Practice Report: Dirk Nowitzki
Mavs F Dirk Nowitzki says the first-round series against the Spurs will be a great but fun challenge, and that these types of battles are the reason he keeps playing the game.
Aside just from what’s at stake in the playoffs, the postseason is completely different than the regular season when it comes to how coaches use their personnel. During the regular season, rotations are mostly consistent, stars play fewer minutes, and overall strategy is similar from game to game.
Once the postseason begins, all of that changes. Coaches stick with their go-to players for more minutes and, depending on what the series requires, might radically alter a game plan multiple times during a single series. When the Mavs and Spurs faced off in 2009, for example, Gregg Popovich threw out his regular season strategy in favor of double-teaming Dirk Nowitzki every time he touched the ball. The Mavericks ultimately prevailed in five games despite San Antonio holding Dirk to a 16.3 scoring average during the first four games of the series. The strategy shifted completely the opposite way the following season, when Popovich engineered a defense designed to let Nowitzki go wild. Dirk averaged 26.7 points per game but San Antonio clinched a 4-2 series win, as the Spurs focused on limiting the contributions of the supporting cast.
Offensive and defensive schemes tend to change frequently during the playoffs, and with two of the best coaches in the business in Popovich and Rick Carlisle involved in this series, that fact will likely continue to hold true. So how should you expect to see the Mavs approach the Spurs’ offensive attack, and what will San Antonio do to try limiting Dallas’s high-powered offense? As has often been the case this season, the Mavs’ biggest advantage lies in a member of its bench.
The key to slowing down San Antonio’s fast-paced, side-to-side offense is keeping Tony Parker and other Spurs ball-handlers out of the lane. Despite losing all four games in the regular season to San Antonio, the Mavericks were at somewhat of a disadvantage in the first two contests, as they played without backup point guard Devin Harris, likely the team’s best defensive guard. In the two games Harris was active, the Mavericks kept each game close until the final minutes.
Harris is quick enough to stay in front of and bother Parker and Patty Mills on the perimeter. His extra step allows every other Dallas defender to stick a little closer to their own man, thereby limiting Parker’s passing options and forcing the occasional tough shot. In the 48 minutes Harris has played against San Antonio this season, Dallas allows just 98.3 points per 100 possessions, a mark that’s one full point lower than the Indiana Pacers’ league-leading 99.3 defensive rating. The next-closest Maverick by defensive rating is Shawn Marion (the Mavs allow 105.8 points per 100 against the Spurs when the Matrix is on the floor). He’s the team’s best weapon for slowing down Tony Parker. And if you slow Parker down, you slow the entire team down.
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Of course, even if Harris can hold Parker down, the Spurs are very deep. The Mavs have done well against Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan, but the Spurs’ two most dangerous weapons against Dallas this season have been Danny Green and Tiago Splitter. Green’s three-point shooting, especially on the fast break, has been a thorn in Dallas’s side for years. He was 12-of-20 beyond-the-arc against Dallas this season, and shot 21-of-38 combined in the two years prior. (Both teams shoot the three-ball well. San Antonio led the league in three-point shooting this season. Dallas was second.)
Splitter, meanwhile, operates in the low post and is crafty as a passer, making him a difficult target to double-team. The Spurs treaded water (at best) while Green and Splitter get their rest against the Mavericks this season, but the San Antonio offense hummed with them, outscoring Dallas by 26 points per 100 possessions while either player took the floor.
Don’t be surprised if you see Shawn Marion assigned to guard Green, at least when Harris is on the court to guard Parker. Marion is long enough to make Green’s looks difficult, and the Matrix has the endurance and know-how to get around the multiple screens San Antonio occasionally sets to give Green a three-point opportunity. Meanwhile, Dallas will use a rotation of big men to guard Splitter, starting with Sam Dalembert and Nowitzki toward the beginning of games, and shifting to DeJuan Blair and Brandan Wright. Marion has also spent time guarding Splitter this season.
As a whole, the Spurs do an excellent job of running teams off the three-point line. They allow a league-best 18.3 three-point attempts per game, and in their 109-100 win in Dallas on April 10, the Spurs allowed just 12 Mavs three-point shots, the fewest all season. Fortunately, Dallas shooters — especially Ellis, Harris, and Carter — are all capable off the dribble, so if they do face tough close-outs, the Mavs will still be able to generate quality looks on drives and kicks. At that point, the key is to find the open shot, whether it’s a pull-up jumper, a layup, or a reset of the offense.
In the two matchups since the All-Star Game, Dallas has performed much better against the Spurs offensively than it did in the two games prior to the February break.
Know Your Enemy
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Forecasting San Antonio’s defensive strategy match-up by match-up, meanwhile, is much more difficult. The Spurs have primarily used Parker and Green to defend Monta Ellis this season, but Kawhi Leonard might also get a crack at the Mavs’ two-guard. Leonard has the type of length you need to combat Ellis’s tremendous quickness. The guard has been able to infiltrate the interior of San Antonio’s defense throughout the season, even knocking down 70.4 percent of his shots within the restricted area against a stingy rim-protecting team, up more than 10 percent from his season average. Expect slowing Ellis down to be priority No. 1 for San Antonio.
But, as we all know, Dallas has two go-to guys to worry about. Focus on Ellis and you risk letting Dirk Nowitzki go off. The Spurs’ defender of choice recently has been Boris Diaw, who’s proven to be a capable opponent in recent seasons, as he’s big enough to force Nowitzki off his preferred spots but quick and active enough to stay in front of the German. Dirk shot just 41.7 percent from the field this season when Diaw was on the floor and 57.7 percent when he was not, but Nowitzki also drew several more fouls while Diaw played than when he didn’t. Dirk is savvy enough to find ways to draw contact against the Spurs’ physical forward, and it’s paid off: He attempted 12 free throws while guarded by Diaw, as opposed to just four when defended by other Spurs. Things tend to get even more physical in the playoffs, and Nowitzki is able to take advantage of the extra contact.
The Mavericks have taken advantage of the Spurs’ defense when Manu Ginobili was on the court this season, scoring more than 113 points per 100 possessions when San Antonio’s sixth man played, the most while any Spur took the floor. The Mavs’ bench just provides too many problems for the Spurs’ reserves, especially if Ellis shares the floor with Harris and Vince Carter. In those situations, Ginobili is forced into a difficult defensive assignment no matter who he’s matched up against.
All of this is merely based off what we saw during the regular season. Either head coach is capable of reaching deep into his bag of tricks and throwing something out that the other has not yet seen. And with two closely contested playoff battles already between them, that’s exactly what you should be expecting from Rick Carlisle and Gregg Popovich.
Practice Report: Rick Carlisle
Mavs head coach Rick Carlisle says the team has to take it up another notch against the Spurs but keep their approach simple and limit turnovers to be successful.
Single-game tickets for the first two Mavs home games of the first round of the 2014 NBA Playoffs are on sale now. Tickets are available at the American Airlines Center box office, online at Mavs.com or by calling (214) 747-MAVS. There is an eight-ticket limit per game.