If you're the type that refuses to watch anything but the NCAA Basketball Tournament in March--who crows about college basketball being more exciting than the professional version with so much more at stake in any given outing--you missed one heck of a game between the Dallas Mavericks and Portland Trail Blazers today. With apologies to Stefon, it had everything you could want: three-point barrages, zombie All-Stars coming back to life, alternative lineups, kink-filled defenses, and that thing where Raymond Felton makes you forget for a second why you hated him so much. After a rough-and-tumble fourth quarter the game even went into overtime. Unfortunately the extra period was completely one-sided as Dallas paraded to a 19-7 extra-period advantage on their way to a 132-120 win, but that shouldn't dim the excitement of the game too much. No matter the outcome it was ...
The Blazers got off to a nice start, despite (maybe because of) a pair of fouls whistled on Al-Farouq Aminu in the first 2:00 of the game. With their starting small forward on the bench, the Blazers were forced to improvise. Their counter-attack of choice: shooting guards! Gerald Henderson and Allen Crabbe combined for 11 points in the first period, draining 3 of the 5 triples Portland would tally in the frame. A free-flowing attack led to 36 points for the good guys.
Dallas spent the period mired in sludge, trying to pound it in the lane against a packed Portland defense. The only successful scoring stream they tapped came from the foul line. They hit 9-9 free throws in the period. The Blazers assisted them by coughing up 5 turnovers. But all of that combined only netted Dallas 25 points, leaving them in an 11-point hole. The evening looked promising.
Dallas shut down that promise quickly, starting the second period on a 14-3 run. Up until this point they'd been playing Baldur's Gate ball, "You must gather your party before venturing forth." Slowing down and exploiting mismatches wasn't working, so they went Diablo style, getting the ball up court quickly and taking the first good opportunity they saw. When they couldn't sprint for layups they created their own mismatches, screening for Dirk Nowitzki until he found a guard on him. Instead of trying to pound it inside he stroked easy sideline mid-rangers against those shorter defenders. As Portland dealt with threats closer to the basket they left the three-point arc open. Dallas made hay, stroking 4 in the period.
On the other end of the floor the Mavericks employed a defense that they'd continue for the duration of the contest: double-teaming Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum no matter what the cost. The Blazers worked the ball around, scoring off of wing three-pointers and the occasional dish to an open big man inside, but the point production wasn't excessive and turnovers accompanied. Dallas was more that satisfied with that turn of affairs. They reversed their first quarter deficit and led 58-55 at the half.
The Mavericks turned up the heat on Damian Lillard big time in the third, not bothering with any subtlety in their double-teaming. They sent extra men when he was 30 feet from the bucket. McCollum benefited immediately, scoring 5 early points. But Nowitzki was rolling hard on the other end and the Blazers couldn't stop him. When Dirk wasn't reminding people why he used to be MVP, his teammates swished through even more three-pointers: 5 in the period including 3 from former Trail Blazer Wesley Matthews. That Matthews--limping and ground-bound throughout the day--had time to set up and stroke tells you all you need to know about how Nowitzki had the Blazers scrambling. Portland continued to score off of three-pointers and offensive rebounds, but midway through the quarter Dallas was shooting an incredible 80% from the field and they hardly slowed as the clock wound down. A 32-27 advantage in the third put the Mavericks up 90-82 entering the fourth.
The Blazers came back in roaring fashion as the final period commenced. Aminu broke Dallas' stranglehold on the guards by hitting a couple of outlet threes. McCollum added a couple of his own while Crabbe canned 3 triples in the period. The Blazers were not only back in business, but threatening to win. Aminu even helped the Blazers get a temporary hold on Nowitzki while Portland continued their stout interior defense...at least for the first part of the quarter. Unfortunately this left Dallas' point guards against light coverage with spotty help. J.J. Barea and Deron Williams kept their team alive when everybody else fell apart.
The resulting 31-23 quarter for the Blazers would have been enough to win the game under most circumstances. The flow was going their way. But the 8-point margin they eked out in the fourth exactly matched their deficit after three. When Damian Lillard's buzzer-beating three-point attempt went astray at the end of regulation, overtime was afoot.
The extra period proved a letdown for Portland. Nowiztki hit a pair of threes and a mid-range shot to lead Dallas to 6-9 shooting and 19 points. (For those counting, 19 points in 5 minutes is a lot.) The Blazers responded by missing 9 of 10, mostly jumpers. Portland's legs looked dead, maybe their hearts as well. A 7-foot scorer like Nowitzki has a natural advantage even when everything else looks equal. This became quite apparent in OT. The Blazers had to work to get open; Dirk was open every time he caught it. Portland couldn't field any defenders with both height and range so they had to settle for the latter. It didn't work.
The Mavericks' dozen-point edge at the final horn made the game look far worse than it was. This was one of the more interesting and hard-fought contests of the season. In the end it proved the typical story of boy meets girl, boy and girl have an incredible first date, then boy passes gas loudly just as he leans in for the goodnight kiss. But hey, dinner was nice and there'll be a second date on Wednesday night.
Nowitzki scored 40 points in 39 minutes, hitting 16-26 from the field, 3-5 from distance, and 5-5 from the foul line. He looked to take over the game after the Mavs got off to a slow start. Portland's switching defense got him started. (Surprisingly, Damian Lillard's defense didn't bother him a bit in the post.) Once he got the bit in his mouth there was no way to stop him. If the Blazers moved a big guy on him, he'd simply take them outside, knowing 7'2 center Salah Mejiri was waiting in the middle to convert off the catch or offensive rebound. But when the Blazers went smaller against Nowitzki, he simply shot over them. Had they been able to deny him the ball or throw off his stride early they might have stood more of a chance. Portland simply wasn't equipped to deal with a fully armed and operational All-Star...at least not one of Dirk's stature and caliber.
The success of Dallas' guards was slightly less pronounced but just as telling. Deron Williams began the evening backing down Lillard in the post and finished the game hitting unopposed threes. He shot 11-18, 4-6 from distance, and scored 31. Matthews ended up 5-7 from distance playing on half a leg. (Seriously...he had to leave for the locker room in the first half and looked like he could barely walk.) Barea shot 4-9, Raymond Felton 4-7. Every guard that took the floor for Dallas prospered.
To be fair, Nowitzki was causing plenty of defensive scrambling. It's not like those guards scored every point against straight-up defense. Even so, the Blazers weren't playing great defense, straight-up or otherwise. The big guys did their part; Dallas scored only 38 of 132 points in the paint and grabbed only 8 offensive rebounds against 22 for the Blazers. Those titanic efforts weren't enough. Every time "best guards in the league" gets brought up, this side of the story should be told as well.
That said, the switching defense put Portland's guards in untenable positions and that approach should probably be abandoned before Wednesday...at least against the Mavs.
Dallas firing multiple surface-to-air missiles every time Lillard or McCollum got in their airspace was the other big story of the game. It was only semi-effective when both stars played together because McCollum became the scoring bail-out when the Mavericks forced the ball out of Lillard's hands. But when only one ball-handling guard was on the floor the outlook was grim. Allen Crabbe prospered. Everyone else was shaky.
Casual observers and boxscore-watchers are going to butcher Aminu for a 4-12 outing but all of his attempts were three-pointers, making the percentage more understandable. He connected with his first few long balls, buoying the Blazers big-time as he did so. That he missed his attempts late in the fourth shouldn't eclipse his earlier feats, nor the 5 assists he garnered as the secondary option in those pressure-packed sets. Aminu played one whale of a game. He's just not built to be a permanent offensive outlet. That's the role Dallas forced him into with their on-ball pressure.
McCollum and Lillard scored 48 points combined, right on their season averages. Even with the extra defense, Dallas didn't shut them down. But the duo also combined for 17-48 shooting (35%) and 9 turnovers. Even factoring in 16 assists and a 7-18 rate from the three-point arc, those numbers are hard to swallow. Dallas absorbed those 48 points without blinking, trading them for the extra misses and miscues.
Before we go all bonkers, however, consider that the Blazers allowed Dallas 55% shooting while shooting only 40% themselves, ended up on the wrong side of a 40%-60% three-point shooting margin, and shot only 18-28 from the foul line but still managed to take the game to overtime. Those numbers scream "Lost by 20 in regulation!" Call it heart, guts, or skill...the Blazers acquitted themselves much better than the numbers claim.
People talk about playoff experience. Games like this with everything on the line and two talented teams fighting hard, can be just as valuable.
We've already been over the starting guard stats, so let's add this. People are going to focus on the final shot in regulation, a missed step-back three from Lillard with the score tied. Damian has hit enough of those shots to buy him leeway. He got enough separation to shoot comfortably; the shot didn't fall. But even if you want to quibble with the shot selection, the numbers just above should make it clear that this game was lost systematically, not on one play. That Lillard even had that opportunity was something of a miracle with Dirk scoring freely and his team shooting incredibly well around him. Turnovers lost this game for Portland. Defense lost this game for Portland. Nowitzki's incredibly ability lost this game for Portland. Damian Lillard did not lose this game with a single shot.
Al-Farouq Aminu scored 12 with 5 assists and 5 rebounds. That doesn't look impressive but like we said above, the pressure on him was higher than normal and he acquitted himself well. At least he played credible defense. Had one more three-pointer fallen for him in the fourth, he would have been a hero.
Mason Plumlee had his hands full watching the basket while the defense was falling apart around him. Merji managed 13 points and 14 rebounds but Plumlee had 14 points and 19 rebounds, 10 offensive. He did everything he could to keep his team in it. When you say things like, "The Blazers showed a ton of heart keeping this game close" you're pointing right at Plumlee and Aminu.
Ed Davis also gets a Heart Award for his 7 rebounds, 2 steals, and a block in 20 minutes. He kept possessions alive for Portland and helped shut them down for Dallas.
Allen Crabbe had a magnificent outing, responding just as he should have when the Mavericks turned their attention elsewhere. He shot 7-13, an amazing 6-10 from the arc, for 24 points in 36 bench minutes. It was his best game in forever and, like Aminu, he almost turned into a huge hero.
Gerald Henderson only shot 3-11, 1-5 from distance. The Mavericks field bigger guards to bump him around when he comes inside the arc. It appeared to bother him.
Moe Harkless went Jack-of-All-Trades by hitting 4-6 shots for 8 points, adding 3 rebounds and a steal in 15 minutes. He collected 3 personal fouls as well. The defense from the non-Davis bench guys wasn't any more impressive than most of the starters.
Noah Vonleh might not belong in a game like this yet.
Links and Such
Mavs Moneyball will be celebrating Dirk and whooping it up big time for reasons mentioned just below.
Due to a last-minute back-out we have tickets available for underprivileged kids and chaperons to see the Blazers play the Sacramento Kings on March 28th. If you work with kids and would like to take them, e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org ASAP.
With this loss the Blazers fall to 36-35 but remain in 6th place in the Western Conference standings, half a game ahead of Houston and Dallas at 35-35. Depending on the outcome of Utah-Milwaukee, they'll either be 1.5 or 2.5 games ahead of the 9th-place Jazz.
The loss also guarantees that Dallas will hold the tiebreaker over Portland should the teams finish with identical records. This could be the most important take-away of the day.
The Blazers face the Mavericks at 7:00 p.m. on Wednesday at the Moda Center.