I wrote a playoff preview for our blog (http://doubletechnicals.wordpress.com/) but unfortunately we didn't have space to run my entire Mavs piece. So here it is in it's entirety, for some like minded MFFLs to enjoy. Thanks guys and gals.
"That was our dress rehearsal" – Jason Kidd
"Never underestimate the heart of a champion" – Rudy Tomjanovich
Along with the Dallas Mavericks, the other love of my life is the New England Patriots. In 2009 All-World Quarterback Tom Brady was coming back from a devastating knee injury which kept him out for the entire 2008 season, and the team had a maddeningly inconsistent year. They couldn’t win on the road. They blew fourth quarter leads. They played sloppy and inconsistent football. On top of that, there were reports of bad locker room chemistry and insubordination behind the scenes, with many players not appearing to be "all-in". Despite all of this however, I convinced myself that once the playoffs started, it’s a completely new season and that the team could flip the switch and win the 3 games necessary to make the Superbowl. This was not to be however and the Patriots got rampaged by the Baltimore Ravens en route to the most humiliating loss in franchise history.
The 2012 Dallas Mavericks has a distinctly familiar feel to it. Like the 09 Pats, we have the talent to beat any team in the league. But what seems to be lacking is the type of mental toughness that led to the Mavs being one of the best teams in the league on the road and in the fourth quarter (this year they are 13-20 on the road, 4-26 when trailing after three quarters and 10-13 in games decided by five points or less). Instead, the season has often been characterised by falling into big holes in the first quarter, as the team often appears as if they forget the game has actually started. There are a few theories for why this is so. The first and most obvious is the championship hangover. Teams often struggle to come out with the same focus and intensity the year after winning it all, and this group especially could be forgiven for feeling a little too satisfied, given that the 2011 Mavs were made up of desperate veterans who had finally won a chip after years and years of disappointment. Another possible reason was the loss of the emotional leader of last year’s team Tyson Chandler to FA, along with bench sparkplug JJ Barea, Caron "Tough Juice" Butler and the legitimately insane Deshawn Stevenson. These were arguably the four toughest guys on the team last year and have been replaced in the lineup by Brendan Haywood, Vince Carter and Roddy Beaubois – none of whom are known for their toughness or their intensity. The fear is that this group of players will meekly bow out in the first round to a young and hungry Oklahoma City club, in much the same fashion as the 2009 Patriots. That is, fumbling for the "on" switch while they get repeatedly punched in the face.
However, I think there is another New England based team who is a more appropriate comparison to this Mavericks team. That would be the 2010 Boston Celtics. The Celtics were also a team full of older, veteran players. They finished the regular season on a 27-24 run and were written off as a serious contender by most pundits heading into the playoffs. They were too old, were limping into the playoffs, and had not shown the form necessary to become a champion. We all know what happened in the playoffs – they upset LeBron’s Cavaliers and Dwight’s Magic behind resolute team defending and sharp execution on the offensive end by their veteran stars. They took the Lakers to a 7th game and almost won the damn thing if it wasn’t for Kendrick Perkins blowing out his knee in Game 6 and Ron Artest inexplicably hitting the biggest shot of the season.
Similarly, the Mavericks have shown spurts and flashes of being a legitimate contender. Namely, a dominant January where they went 13-5 and beat OKC, Utah, San Antonio, and Boston. Since then however, they have gone just 22-22. Are there reasons to believe the Mavs might be headed for a similarly surprising playoff run this year? Both teams are somewhat statistically similar. They’re both older teams who rely on stout defense and sharp offensive execution to get open jump shots. They both struggle to keep opponents off the glass, but they make up for those lost possessions by rarely if ever turning the ball over, while being crafty in the passing lanes and getting steals. But like the Mavs this year, the Celtics in 2010 were a jump shooting team who weren’t very good at shooting jump shots (just 17th in the league in 3pt%). The thing is though, not every veteran team can be like the Spurs and finish with 60 wins while still limiting their stars’ minutes. Most veteran teams have to punt some games in the regular season, knowing that their squad needs rest and that they are capable of winning on the road so seeding is not as important.
In 2010 Paul Pierce averaged 36, 35 and 37 minutes a night in the first 3 months, then just 31, 30, and 34 minutes a game in the last 3 months. Ray Allen averaged 35, 37, 37 and 37 minutes in the first four months, then just 31 and 32 minutes a game in the last 2 months. KG had to have his minutes limited all year at around 31-32 minutes a game, but in the last 3 months of the season it was limited even further to below 30 minutes a night. This meant that their offensive execution would suffer, and as a result they didn’t get open looks which hurt their percentages. Likewise, the 2012 Mavericks have limited their stars’ minutes all year. Dirk’s scoring is the hub which the offense is built around, designed to draw in the defense so they can swing the ball outside till they get an open look, but he’s averaging the fewest minutes a night since his rookie year. Jason Kidd is the guy who makes the whole system go, but he’s had a strict 30 minute cap this year, on top of missing games to injury, and at times just to rest. Kidd not only is the guy who dictates where the ball goes when Dirk kicks it out, but he’s also the guy responsible for getting Dirk the ball in the first place. In the 18 games without Kidd in the lineup, Dirk attempts 2 fewer shot attempts a game than when he’s in.
Come playoff time though, Kidd will be suiting up every night for 30-35 minutes a night (barring injury of course) and Dirk should be playing at or close to the 39 minutes a game he played in the playoffs last year. This will no doubt boost their offensive efficiency, and their defense has been pretty stout all year as well. Statistically, they have actually improved from last year despite the fact that they lost their best defender (and this year’s likely Defensive Player of the Year) in Tyson Chandler. Indeed, when they’ve had everyone healthy, the Maverick’s starting lineup have defended and scored at an elite level all year. In fact, the Mavs' starting five has posted offensive and defensive numbers that would rank first in the league when they're on the floor together. And despite being a year older, the team is ironically more athletic than last year's squad as we receive key contributions from guys like Beaubois, Wright and Mahinmi this year.
I think the Mavericks have much more depth than the Lakers (they bring Jason Terry, Roddy Beaubois, Vince Carter, Brandan Wright and Ian Mahinmi off the bench. The Lakers bring… Josh McRoberts, Steve Blake and Devin Ebanks). Say what you will about shortening rotations in the playoffs, but remember the Mavs won the title last year because their second unit would come on and overwhelm other teams' second units and that was the difference in the game.
They’re more experienced than the Thunder – the Mavs top six players (starters and Terry) have a combined 544 games of playoff experience. Jason Kidd by himself has 142. The Thunder’s top 6 (starters and Harden) have a combined 209 games of experience, and have an average age a full 3 years younger than the Mavs. The fact that the Mavs are more experienced gives them an advantage in half court execution, which will be pivotal in the playoffs. The Thunder have made improvements in this area but still struggle with the zone defense from time to time, and this is the Mavs’ calling card. Indeed, of the teams the Thunder has played more than once this season, the Mavs have held them to the lowest points scored (95.3) and 2nd lowest shooting percentage (43.8%).
The Spurs represent the greatest threat, but as it stands now they rely on a lot of ex D-Leaguers and guys from Europe – great role players who can fit in a system well, but in the playoffs you need proven talent. The Mavs have guys like Dirk, Jason Kidd, Vince Carter, Jason Terry, Delonte West and Shawn Marion – all guys who have won dozens of playoff games. When push comes to shove, you know what you’re getting out of those guys. The Spurs though are relying on guys like Danny Green, DeJuan Blair, Kawhi Leonard and Tiago Splitter outside of their Big 3. On top of that, weird things tend to happen when the Spurs and Mavericks meet up, due to the familiarity built up between the old rivals.
The Mavs have gone through a strange and frustrating regular season. But on paper, the ingredients are still there for them to make a 1995 Houston Rockets or 2010 Celtics-like repeat run in the playoffs. The question is, will they be able to find the switch, and if that will be enough to scale the mountain once more.