Friday, May 6, 2011

Are the Mavericks for Real?

With their win in Los Angeles on Wednesday night, the Mavericks now have a commanding 2-0 lead over the two-time defending champion Lakers. The Mavs won two road games, and now they can win the series even if they only protect their home floor two out of three times. Though the Mavericks are still the #3 seed in the Western Conference, the Lakers seemed like the prohibitive favorites to win: they have home-court advantage, they are two-time defending champs, and they have an elite late-game shooter in Kobe Bryant. All those advantages seemed to be enough to ensure that the Lakers would win and move on the the Western Conference Finals. Though they still might, their chances look increasingly slim, and the Mavericks--so far--look like the team that will earn a date with the Thunder or the Grizzlies. But will they really? And if they do, how deep can the Mavs playoff run extend? Is this team, which surprised most of us in taking the first two games of the series, the real deal? Hit the jump to find out.

So far in two games against the Lakers, the Mavericks have been playing to their strengths while working to minimize the Lakers' advantages. Los Angeles' big advantage over the Mavericks is on the boards. They were 5th in offensive boards, 7th in defensive boards, and 3rd in total rebounds in the regular season. The Mavericks, by contrast, were 14th overall and only 28th in offensive rebounding. During these two games, though, Dallas has gotten big contributions from their front line, as they are narrowing the Lakers' advantage on the boards. Though LA pulled down six more offensive rebounds than Tyson Chandler (see right) and the Mavs in a close Game One, Rick Carlisle's squad narrowed that gap to only two offensive boards in Game Two--and won comfortably. They are also taking away another big Lakers strength so far in this series: ball control. Los Angeles had the fifth-fewest turnovers in the league during the regular season, enabling them to take almost 5% more field goals in the regular season than the Mavericks. In two games thus far, Dallas has committed 22 turnovers, but the Lakers have also committed 20, significantly narrowing the gap in field goals attempted. With good teams like the Mavs and the Lakers, more shots become more points--and more wins. That's how the Mavericks are taking away the built-in advantages of their opponents.

Dallas has also been great this series in playing to their strengths instead of trying to win at Los Angeles' game. One huge strength for the Mavericks this season was their three-point shooting. They hit the eighth-most three's during the regular season at the 11th-best percentage, led by Dirk Nowitzki's 39.3% shooting from behind the arc. Dirk has been great on outside jumpers thus far in Los Angeles, hitting 4-5 in the two games. His teammates have gotten in on the act as well: DeShawn Stevenson is 3-8, Jose Juan Barea is 2-6, and Jason Kidd is 4-11. The Lakers, by contrast, have been horrific from downtown: 5-19 in Game One and 2-20 in Game Two.  That's 17.9% overall from three-point territory, and not for lack of trying: they've been shooting even more three's in this series (19.5 per game) than during the regular season (18.1 per game).  Dallas' other huge strength is their team passing ability, led by the ageless Jason Kidd (above). They had the second-most assists in the NBA during the regular season, notching one up on 57.6% of field goals made. This series, they've taken that passing acumen to another level, getting a dime on 68.5% of all field goals. That means the Mavericks have continued to move the ball around the court, passing to the open shooter wherever he may be. It was that passing that enabled Dallas to shoot 49.4% from the field and 45% from three-point land in Game One. Clearly the Mavs know what works for them, and they have been taking it to the Lakers so far.

Coach Carlisle's team came ready to play
in Round Two against the Lakers
That the Mavericks are playing to their strengths and taking out the Lakers' strengths is not a coincidence: it is a sign of good coaching.  Rick Carlisle is an experience coach, who has a .500 record in 86 playoff games to date.  He has taken three different franchises to the postseason, and he's made it there in eight of nine season as a head coach. Carlisle has had his team ready to play every night, and they are attacking the Lakers at every opportunity.  Down the stretch of the ultra-close Game One, Carlisle had the right man (Kidd) guarding Kobe Bryant, as he committed a costly turnover and missed a potential game-tying shot with mere seconds remaining. Some might argue that matchup problems, not coaching, is responsible for the Mavs' strong gameplan against the Lakers thus far. They could say that the Mavericks' strengths naturally match up well against the Lakers' weaknesses, making this series a more advantageous one for Dallas. This could not be farther from the truth, though. In three regular season meetings between these two teams, the Lakers had a 2-1 edge.  The Mavs' only win against the Lakers this season came on January 19th, as Dallas shot an other-worldly 55% from the field. The two others games between these foes took place more recently, in the month of March, and the Lakers triumphed both times.  One LA victory was actually in Dallas, while the lone Mavs-Lakers regular season meeting at the Staples Center this year resulted in a 28-point thrashing by Kobe & Co. Clearly, the Mavs are not inherently designed to beat the Lakers; rather, Dallas has been getting good coaching and playing strategically in its two victories in Round Two. Obviously the Lakers are an experienced team with an all-time great coach in Phil Jackson, so they will not go quietly. However, there is no reason to think the Mavs will all of a sudden stop shutting down the Lakers on the boards or quit passing the ball as much as usual. This all means that the Mavericks can--and probably will--take the series against the Lakers.

As far as how deep the Mavs can advance in the playoffs, there is no easy way to figure that out without knowing who they might be playing. Since two series are tied at one game apiece and the third has seen the home team win both games, it would also be useless trying to predict who the Mavericks would play in subsequent rounds. However, we know that, with the an experienced point guard (Kidd), a superstar still at the top of his game (23.52 PER), and a huge amount of depth (Barea, Jason Terry, and Peja Stojakovic all coming off the bench), the Mavericks have the tools to play against anybody. And if they exploit the right matchups and play to their strengths--like they've been doing so far--they might just be able to beat anybody.

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