In a match-up between two of the hottest teams in the NBA, the No. 2 rated defense outlasted the No. 4 rated offense, as the Bulls put an end to the Mavs four-game winning streak with a 100-91 win. It was a classic game of contrasting styles, with a wide-open uptempo Dallas team facing off against a methodical Chicago attack.
The Mavs are all about pushing the tempo, spreading the floor and hoisting 3's, often playing small-ball line-ups with no one above 6'7. Early on, it looked like they would have too much firepower for a Bulls team that doesn't get too many points in a flurries. At the end of the first quarter, Dallas was up 32-20.
Then, in a development that will shock no one whose followed this team, the Mavs spent the next three quarters slowly giving that lead back. The Bulls, patient and methodical, chipped away, using their size upfront to bully the smaller Dallas front-line and take Rick Carlisle out of his normal rotations.
Brandan Wright played only 8 minutes, while Sammy D checked in at 22 and DeJuan Blair was at 16. Perhaps not coincidentally, extended minutes for Dalembert and Blair did not lead to a big offensive performance from the Mavs. By the fourth quarter, the jump shots stopped falling and Dallas was outscored 27-15.
Whether they were up or down, Chicago didn't deviate much from their game-plan, trusting the percentages when Blair, Wright or Dalembert was guarding Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer or Taj Gibson. Gibson, whose making a real push for 6th man of the year, had a huge night, going for 20 points and 15 bounds, including 5 on the offensive end.
Coming into the game, the boards were a big worry and, to no one's surprise, the Bulls won the rebounding battle pretty handily. Chicago was +9 on the glass and +5 in second-chance points, negating the Mavs +9 advantage in the turnover battle. Dirk, Blair and Wright combined for 8 bounds, a number which won't get it done against bigger teams.
Going forward, as the Mavs face one of the toughest stretches of their schedule all season, the issues upfront might be their biggest concern. The NBA's better teams, like the Bulls, tend to have size and depth in their front-court rotation, a huge issue against a Dallas team that has been using smoke and mirrors in the paint all season.
It's Tim Duncan on Tuesday, LaMarcus Aldridge and Robin Lopez on Friday, Roy Hibbert and David West on Saturday, than Andrew Bogut next Tuesday. When the league's best teams face-off, the front-court usually proves to be the difference. The Mavs aren't getting any bigger, so they'll need a total team effort to compete on the glass.
There's no better example of the importance of the 4 and 5 positions than the Bulls, who have managed to replace Derrick Rose and Luol Deng without missing too much of a beat. If you have bigs like Noah and Gibson who can provide value on both ends of the floor, it's fairly easy to find perimeter players who can play off of them.
Former Texas Longhorn great DJ Augustin has resurrected his career in Chicago, shuttling men to the Bulls shot-blockers on defense while running pick-and-rolls and playing inside-out on offense. The Bulls shooters - Jimmy Butler, Kirk Hinrich and Mike Dunleavy - aren't the most talented players in the world, but they combined for 52 points on Friday.
"Some nights, teams miss shots and you have to hang in with grit, guts, defense and rebounding," Rick Carlisle said in the post-game press conference. "These things add up big in a lower-possession game like this. Everything has to be solid and tight the whole way and we were just not solid tonight."
If the Mavs have proven anything this season, it's that there isn't a Plan B when the shots aren't falling. In the NBA, when you are the smaller team, the margin for error is pretty small. For Dallas, locked in a tight playoff race, the margin only gets smaller from here.