It might have been Vince Carter who ruled the first three quarters for the Mavs in Game 5, but Dirk Nowitzki took over in the fourth and shot Dallas right back into the game. His entire offensive arsenal was on display as the Big German hit 7-of-10 from the field in the final frame Wednesday night, mixing in some nice shots off the pass with his patented fadeaways.
Head coach Rick Carlisle and Mavs fans alike must be excited to see whether Dirk’s blistering fourth quarter will translate over to a must-win Game 6 at home Friday night. Dallas will need its leading scorer to provide points if it hopes to extend the series to a seventh and final game. However, as Carlisle said after Thursday’s practice, what the Mavs do offensively begins with how the team defends. The Mavs were able to string a few stops together in the fourth quarter, often resulting in favorable mismatches on the offensive end of the floor Dallas took advantage of with slick passing and quick action. That’s where Nowitzki found his points, and that’s what Carlisle said Dallas must replicate in Game 6.
“We moved the ball well and we were getting some stops during that period of time,” Carlisle said of Nowitzki’s fourth quarter. “The combination of those two things — stops and ball movement — is going to lead to better opportunities for great players.”
Nowitzki echoed the importance of not only moving the ball against the Spurs, but also taking advantage of opportunities early in the shot clock. All season long, Dallas has been able to move the ball at a dizzying pace off of opponents’ misses, and that might just be the key to beating San Antonio’s disciplined defensive strategy.
“They’re so good when you let their defense set that I don’t want to run down and (run isolation) every time,” Nowitzki said. “That’s not our game. That’s not how we were successful all season. We’re a movement team, keep the ball hopping. That’s when we’re at our best.
“There will be some moments when I get the ball and I iso a little bit or post up a little bit,” he continued. “But they’re very good if they can stay on one side, and stand there and be long, and clog up the paint. They’re very good at doing that. We’re at our best when we move it and my stuff comes off the flow.”
So how exactly was Nowitzki able to break free from the physical, suffocating defenders the Spurs have thrown his way all series? Dallas did it primarily by pushing the ball off of stops, but the Mavs were also able to give Dirk a precious few extra inches of space by running some clever plays in the halfcourt.
The best way to create favorable matchups for a player like Nowitzki is to get him isolated against a smaller defender. The Spurs, however, have refused to switch a guard or wing onto Nowitzki as he’s run off screens again and again throughout the series, so Dallas has really only been able to achieve those matchups by pushing the ball up the floor. In one of the first possessions of the fourth quarter in Game 5, Jose Calderon quickly brought the ball up off a Spurs miss, and because Vince Carter also flew up the court, San Antonio’s Boris Diaw was forced to check him instead of Nowitzki, his usual assignment. It was also made possibly by the Mavs’ switch-happy defensive scheme, as Nowitzki ended the defensive possession on the opposite side of the floor from Diaw, making it much tougher for the Frenchman to find No. 41 in transition. That left the German matched up against Kawhi Leonard — although Leonard is a terrific wing defender, he lacks the size and strength to do battle with Nowitzki down low.
Normally in these situations, opponents will send a second defender Nowitzki’s way. However, the Spurs have double-teamed Nowitzki very sparingly throughout the series, and head coach Gregg Popovich opted not to design any sort of doubling scheme for Game 5. As a result, Nowitzki patiently backed his man down and laid in a finger roll off the bounce. San Antonio has forced Nowitzki to put the ball on the floor all series, which is something Dirk has said he doesn’t like doing as much at this stage in his career. But if a smaller man is on him, Nowitzki won’t hesitate to take him to the hole.
A second example sprang up later in the frame. Calderon again pushed the ball up the floor and ran a quick pick-and-pop with Nowitzki on the left side. Tiago Splitter has done an excellent job all series of limiting Dirk’s looks at transition threes — a shot he hits better than just about anyone. The Mavs pushed the ball, though, so Splitter couldn’t find him. Instead, it was Tim Duncan who guarded Nowitzki. Duncan is one of the better rim protectors in the league, so he’d much rather defend there than on the perimeter. As a result — aided by a crafty screen by Sam Dalembert — Calderon found Dirk for an open three-pointer.
This is exactly the kind of shot San Antonio wants to limit at all costs, but it’s also the shot Dallas wants to generate whenever possible. It seems like, moving forward, the Mavs might be able to get Nowitzki clean looks from the three-point line early in the shot clock off misses.
San Antonio has tried to eliminate any and all catch-and-shoot opportunities for Nowitzki throughout the entire series. Dirk’s had to rely on isolation plays — primarily his stepback fades — to get shots off. But aided by an innovative variation off a very simple play, Dirk found a couple open jump shots off the catch.
One of the staples of the Mavs’ offense the past few seasons has been a “pindown” screen to get Nowitzki a 17-foot jump shot. In a “normal” NBA offense, a pindown screen is the name for a play when a power forward or center sets a screen near the rim for a guard, who then flashes up either to the top of the key or somewhere near the three-point line. Dallas runs an inverted pindown screen for Nowitzki — something that’s highly unusual — by sending a point guard to set the screen on a big man, freeing up Nowitzki for a wide-open look from his sweetest spot. Dallas has run this play to great effect his entire career, and it’s made easier by Calderon’s willingness to set good, hard screens on bigger defenders.
Dallas ran this set twice in the fourth quarter against the Spurs. One resulted in the desired outcome, a wide-open Nowitzki jumper. The other, however, didn’t immediately generate a quality look. Rather than clearing it out for a reset, though, Nowitzki held the ball until Brandan Wright came to set a ball-screen for the power forward.
You won’t see many teams in the league run any type of play like this. Power forwards generally don’t handle the ball much at all, except for in post-up situations. But Dirk Nowitzki isn’t your everyday power forward, so it works for the Mavs. In this specific instance, Splitter stayed well below the screen, and for good reason: Wright is a terrific roll man, and Nowitzki has the passing ability to find him if Splitter traps. That leaves Boris Diaw 1-on-2, and Diaw doesn’t have the time to fight through Wright’s screen before Nowitzki can uncork the jump shot, which he of course knocked down.
The Mavs’ floor spacing was immaculate on that play, as well. Dallas ran this set with the three-guard lineup including Calderon, Monta Ellis, and Devin Harris, and each of them are capable of knocking down an open three-pointer off the catch. And because Dirk has become an exceptional passer from the middle of the floor, no Spurs defender can afford to leave his man in order to help against either Wright or Nowitzki. I wouldn’t be surprised to see this play again should the Mavs use a similar lineup in Game 6.
It was only a matter of time before Nowitzki exploded. If Dallas can continue getting him the looks he found in the fourth quarter Wednesday night, That Dude might be in for a big Game 6. And if the Mavs have hopes of forcing a deciding Game 7, they might need Nowitzki’s best game yet.
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