It appeared that for most of the Dallas Mavericks’ 89-81 Game One victory over the Portland Trail Blazers, Dirk Nowitzki would hear an all-too-familiar refrain. With an infamous history of postseason choke jobs, Nowitzki and the Mavs were singing the same chorus.
At the end of three quarters, Nowitzki was 5-16 with no free throws and six turnovers. In 10 possessions defended by LaMarcus Aldridge, Dirk was 2-8 with two offensive fouls for four points in 10 possessions, a horrendous ratio. Against Nicholas Batum, Dirk was 1-4 with two turnovers, a kick-out pass leading to a missed three, and a kick out leading to a Peja Stojakovic three for another poor ratio of five points in eight possessions. Dirk missed two jumpers over Gerald Wallace, and though he was 1-1 against Andre Miller, he also was ripped by Wallace double teaming, and threw a pass away for two points in three possessions.
Only on a screen/roll when Wesley Matthews picked up Dirk did Nowitzki have a good ratio, hitting a jumper over him for a couple of points in one possession.
Overall though, in 24 possessions, Dirk only generated 13 points, a far cry from an elite scoring ratio.
Meanwhile, Dirk’s counterpart was rolling. LaMarcus Aldridge, who is much more assertive in the post than in years past, was 9-16 for 21 points scoring in a variety of ways. He hit a jumper over Dirk, plus scored on one of the two times he posted Dirk, for a successful four points in three possessions.
Against Chandler, he scored on all three of his cuts, was blocked in transition, and in nine post ups, shot 2-5, was fouled twice for three free throws, turned the ball over, had Jason Kidd strip him, and found Andre Miller for a made jumper for nine points against Chandler in the post, a solid number. Altogether, he tallied 15 points in 13 possessions against Chandler, a winning ratio.
Aldridge posted Marion twice, getting stripped once, and feeding Batum for a layup for two points in two possessions. Aldridge rolled on a screen and dunked in a lob over Stojakovic. Aldridge also dunked in transition with nobody defending him. Only Brendan Haywood could stop Aldridge, forcing a missed jumper, and blocking his shot in the post.
Tally it all up and Aldridge’s 22 possessions generated 25 points—12 points more than Dirk and on fewer possessions. While Dirk was flailing around, clearly lacking composure over Portland’s physical defense, and some outright bad calls going against him, Aldridge was playing like an MVP candidate.
However, at the end of three quarters the Mavs were still winning by four. That’s because:
- The Blazers gameplan was to go under Jason Kidd’s screens leaving him open to fire away from outside. That, combined with poor Andre Miler defense, resulted in Kidd shooting 6-10 from the outlands.
- Peja Stojakovic was likewise able to stretch Portland’s defense by making two of four triples.
- Andre Miller and Brandon Roy had trouble stopping dribble penetration. While Portland’s rotations usually prevented the initial attacks from scoring, they were vulnerable to players in the corner receiving kick-out passes and driving to the basket for points and especially fouls.
- Brendan Haywood played exceptional defense.
- Haywood and Chandler were active on the offensive boards, totaling eight offensive rebounds for the game.
- Gerald Wallace was neutralized by Shawn Marion and turned in a dud performance—3-11 FG, 4 REB, 1 AST, 2 TO, 6 PTS.
- Brandon Roy lacks explosion and couldn’t break his man down off the bounce. Too often he didn’t help his cause by strictly driving to pass instead of driving to score.
- Andre Miller was solid—7-13 FG, 6 AST, 2 TO, 18 PTS—on offense but was a chump on defense.
- The Blazers don’t space the floor with shooters. Until Batum made a three with 30 seconds left, the Blazers shot only 1-13 from downtown.
However, thanks to Aldridge’s big game, the Blazers found themselves tied with the Mavs with 10:31 to play.
And that’s when Dirk started making adjustments.
Instead of shooting his awkward runners, step backs, and wrong-legged jumpers over Batum and Aldridge who have the length and quickness to crowd Dirk with reasonable success, Nowitzki received the ball at the high pass with 10:10 to play, eschewed a screen that was being presented him, and drove the ball straight into Batum. After a nifty spin at the end of the move, Dirk was fouled and hit two free throws. They were his first two free throws of the game and generated some confidence.
The Blazers continued to overplay the entry pass into Dirk, and because of Dirk’s relative lack of mobility, couldn’t get him the ball for several possessions. His next shot came at the 7:33 mark where he was fouled on a transition jumper, making two free throws. Dirk’s next shot came on a missed jumper at the key over Batum. Dirk was still playing soft, spending too much time shooting jumpers along the perimeter. The Mavs were having trouble scoring easy baskets and found themselves trailing by six.
Finally, Dirk made an adjustment. With Aldridge overplaying the high post entry pass to Aldridge, Dirk cut backdoor. While he didn’t expect Kidd would make the pass leading to an awkward sequence, Kidd led Dirk with a bounce pass, Dirk stammered to the ball, caught it, was fouled and made two free throws. Finally, Dirk had provided some easy offense for the Mavs and scoring began to come easier.
Dirk posted Gerald Wallace, and though he was looking to pass, drew a foul and two more free throws to tie the game.
With the confidence of seeing the ball go in eight times on eight free throws, Dirk was able to catch and sink a critical corner triple to give the Mavs the lead with under four minutes to play.
On the next possession, again, Dirk was able to fake a catch and cut back door against Aldridge’s overplay, taking advantage of a late rotation by Batum to catch the ball, get to the basket, and draw a foul. Dirk again calmly sank two free throws.
Seething with confidence, Dirk came down the next possession and set a screen that Miller died on and switched onto Nowitzki. Instead of launching a one-legged fadeaway, Dirk stepped through, Wallace was late on his help, Nowitzki hit a plus-one leaner and the subsequent free throw, giving the Mavs a four-point lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
While Dirk wasn’t able to impose his will on the Blazers, he was able to put the free throws the Blazers afforded him to good use, knocking down all 13 attempts in the fourth quarter, a spectacular number. Plus, Nowitzki was astute enough to, instead of stubbornly attempting long jumpers which weren’t working, adapt to the situation by cutting back door. Part of being great is being able to adapt—and in Game One Dirk was able to be great.
While Aldridge continued his fine game in the fourth quarter making three of four shots, the Blazers only generated two free throws, and were forced to rely on Batum for 10 field goal attempts in the quarter, not their main strategy.
In other words, in the do-or-die nature of the playoffs, Dirk was able to do, while the Blazers around Aldridge largely died.
What adjustments does each team need to make going forward?
- The Mavs need to find ways to get more offense closer to the basket. This means Rick Carlisle has to find more ways to get Dirk posted up.
- It would be wise if the Mavs played Jason Terry at the two-guard and not the point guard when he comes into the game. He was attacked by Andre Miller early, ended up in foul trouble, and never really got on track.
- Peja Stojakovic has to see less playing time. Not only can he not guard a lamp post, not rebound, or not create his own shot, but he’s one of the least clutch shooters in playoff history (go figure he missed his only fourth-quarter three despite being literally uncontested) and he was lobbed over three times.
But it’s the Blazers who need to make the biggest adjustments.
- Baseline rotations have to be tighter when overplaying Nowitzki on the perimeter.
- How about playing smaller with Wallace at the four? Sure he’d get torched by Dirk, but he may be able to isolate enough times to score as much as he’d allow.
- Brandon Roy has to look to be a scorer on his drives. Too often he’d drive and expect the defense to help off of the corners. With no help coming and Roy in pure pass mode, he’d have to float the ball out to the corner and have the offense reset.
Now we’ll see what each player and coaching staff is made of. The first service games have been played, with Dirk and Carlisle making the first adjustment that earned a win. The impetus is on the Blazers and Nate McMillan to make the necessary counter-adjustments if they want to break Dallas’ home court serve and win Game Two.