Dancing With Noah

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Tag Archives: Dallas Mavs

Reflection Eternal








Where to begin on this summer night in June? The NBA’s gone on its annual break and we don’t know if or when it will return. I’ve spent a decent part of the last few days reading through a mix of spiteful venom and corny fourth quarter jokes directed at LeBron James. I spent some more time seeing pictures of Dallas’s post-game celebration in the South Beach Miami clubs. This is our league now: The joys are documented on cell phone cameras and DeShawn Stevenson t-shirts while the lows go underground and are speculated against and attacked.

As I texted my buddy Hamilton earlier, we have the summer (and maybe beyond) for endless speculation and reflection. So I’ll start reflecting now before my memories fade into the abyss of an online archive.

I never, ever thought this Dallas team would win the title. Way, way back in April when we found out the playoff matchups, I saw Dallas vs. Portland and immediately circled it as an upset win for the Blazers. I didn’t do it just because I thought the Mavs were pussy soft—which I did think. I did it because as late as April 6th, the Mavs had gotten caught up in a four-game losing streak; two of those losses coming to the far-from-physical Golden State Warriors and their future first round opponent, Portland. A four-game losing streak is no microcosm of an 82-game season, but that losing streak at that time of year when Dallas was battling for a number-two seed was just one last bit of 2011 confirmation that this team didn’t play defense and couldn’t win when it mattered. The stats told a different story about their defense, but I’ll get to that shortly.

On top of the bad timing and my poorly constructed idea of this Dallas team’s identity, was their opponent: Portland. Despite the bad karma from the Darius Miles situation, these guys came together when Brandon Roy went down. On the increasingly large shoulders of LaMarcus Aldridge, the spiteful wiliness of Andre Miller, the stretchability of Marcus Camby and the late season sneak job addition of Gerald Wallace, the Blazers looked and felt like a team cresting into April. The way the Blazers consistently challenge the Lakers, there was a genuine sense of relief amongst Laker fans when Dallas won the series.

But goddamn, I was wrong and so were any Lakers fans who embraced a Mavs matchup in the second round. Dallas introduced us all to a cold steel resolution, that mettle you can’t buy at the store or even pray for (it wasn’t your time, right, LeBron?). Beneath the flesh of that Portland series, Dallas revealed what turned out to be their leader’s calling card: All-out assault. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it blitzkrieg in a 7-seconds or Less, Phoenix Suns style, but this team was unprejudiced Terminator-style attack. Portland, Los Angeles, OKC and Miami got it the same. After Portland though, it all came together—or maybe it was there all along and I missed it; overlooked, because I had already written it off because it looked like the same group Dallas trotted out every year—Dirk, Terry and Kidd. Dismissed it because if anything, the NBA is predictable and we don’t get late-career titles unless there’s a drastic shakeup. Look at the last thirty years of NBA champs and you won’t see anything that resembles Dirk or Dallas. Veteran teams that won titles did so with a major addition or by becoming new teams (Celtics becoming the Big 3, Lakers adding Gasol, Hakeem needing MJ to retire, the Admiral needing Duncan, the introduction of Magic and Bird, the unification of Shaq and Wade) or they went the wait-my-turn route (MJ, Isiah). (Side note—the only other non-traditional title team was the 2004 Detroit Pistons.) In the playoffs, the Mavs completed a pilgrimage they started way back in 2008 when they hired Rick Carlisle.

I’m not trying to say we should’ve expected this out of Dallas. In three of the last five years, this Mavs team lost in the first round (two times were to lower-seeded teams). When I was in Vegas a couple weeks ago, watching Miami plow through a shell-shocked Bulls team and seeing the Mavs fortifying themselves against a trial and error OKC squad, I kept insisting that you can’t change your identity over the course of a few series’. To some extent, we all are who we are and I was confident that Dallas would show that baby soft face soon enough. All previous evidence of this team and the league as a whole indicated they weren’t a championship team. I don’t think my primary point was wrong: the Mavs playoff team played exactly to their identity. I was wrong about that identity though—drastically wrong. Looking back at the stats over the course of the past season, it starts to make more sense that Dallas had been coming together. They finished 8th in the league in defensive rating (points allowed/hundred possessions) and 9th in opponent’s effective FG%. The improving defense (this was their best defensive rating since the 67-win team of 2006-07 and their best defense under Rick Carlisle) no doubt helped them rip off the following streaks during the regular season: 12 games, 10 games and 8 games. More than half of their wins were part of a streak. This team had stretches of 18-1 and 16-2—with no overlap. Aside from those two streaks where the Mavs combined to go 34-3, their record was 23-22.

They caught another streak in April and went 16-5 in the playoffs. Counting the four-game win streak to end the regular season, they finished 20-5. I was wrongfully defiant all the way to the end, expecting Miami’s cream to rise to the top, but in all ways Dallas was the dictator and forced the game on their terms whether it was in Miami or Dallas.

I mentioned above that Dallas looked the same—Jet, Dirk and Kidd. While their counterparts were given names pre-ordained for the lights—Bron, Wade and Bosh—they weren’t given the pieces Mark Cuban gave the Mavs. It took the whole crew, from Brian Cardinal’s pasty American impression of the Euro-flop to Tyson Chandler’s infectious positive enthusiasm to JJ Barea’s inconceivable drives to DeShawn’s Dirk-bolstered swag. Beyond the “it takes a village” vibe of the Mavs, the main components understood the utilization process. Trust, camaraderie, accountability, morale—all that awkward junko speak that corporations try to force—were embodied by this Dallas team and the result was the attainment of eternity.

Winning an NBA Championship (unless you do it in a strike-shortened season, Pop) is the only way to reach forever in the NBA. It might be some bullshit, but every black and white stat, every subjective award, every label, performance and reputation is up for debate and attack. Someone’s always trying to take a dump on Wilt scoring 100 points or averaging 50 points/game for an entire season. Someone else is disputing MVP awards (incredulously asking how Steve Nash has the same amount of MVPs as Shaq and Kobe) and there are even intelligent people claiming MJ wasn’t the greatest. It’s all fair game and there’s even a loophole to attacking players with rings. Jason Kidd’s ring with Dallas doesn’t carry the same luster as a title with the Nets would’ve carried. But for Dirk, oh the lovable, likable, indisputable grass roots feel-good story of the 2011 playoffs; for Dirk’s place in the history of the league, it’s the ultimate in accomplishments. It’s free from any asterisk, any qualifier, and any but. It’s free from dispute, completely pure and that’s rare in a sport and league where its followers are almost trained to argue and challenge every little thing with zest of religious scholars and interpreters.

Nothing else this season exists in the absolute world that Dirk Nowitzki’s and Dallas’s playoff performance does. They’re all alone as the eternal truth of the 2010-11 season.


I Guess Change is Good for Any of Us

There are all kinds of change, but the most lasting and legitimate kind of change comes over time. It comes from things like experience, trial and error, practice, habit, development and often criticism. For all the excitement of this year’s playoffs, two changes stand out:

The first change has been gradual, subtle but frequently targeted for criticism. LeBron James is an easy target and always will be in the same way that MJ was ripped before he won titles and the way Kobe has been attacked before and after winning titles. Losing, the Decision, the Global Icon, the commercials, quitting accusations, rumors of uncoachability, ridiculous free agent demands and mountains of attacks and assaults in print and spoken word—it’s all been thrown at LeBron and no matter what happens in the next few weeks, it will continue to pour down on him. In the process of amassing hate from all corners of the basketball-watching and consuming public, LeBron went through the growing pains apparently required of NBA stars: incremental playoff progress followed by inevitable defeat by the league’s senior gatekeepers. In Cleveland, Bron lost to a veteran Pistons squad, Tim Duncan’s Spurs in a 4-0 Finals sweep, the KG-led Celtics (twice), and somehow to a hot-shooting Orlando Magic squad. After all those playoff losses and criticisms, he’s finally getting after it with the kind of intensity we’ve always associated with Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett. In the fourth quarter on Tuesday night, with the game on the line, he put the clamps on Derrick Rose. LeBron was the best player on both sides of the court and was rewarded for his efforts with a 3-1 series lead.

A few years ago LeBron commented, “I don’t think I have an instinct like Kobe, where I just want to kill everybody.” Homicide aside, we saw the comments and took note. Kobe busied himself with back-to-back titles and three straight finals appearances while LeBron continued to get bounced out of the Eastern Conference playoffs. It’d be beyond naiveté to ignore the southern migration and the Wade/Bosh upgrades. Bron is surrounded by the best #2 and 3 options in the league. With those two stars flanking him, he’s managed to improve his overall game. He’s been named to all-defensive teams in the past, but we haven’t seen anything like the lockdown job he put on Rose last night or the dive-for-the-ball intensity he showed in the late fourth. Maybe it’s the support of Wade and Bosh or maybe it’s the relief they provide, but this LeBron is different. He’s playing with an energy usually reserved for the lesser-talented players of the world and he somehow has an endless supply of it. His post-play and post-game celebrations are indicative of someone who’s giving a damn—whether his outburst are aimed at critics, opponents or history doesn’t matter much. Focus and commitment are questions of his northern past.

The other change born of these playoffs: the stoic evolution of Dirk Nowitzki—a few weeks shy of 33 years old. The Larry Bird comparisons are inaccurate, but Dirk’s likely been the MVP of these playoffs. He’s playing chess to the defenders’ checkers. He’s cancelling out the best defenders on every team and doing it with a style that’s foreign to the NBA game in more ways than just being a German import. He’s always been an efficient scorer and in his career the Mavs are 6-1 in playoff games where he scores over 40 points. Like LeBron, Dirk’s has his own basketball bouncing skeletons in the closet. It’s taken a long four years to cleanse himself of the stain laid on him by Stephen Jackson and the Warriors in the 2007 opening round playoff upset, but he’s returned to MVP form and then had the audacity to surpass it with something that appears to be a casual effort which isn’t to say he’s not trying, but that everything is somehow easier. Like James, any questions of Dirk’s toughness or heart have been silenced by his virtuosic performance in these playoffs.  

With LeBron and Dirk, there’s been nothing disingenuous about their change. There’s no re-definition or worshiping false idols. They still carry the parts and pieces we’ve questioned over the years, but they’ve layered on so much more that we have to squint to see the old traces and even then, our eyesight’s still not strong enough.

Someone Great and his Silly Dance Partners

Tuesday night’s Western Conference Finals opener was the rolling hills of basketball emotions for me. I watched like the rest of NBA world did while Dirk Nowitzki piled on points, two at a time, possession after possession. It was exquisite and dirty at the same time. When the whistles started rolling in in the third quarter, I flashed back to the summer of 2006 when Dwyane Wade marched through Dallas defenders on the shoulders of refs blowing whistles like heavenly basketball trumpets. It’s an uncomfortable feeling to see someone so great perform like a genius, but feel the need to associate the performance with some kind of qualifier, but here I am.

There are three parties privy to this performance: Dirk (innocent of any wrong doing), the Thunder defenders (guilty of ignorance and the wrong kind of flexibility) and the refs (guilty of something like pathetic officiating). Dirk was on one tonight. It didn’t matter who defended him or how they did it, he was hitting gaggles of jump shots and forced Thunder defenders to foul him 16 times. The fouls were a mix of stupidity on OKC’s part (example: Durant switched to Dirk and picked up back-to-back fouls on the same stupid reach) and tender whistles by the refs. Dirk didn’t need to be bailed out by anyone. He was good enough tonight to earn his own segment on ESPN Classic or 30 for 30 or some German equivalent. But the opposition and the officials insisted on giving him a boost.


That’s Dirk’s shot chart from the game tonight and it’s brilliant. 12-15 on contested jumpers and a few drives? I think every OKC player who stepped on the court (except for Maynor and Nate Robinson) took their turn with Dirk and each one was equally ineffective. It was like a Manny Pacquiao fight where the opposition can’t implement their strategy because Dirk/Manny forces you to play/fight his style. What’s not listed in that shot chart is the 24 points Dirk scored on trips to the line. I can’t recall a player shooting this many jumpers and making a living at the line.

OKC tried speed, quickness, strength, wiry guys, athletes, black guys, a white guy, a Swiss guy and a Congolese; but Dirk refused to discriminate and ate them all up. What they refused to do was adapt to the whistles. Yeah, I thought the officiating was soft trash. For the most part, it was consistent though. OKC attacked more (40 points in the paint to 36 by Dallas) and was rewarded with more trips to the line (43 to 36), but they hurt themselves by refusing to adjust to the tick tack calls. The Durant example I used earlier was just one of many where OKC defenders tried different methods, usually physically aggressive, and were whistled for fouls, then did the same thing again. Towards the end of the game Ibaka made an adjustment (keeping a hand in Dirk’s face as opposed to using his body to get in close and inevitably be called for a foul) that was at least semi-effective in the sense that he wasn’t called for fouls and limited Dirk’s efficiency.

A lot of NBA fans still associate the 2006 finals with D. Wade’s mastery and the bump he received from the refs. Depending on what happens in this series and the finals, this will either go down as a singularly great one-game performance or a big shiny star symbolic of and solidifying to Dirk’s place in NBA history. For both players and performances, the one point lost in between the hyperbolic commentaries and cynical asterisks is the ability of both Dirk and Wade to recognize the bend in the rules and exploit the living hell out of it.

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