It's been three games and the Mavs have a crucial Game 4 against the Thunder in their first round series on Saturday night. Nobody expects the Mavs to take the series and after three games, it's hard to find many bright spots despite the shocking Game 2 win.
Still, they gotta play the games. Weirder things have happened -- ankles get twisted, players go into strange funks. Right now, all Dallas can try and do is win one more game on their home court in Game 4, just like they did last year in last year's series against the Houston Rockets. Here's the things that are working for Dallas so far this series, and what hasn't worked at all.
What's not working
The three-guard lineup
Lineup data after three playoff games is incredibly tricky and foolish to dig deep value from. It's three games, with two huge blowouts, so then numbers are especially silly and just about everyone is comically negative. For instance, JaVale McGee is the only Maverick with a positive net rating when he's on the floor.
But there's a few things to learn. Justin Anderson has only played 10 minutes total with Wesley Matthews. Those are the Mavs two best perimeter defenders and athletes, sharing the floor together for less than a quarter through three playoff games. Of course, the numbers are hilariously awful (a minus-83.5 net rating!) but it's such a small minutes total, I think the Mavs have to give this duo more time instead of Anderson being the sub for Matthews.
What's more concerning is the trio of Anderson, Matthews and Salah Mejri have only logged THREE minutes together in this series. Those are by far the Mavs' three best defenders overall and it's a shame they haven't seen more court time aside from garbage time, especially when the three-guard lineup isn't doing anything.
There's a reason those three haven't played together. Since the Mavs are missing Chandler Parsons, Deron Williams and have a 50-percent strength J.J. Barea, they lack someone to run the offense. Raymond Felton and Devin Harris have mostly played off ball with Williams, Barea and Parsons this season, used mostly as release-valve kickouts that can drive against an unsettled defense from a prior pick and roll.
They certainly aren't lead ball-handlers anymore, so Carlisle employs both of them at the same time so the Mavs offense doesn't lose any more juice than it already has with the injuries. Play Felton or Harris with Wes, Anderson, Dirk and another big and the logic and data says the Mavs offense will fall apart without any great playmakers or pick and roll maestros.
There's just one problem -- the Mavs offense has been trash regardless.
As pointed out yesterday, the Mavs have posted offensive ratings of 70.2, 92, 104.7 this series which are all below the Mavs season average. They aren't scoring and with the roster they have, they aren't going to outscore the Thunder unless Deron Williams gets dipped into a Lazarus pit. (SORRY TO DISAGREE WITH YOU BOSS #EMBRACEDEBATE)
If the offense is shitty regardless, why not throw out the all-defense lineup a couple more times? Perhaps lean on some more Dirk Nowitzki post-ups to draw some doubles, creating shooting lanes for Wes, a wider lane for Felton or Harris to attack or some room to cut for Anderson.
The biggest problem I'm seeing with the three-guard lineup is what it's doing to the Mavs defense and rebounding. Dallas was always going to be over-matched in this area but they can at least soak up some of the bleeding by having Matthews and Anderson on the floor at the same time.
It's almost impossible for the Mavs to rotate defensively with three guards, especially three guards as short as the Mavs employ. The Thunder bigs have been brutalizing the Mavs in the pick and roll because the rotating Mav trying to crash down on the rim-runner has been someone who's like six-feet tall. Come on, man.
Look at who is supposed to bump Kanter going down the lane -- sub-six-footer J.J. Barea. THAT IS SUB-OPTIMAL. (Also, credit to Billy Donovan/Andre Roberson for being there, knowing the Mavs would hide Barea there and forcing him to be the help man in that pick and roll). The Mavericks need bigger bodies, which Anderson can provide.
It also takes a toll on the Mavs rebounding. The same basic principle applies -- Mejri or Zaza Pachulia rotates over on a Thunder drive and Mav tasked with crashing down to help box out the big is usually a tiny-ass point guard.
Felton has zero chance there.
The Mavs aren't going to outscore OKC, so they need to muck the game up and try out their all-defense lineup. Even if it gets torched, at least try it out to see. There aren't a lot of other options available.
Containing Russell Westbrook
Westbrook was otherworldly on Thursday night, picking up a double-double with 26 points and 15 assists. He helped shoot the Thunder out of a Game 2 win but had another huge game in Game 1. The Mavs have no answer for Westbrook and this is where more Anderson helps -- it allows the Mavs some chances to put Matthews on Westbrook and still have a decent defender on Durant.
Even then, I'm not sure there's anything the Mavericks can really do against Westbrook. The best I can come up with is keep enticing him into threes -- Westbrook shot a cool 3-of-13 on threes in the first two games but improved that to 2-of-3 in Game 3. The Mavs need to lay off as much as possible in the pick and roll and hope Westbrook can't help himself to some more three-pointers.
Bless his heart but as I've said about 5,000 times on this site, Zaza is cooked. He almost single-handedly blew Game 2 and has been a giant negative for the Mavs through three games. He can't finish at the rim, he can't deter Westbrook and Durant enough at the rim and have I said he can't finish at the rim at all? Running a pick and roll with Zaza creates this enormous black hole of suck that creates a rip in the Mavs offensive universe and drains any possible life out of it.
If David Lee stays healthy, he or Mejri needs to start. Those two should split the center minutes and we can go ahead and stop using Lee as Dirk's backup four. Instead, I'd like to see the Mavs go small with Anderson when Dirk rests but put Anderson on Serge Ibaka.
That sounds crazy, but Ibaka has two, yes TWO offensive rebounds in this series so far. He's also canned 7-of-9 triples. Right now, Ibaka is drifting as far from the lane as possible and he's basically having the same impact on the offensive glass as Dirk.
Even in a starting lineup, stick Anderson on Ibaka so neither Lee nor Dirk nor any other Mavs big has to chase Ibaka on the outside. The Mavericks need both their bigs to defensive rebound and it's hard to do that when one of them is standing out near the three-point arc. By putting Anderson on Ibaka and Dirk on Roberson, Dirk can cheat closer to the rim to help rebound.
In Game 1, the Mavs set the mark for worst playoff loss in franchise history. In Game 3, they set the mark for worst home-playoff loss in franchise history. Yikes.
Guarding Kevin Durant, sorta
So, fun fact -- Durant has not shot 50 percent or better from the field or 40 percent or better from three in an entire game this series. That's good! Sort of.
Durant was hot to start Game 1 and 3 and cooled off in the second half after the Mavs were down big, so there's so deception in the numbers. Still though, the fact that Durant hasn't totally gone super nova is a testament to Matthews, who gives up about five to six inches on Durant.
As much as Game 2 was an anomaly, there's no denying Matthews played him physical and tough. After Durant's blistering first half in Game 3, Matthews crowded Durant into some more misses in the third quarter as the Mavs crept to within 10 points -- of course, that's when Westbrook and the role players took over.
It's not much, but Matthews has definitely done about as well as he possibly can against one of the five best players in the world.
When the Mavs beat the Thunder in Game 2, it was technically the biggest playoff upset in 20 years! Neat!
Deron Williams' reputation
Williams played through one of the most painful injuries in sports to help inspire the Mavs to that Game 2 win. Even if he doesn't play another minute this series, Williams has been seriously vindicated after a bad rap in Brooklyn.
Dirk goddamn Nowitzki
He's 37-years-old and his best offensive teammates are a hobbled sub-six-foot point guard, a shooting guard that can't shoot right now, a big who was kicked out of his last two teams' rotations and a 29-year-old rookie center from Tunisia.
Despite that, Dirk is leading the Mavs with 17 points per game and shooting a respectable 45 percent from the floor. The Thunder are giving Dirk zero airspace and the Mavs have been lucky enough to generate the few good looks he's gotten in this series. Seriously, how is Dirk supposed to get a good shot when the Thunder can happily leave open a bunch of sub-par three point shooters and lackluster attackers?
There's been talk the last day or so of the Mavs needing to engineer some more looks for Dirk. I have no idea how they can do that. The Thunder will happily let Felton, Barea, Matthews, Anderson and the gang fire away from deep so long as it isn't Dirk getting away a decent shot. Dirk is a treasure and regardless of how many more games are left in this series, we should be thankful for each one.