Basketball games get decided in a variety of ways. Sometimes talent wins. Other times a star player will take over the floor in a parade of dominance. Mistakes, athleticism, even random dumb luck can play a part. But sometimes we get a chance to see basketball in its purest form, a flowing chess game where advantages and disadvantages are predictable, the game decided by execution and the ability to play to your strengths instead of your weaknesses.
Thanks to Rick Carlisle and Terry Stotts, Portland Trail Blazers vs. Dallas Mavericks games have a higher chance than normal of falling into the last category. That's how it played out between the two teams tonight. Both pressed advantages effectively. Each forced the opponent to play out of rhythm during stretches. The matchup was tight, requiring overtime to resolve. The Mavericks ended up having their way at the end, winning 115-112. Their style was higher-percentage to begin with; their stars had a better evening that Portland's.
Despite that outcome, Blazers fans shouldn't skip over the beauty of outings such as this. If you want to know how basketball is supposed to look, Portland and Dallas put on a clinic tonight.
That the Blazers could have won the game speaks volumes about their resourcefulness. That they managed to snatch yet another late-game defeat out of the jaws of victory indicates how far they have yet to go.
With coaches knowing each other well and the strengths of both sides obvious, there was little mystery to this game. The story can be summed up by the following characteristics:
1. The Blazers are quicker than the Mavericks.
2. The Mavericks are taller and bulkier than the Blazers.
3. Dallas had trouble closing out on three-point shooters.
4. The Blazers had trouble stopping penetration and short post-ups.
5. Portland fielded Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, both of whom struggled mightily tonight.
6. Dirk Nowitzki still suits up for Dallas. He skipped the struggling and went straight to "mightily".
Give or take a few offensive rebounds and strong bench play from the Blazers, these half-dozen factors decided the game.
As is typical of a Stotts-run offense, the Blazers prospered when their three-point shots fell, notably early in the first and third quarters.
The Mavericks dominated when Deron Williams was able to dive down the lane unopposed, either off of straight up defense from Portland's weak guards or off of high-screen switches, a play that became an all-you-can-eat buffet for Dallas tonight.
Whenever the Mavericks were in trouble, Nowitzki headed to the top of the key to set a screen. The Blazers switched on most of those plays, leaving a guard on Dirk and a big man on the dribbler. Nowitzki ended up scoring 28 points on 11-24 shooting, Williams 30 on 11-17. Only 22 of their combined 58 points came off of free throws or three-pointers. Halfcourt offense ruled the day and the high screen set proved its crown jewel.
The Blazers took control of the game whenever they were able to keep the Mavericks on the perimeter (usually when Dallas' starters sat). The Mavericks shot only 9-29 from distance. Dallas looked great when they were able to close out on Portland's three-point shooters. When either team blinked the other surged ahead almost immediately.
Dallas took a 20-5 lead to open the game, then the Blazers closed to 35-32 midway through the second after a barrage of three-pointers opened up the floor enough for Ed Davis and Allen Crabbe to score in the lane. Then the Mavericks pushed the lead back to double-digits as Williams and Zaza Pachulia countered inside. But the Blazers had the last laugh, leaving the first half up 52-50 thanks to triples from Gerald Henderson and CJ McCollum.
Portland opened the second half with a pair of threes, opening up an 11-point lead. Then they retreated back to mid-range as Williams and Nowitzki carved them into mincemeat on the other end, setting the score at 74-73 Dallas after three.
Crabbe hit a three in the fourth and was fouled on a second while Lillard and Henderson poked around inside, giving Portland a 10-point edge again. Then Wesley Matthews stepped into back-to-back triples, paving the way for Williams and Nowitzki to reprise their inside act yet again. Unable to keep Dallas out of the lane, Portland watched their lead melt away despite heroic shooting from Meyers Leonard.
The Blazers led by 5 with a minute remaining but Dirk would hit a three and tip in an offensive rebound over a mismatched McCollum to send the game to overtime. Portland fans have seen this before.
Technically Portland hit 2 triples in the extra frame but they hardly mattered. In the midst of a 13-point scoring spree by (guess who?) Williams and Nowitzki, McCollum splashed home a lonely and futile three. It was the last gasp before the Blazers' head went underwater. Dallas poured in 19 points in 5 overtime minutes, scoring on 10 of 12 trips down the floor. Portland needed 9 charity points for Lillard in the last 40 seconds (against a resistance-free Mavs defense) to make it to 112...good on paper but not enough to prevail.
The Blazers took Dallas to overtime despite a dismal offensive showing from Lillard (he needed those gimme shots to reach 10-24 shooting) and a wretched one from McCollum (4-21). That's a minor miracle.
Credit Dallas for knowing how they wanted to defend the Blazers. Whenever possible, they took the ball out of Lillard's and McCollum's hands, sending a double team or pinching them off of screens. They were willing to give other players career nights in order to keep Portland's main guys out of it.
This almost backfired as Allen Crabbe (6-12, 18 points), Meyers Leonard (8-17, 23 points), Gerald Henderson (7-13, 20 points), and Ed Davis (10 points and 5 offensive rebounds) all went off. They proved quicker, more athletic, and sharper shooters than their Dallas counterparts. Their performance provides hope that the Blazers can survive when other opponents inevitably copy the Mavericks' strategy.
Portland's 37.5% three-point shooting rate, 13 offensive rebounds, and 40 points in the paint deserve mention. This game was well-planned and, for the most part, well-executed, on the offensive end.
Mismatches on the other end proved Portland's undoing. Switching on those high screens stuck out like a sore thumb. McCollum, Lillard, and Crabbe all ended up on Nowitzki. Turning his back to the basket and backing them down looked like child's play. On a night when Dallas shot only 31% from the arc, Portland's help defense never came. Philosophies are one thing, but it's possible to get stuck in them. No matter how much the Blazers despise giving up three-pointers, having Williams or Raymond Felton shooting them is preferable to Dirk backing down point guards one-on-one.
Not that the guard-on-guard defense was much better. No matter how good the Blazers look, eventually someone comes along to remind them that they're still kids. Williams was that guy tonight. He didn't have to think, adjust direction, or hitch his dribble even once during a drive. One spin, one step, one feint...take your pick, any move got him free and clear in the lane. Once it became evident that the Mavericks were going to take this one, both he and Felton could be seen smirking and shaking their heads on drives.
Only two forms of defense worked for the Blazers tonight: keeping mobile power forwards on Nowitzki and forcing the Mavs to pass into perimeter bail-out shots. Neither happened often enough. That's why Dallas won despite the strongest showing Portland's bench has put forth all season.
To lift a quote from LeBron James, the Blazers need to put not 3, not 4, not 5 things together...they need to play a complete game all the way around, for as close to 48 minutes as possible. They didn't. The Mavs were more than happy to take advantage.
The less said about Lillard and McCollum, the better. They combined for 14-45 shooting, 10-41 if you discount the last 40 seconds of overtime. Williams, Felton, and Matthews combined for 19-38.
Even less should be said about the rest of Portland's starting lineup. Except for the occasional speedy break-away, Mason Plumlee, Noah Vonleh, and Al-Farouq Aminu flatlined this game. Their guards needed help desperately and they were nowhere to be found. They combined for 1-7 shooting, 3 points, and 7 rebounds. Yes, combined.
On a night when Dallas guards were making regular trips into the lane, the Blazers managed but a single blocked shot. It's not like those forwards and centers were hanging around Dirk all night either.
Meyers Leonard hit 4-11 triples on his way to 23 points and a likely-successful bid to be re-inserted into the starting lineup. He committed 6 fouls but added 7 rebounds in 32 minutes.
Allen Crabbe scored a career-high 18, hitting 3-6 from distance and 6-12 overall. He showed a nice mix of outside and mid-range scoring. His confidence is high. He even managed to stay in front of his man a couple times on defense.
After a rocky start Gerald Henderson came alive, hitting 7-13 shots, including 2-5 three-pointers, for 20 points. It was his best game as a Blazer by far.
Ed Davis almost turned this game with his offensive rebounding and his ability to stay close to Nowitzki on defense. 11 boards, 5 offensive, in 32 minutes.
Moe Harkless had 7 rebounds and put in a decent defensive performance in 17 minutes.
Links and Notes
Tune in TOMORROW for a special announcement about Blazer's Edge Night. In the meantime, why not share the opportunity to see the Blazers with kids who might not get to otherwise? You can help send 2000 underprivileged young folks and their chaperons to the Portland-Sacramento game on March 28th. It's easy to do. Tickets are automatically donated when you purchase them through this link:
Promo Code: BLAZERSEDGE
Ticket Costs range through three levels: $7, $9, and $13 (There is a $5 processing fee per order.)
You can also call our ticket rep, Lisa Swan, directly at 503-963-3966 if you'd like to order that way. You will need to indicate to her that you are donating the tickets you order to Blazer's Edge Night.
Mavs Moneyball will be glad they have veterans on board.
The Blazers play the Indiana Pacers Thursday night at 7:00 p.m. Pacific.