It’s safe to say the Mavericks have surprised lots of people by taking a 2-1 lead against the No. 1 seeded Spurs. What’s even more shocking, though, is that Dallas has taken two of three without a scoring outburst from Dirk Nowitzki.
But make no mistake: The notion that the Mavs have jumped ahead in the series without Dirk is silly. Even when he isn’t ringing up 25 points per game — his playoff career average — Nowitzki’s impact on the Dallas offense is ever-present. Monta Ellis said as much after the Mavs’ Game 3 win on Saturday.
“Him just being on the floor still makes us better, even when he’s not making shots,” the Mavs’ 2-guard said. “Teams still respect him. He’s still a threat on the floor, so it still really opens up a lot. And even if the shot’s not going down, he’s still a big part of us winning.”
The Spurs have been relentless in defending the seven-footer, as San Antonio is constantly bumping and nudging him in the post before occasionally double-teaming him once he makes the catch. It isn’t as if Nowitzki is even playing poorly. His shooting percentage and total points have both increased every game in the series. He went 7-of-13 from the field in Game 3. Besides, the rest of his teammates have been able to carry the load thus far in the series, letting Nowitzki play within the confines of the offense and take the shots he thinks he should take.
“I didn’t want to force it,” he said after Game 3. “I had looks I did take that I thought were decent enough to take. Good thing is I made most of them. But, yeah, if they’re playing that way, sometimes I’ve just got to be a decoy and let the guys make the plays.”
That’s exactly what Nowitzki’s teammates have done through three games. Every last rotation player has made a significant impact in each game of the series, up and down the entire roster. While the series we’re witnessing on the floor is reminiscent of Mavs/Spurs shootouts in years past (particularly the seven-game classic in 2006), the productivity of the whole Mavericks roster, top-to-bottom, brings back memories of the 2010-11 team. Each game during the Mavs’ magical playoff run that season, a different player stepped up — whether it was Peja Stojakovic draining threes against the Blazers and Lakers, or Brian Cardinal drawing charges in the Finals, one or two Dallas players would provide unexpected, vital scoring or defense to get the win.
In fact, the Mavs’ roster has been so good that during these playoffs Nowitzki, a borderline MVP candidate this season, has the lowest Player Efficiency Rating of any Maverick who’s appeared in more than one game in the series. Seven other key Mavs rotation players, including all four other starters, have a PER above 15, which means they’re playing at an above-average level.
“Dirk’s had a great year and he was a more than deserving All-Star,” head coach Rick Carlisle said. “But this roster is built around being able to keep the load on him lighter than it’s been in other years, and so that’s what we’ve gotta keep striving to do. And, like I said, everybody on our team has got to be a go-to guy.”
That was the hallmark of the great 2011 team. Every player was able to make an impact, but, more importantly, every player was ready to make an impact. Carlisle is notorious for telling his players to “stay ready.” Stay ready, stay ready, stay ready. Spend five minutes around the Mavs’ coach and you’ll hear it half a dozen times. His players have bought in, and the results have spoken for themselves through three intense playoff games.
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