Let's get this out of the way -- there were a ton of problems with the Mavericks Saturday night in their loss to the Houston Rockets in Game 1 of their first round series. Monta Ellis went bye-bye, Rajon Rondo had one great quarter and three bad ones and Devin Harris and Chandler Parsons both looked too hobbled. Hal Brown tried his best to round up most of the problems the other night.
But this is a big one -- Dirk Nowitzki got absolutely torched. That's not a big surprise, as Dirk's defense has been declining for years now. The scary part was how easy Houston took advantage of it, almost as if Dallas never even THOUGHT about Dirk getting taken advantage of on the defensive end.
In our big-ass playoff preview, I wrote the blurb about power forwards and noted how Terrence Jones has the offensive versatility to give Dirk fits on defense. Jones has a really nice game for a guy his size -- he can drive, score down low, shoot a little and most importantly he can pass. He has good floor awareness and that just killed Dirk and the Mavs.
Throughout the game, the Rockets repeatedly ran pick and rolls right at Dirk on defense. The reason was twofold: (1) Dirk can't play defense and (2) Tyson Chandler can. To mitigate Chandler's presence around the rim, Houston smartly didn't involve him a ton directly in any of their first actions on offense. Instead of letting Chandler snuff out pick and rolls on his own, they created 2-on-1 situations with Chandler at the rim in no man's land.
Just take a look at this early pick and roll against Dirk:
Dirk does absolutely nothing here. He shows too much but doesn't really hinder Harden and then recovers to...nobody? The gameplan here is ultra-shaky -- Dirk neither shows really hard to impede Harden nor recovers back quick enough to his man. That leaves Amar'e Stoudemire (WHY ARE THESE TWO PLAYING TOGETHER) alone to guard two players, since neither Devin Harris nor Monta Ellis can gamble to leave their shooters in the corner.
Part of the problem is simple: Dirk's old! We really can't expect Dirk to be showing hard and recovering quickly on pick and rolls. But that's what he tried to do! Watch as Dirk tries to move here. It's sad. Look at what Tyson keeps having to deal with at the rim.
This was the Rockets go-to play whenever Dirk was guarding Jones or another big. There are a couple of options: Dirk plays less minutes (with how bad the Mavs offense is with Rondo, Ellis struggling and Parsons hurt, that's not likely). Dirk goes Al Jefferson mode or Dirk guards a wing like Corey Brewer or Trevor Ariza.
The Al Jefferson model is copying what Bobcats coach Steve Clifford did a year ago to create a top defense despite cement feet Jefferson anchoring the middle. Grantland's Zach Lowe wrote and detailed how Clifford would have Jefferson drop back and let the Bobcats' wings bump the roller allowing Jefferson time to recover and the guard time to get around the screen.
The Mavs could (and probably should) do that with Dirk. There's zero reason why Dirk should be showing so much against James Harden. It also doesn't help that Dirk simply can't stay in front of Jones, who's more than comfortable taking him off the dribble. Jones can play.
For pick and rolls, have Dirk drop back and allow Harden a midrange jumper. Can Harden still make those? Absolutely. But it's better than a dunk, layup or corner three. Even if Harden decides against the jumper it at least makes him think about what to do -- whether to keep probing and challenge Dirk and try to draw a foul (likely) or hell, even pass out and reset. Even a reset will be seen as a win, as the Rockets rarely had to force anything at the end of the shot clock last night save for a few back-breaking threes in the fourth quarter from Ariza and Brewer.
The major problem with the Al Jefferson-model is it requires wings that can dig and recover. The Bobcats had Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Gerald Henderson. The Mavericks have Monta Ellis and a hobbled Chandler Parsons. Yes, THIS MONTA ELLIS:
This would be a great strategy to employ with Al-Farouq Aminu is on the floor, by far the Mavs best defender sans Chandler. He can crash down and recover better than any other wing on the Mavs roster.
The other option? Dirk could guard seemingly non-threatening off the bounce bigs like Ariza and Brewer. That could work in bursts and force those two spot-up guys to make a decision with the ball in their hands. But the Rockets could simply go small and run some Harden-Ariza/Brewer pick and rolls and start the death wheel over again. Also, for a team as HORRID as the Mavs are at transition defense, the thought of cross-matching Dirk against Ariza and/or Brewer gives me night terrors whenever the Mavs miss a shot.
Neither option is foolproof but the point is clear: the Mavs can't do what they did Saturday night. It's their turn to make the adjustment and make this the competitive series most of us thought it would be.