least as good as Mikki Moore down there, can't he?). Tell him to just go offensive rebound and fend for himself like Shawn Marion. Dirk did have six offensive boards on Sunday night, so he can do that. It would take some pressure off of him and probably result in improved play, it would get him closer to the basket, and most importantly it would end this painful attempt by Dallas to jam a square peg into a round hole. Which leads to ...

4. Run the Offense Through Josh Howard. I'm not suggesting that the Mavs abandon the mid post game and the motion they run off of that set. Rather, they should keep running it ... but with a new player in that spot. Howard is the only Dallas player that looks as if he can't be covered. His herky-jerky dribble, great body control, confident stroke, and natural athleticism make him a handful for anyone, but he's particularly impossible for guys like Richardson and Jackson to guard. Pietrus did nice work on Howard in the second half, but it was hard to tell how nice, since the Mavs apparently forgot that Josh Howard was on their team. Plus, if he forces Nelson to play Pietrus either prematurely or more often, that is a victory for Dallas. (Forcing Golden State to adjust! Imagine that!) Howard was 8-for-11 with 20 points at the half and then he went 1-for-2 the rest of the way. Unacceptable. The Mavs like to go through him in the first quarter and then go to Dirk after that. They need to start and finish with Howard. He's their best player right now and appears more than capable of being the centerpiece of the offense.

5. Employ the High Screen and Roll. Every freaking team in the NBA runs the high pick and roll play after play after play, almost as if it is some kind of league rule. Yet here are the Mavs, playing possibly the worst pick and roll defense on planet earth, and they aren't running it. Why not? The screen and roll pulls athletes away from the basket, demands good weakside rotation (NOT a strong suit of the Warriors), and has the potential to turn the game into a layup drill for Devin Harris. Harris/Howard or Harris/Nowitzki looks like a virtually unstoppable combination. They need to use it. Often. It will involve Davis on nearly every defensive possession and increase the likelihood of foul trouble. It will put Biedrins (or Harrington) in no-man's land. It will create catch and shoot opportunities for the roller. I don't see much of a downside here, other than the occasional double-team and steal by the Warriors. But even that has a positive outcome, which is that for every J-Rich or Harrington pick, it will be four more Maverick layups as Golden State gambles more and more with each subsequent possession.

The Mavs can still get this done, but they need to make some crucial adjustments. The irony is that because of the intense criticism Avery Johnson received after Game One for making a pre-series adjustment (against an eight seed!), he might be gun shy from changing things now, when he actually needs to.

I look forward to the rest of this fascinating series, secure in the knowledge that either way - with a Warriors upset or a Dallas comeback - we are ensured of something pretty special happening.


Branden Higa said...

Great analysis, and spot on for what Dallas needs to do to pull a win out. A couple things to think about...

Howard is not the guy you want to run your offense through. As much as I like him (he carried my fantasy team through the first 3/4 of the season while LeBron was still warming up), he has a limited ability to get his own shot. A good amount of the looks he gets stems from the doubles that Terry and Harris draw and the high post game of Dirk. Both of those are situations which have not developed in this series.

The Harris/Terry-Nowitski screen roll is a wash for Dirk. The Warriors are going to switch the screen and get up in Dirk's grill preventing him from shooting. They don't care if Davis or Ellis switch on him, they can harrass him enough to make him pass the ball (as Gabe would say, "Dirk ain't greedy enough" to just let the shots fly. He would rather work for an open shot). Having said that, Harris is going to have to be the man in this option. There are times where they have run the pick n roll and it resulted in Harris waltzing to the hoop for a layup. but for some reason they have kept going away from it. It doesn't make sense to me. The pick n roll has carried almost every chamionship team to the mountain, why won't they committ to it in Dallas?

Which makes me wonder. Maybe its not so much what Dallas isn't doing, but what Golden State is.

Can't wait for the next game!

Adam Hoff said...

See, I think Howard IS the guy to run the offense through. It seems like he needs to play off others because that is all they let him do. But in the first half yesterday, he got the ball about four of five times in that Dallas "sweet spot" (the mid post, where Dirk normally catches it) and was just abusing J-Rich. He might not be an accomplished scorer or passer with his back to the basket, but when he turns and faces, he's more effective than Dirk right now.

And as for the screen and roll, you are probably right about Dirk being contained, but if the Warriors try to merely switch, Harris will be gone with no one to protect the rim. If they hedge and double (as most teams are fond of doing, although I should call it "hedge, double, and foul"), then Dirk really will be wide open - as long as Harris can get the ball to him and not have it swallowed up by the long, athletic Warriors.

You are definitely right that the Warriors are doing some impressive things, but I still think Dallas could be much better. Even when GSW was red hot down the stretch, their pick and roll defense was still atrocious. Maybe not Marcus Camby-bad, but still, pretty bad.

The more I think about it, this thing is pretty much on Devin Harris' skinny shoulders. Sometime in the next 18 months he is going to jump to the next level of NBA point guards - he's too quick, gifted, and tough defensively not to - but the question for Dallas is: will it happen in the next few days?