Mavs wrap up 2013-14 season with focus on future

Exit Interview: Rick Carlisle

Mavs head coach Rick Carlisle reflects on the 2013-14 season and looks ahead to next year's campaign.

The general message from each player at Monday’s exit interviews was simple: The Mavs had a two-part goal this season. They accomplished Part One, which was simply getting back into the playoffs after missing out last year for the first time since 2000. Part Two was making some noise once they got there. Although Dallas ultimately fell short in its upset bid against No. 1-seeded San Antonio in the first round, the building blocks are in place for a run next season, so long as the Mavs can blend in potential new faces this offseason with the ones already in the locker room.

Heading into the 2013-14 campaign, Dallas had experienced fairly significant turnover during two consecutive summers. Nine new players donned Mavs uniforms this season, and as a result head coach Rick Carlisle’s team spent much of the first half of the season just getting to know each other. After the All-Star break, however, the Dallas locker room came together and cruised to the finish line, sporting the most efficient offense in the league after the brief February respite. Carlisle, general manager Donnie Nelson, and several players all said keeping the team’s core together is the first step toward winning a playoff series next season and competing for a second NBA championship. Given the players already under contract with the team, the Mavs believe cap flexibility this summer could give them an inside track back to the upper echelon of the West.

“Veteran continuity is one of the important things for continued success,” Carlisle said. “It’s one of the reasons that San Antonio’s had such a long run. We had a long run here before we weren’t able to make the playoffs last year. Dirk (Nowitzki), Vince (Carter), Shawn (Marion), those guys will be key guys this summer as we start talking to guys. That experience and that know-how and the fact that those guys are such good players, it’s gonna give a team like us a starting point every year.”

In order to keep that core together, the Mavs will have some decisions to make in regards to the soon-to-be free agents on the roster. Six players — Nowitzki, Carter, Marion, Devin Harris, DeJuan Blair, and Bernard James — will be outright free agents this summer, and a seventh, Samuel Dalembert, has only a partially guaranteed contract for the 2014-15 campaign. Dallas will have roughly $30 million in cap space to work with this summer, much more than most of the other 29 teams in the NBA. That gives the team plenty of free-agent options moving forward, but Nelson said the signing process will begin internally. “Our priority is to look from within first,” Nelson said, “and just take care of the guys that have really taken care of us over the course of the years.”

Here’s a run-down of each free agent on the roster.

DIRK NOWITZKI

2013-14 Stats: 21.7 points, 6.2 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 49.7 FG%, 39.8 3-PT%, 23.6 PER (10th in the NBA)

That Dude has given every indication that he plans to return, as have Nelson and Mavs owner Mark Cuban. “Dirk’s not going anywhere,” Nelson said. “He’s built this franchise. He’s been with us from day one. Certainly there’s a negotiation to take place, but he loves this city and he wants to call it this home. We certainly reciprocate those feelings.”

Nowitzki has always said he plans to retire a Maverick, and in many ways what Dallas does this offseason will depend on how quickly the team can re-sign Dirk to another deal. It shouldn’t take long.

“We’ll find a good way where I feel respected for what I did, and where we still have enough money left for us to bring great players in,” Nowitzki said Monday.

As for in which areas Nowitzki thinks the team can improve, he said the answer is pretty simple: Just improve.

“You can always get better,” he said. “You can always get more athletic at every position, you can never have enough shooters on your team. You could have another playmaker. You can always get better. That’s not the problem in this league. We’ll just have to wait and see how the summer goes. There’s a lot of cap space. Donnie and Mark are probably gonna go to work. We’ll go from there.”

VINCE CARTER

2013-14 Stats: 11.9 points, 3.5 rebounds, 2.6 assists

The Mavs’ 37-year-old sixth man only has one goal, and that’s to win his first title. A franchise’s outlook will matter once he hits the open market.

“The right situation is what it’s all about,” Carter said. “At this point in my career, I just want to play for teams that compete for a championship. I just want that opportunity.”

What does that mean in terms of Carter’s chances of re-signing with Dallas? After all, there are sure to be several championship-caliber clubs desperate for his services next season. If his exit interview is any indication of his future plans, Carter and the Mavs intend to stick together.

“I just had a nice conversation with Donnie (Nelson), just in passing,” Carter said Monday afternoon. “I think the feeling is mutual on both ends. That’s the goal, to work it out.”

Exit Interview: Shawn Marion

Mavs F Shawn Marion looks back on the 2013-14 season with Lonnie Franklin III and thanks fans for their support throughout the year.

SHAWN MARION

2013-14 stats: 10.4 points, 6.5 rebounds, 1.2 steals, 35.8 3-PT% (highest since 2002-03)

The Matrix said he plans on spending life after basketball in Dallas, but how much money might it take for him to play out his career in Mavs blue?

“Not too much,” Marion said. “This is a great city. The fans here are amazing … It’s a great environment.”

The 35-year-old Marion has rightfully earned a reputation as one of the best defenders in the league. He can guard four or even five positions on the floor, and has truly given everything he has to the organization.

He and Carter have both made sacrifices of one kind or another during their time in Dallas. Both have spent time coming off the bench, and each has played fewer minutes than they might on another team. However, their sacrifices have not gone unnoticed in Dallas.

“They both have been good ambassadors for the franchise,” Carlisle said of Marion and Carter. “They’ve both been multi-purpose players. Marion’s versatility is well-known, and I’ve been a big supporter and one of his megaphones for it the last few years. Vince had a great series against San Antonio. He was good offensively and defensively, and he was a leader. Both of those guys were leaders. That’s why those guys were really important.”

Added Nelson: “We’ve got some different issues that we’ll deal with during the course of the offseason. But from the veteran leadership that we’ve had in that locker room — over the course of not just this season, but the last several — those are the kind of guys that you want representing your franchise and your city. I’m of course talking about Dirk, and Shawn, and Vince, and you go right down to some of our younger players. We go out of our way to try to get those guys into our locker room.”

DEVIN HARRIS

2013-14 Stats: 7.9 points, 4.5 assists, 2.1 rebounds

Harris missed the season’s first 41 games as he recovered from foot surgery, and spent his first month or so back going through what Carlisle has called his personal training camp and preseason. His impact was certainly felt, however, once he came back healthy. Dallas was 25-16 with Harris and 22-12 after Feb. 1.

During his exit interview, Harris said he’d like to return to the Mavericks and sign a multi-year deal. The point guard actually agreed to terms on a three-year deal with the club last summer, but question marks surrounding his foot injury reduced the deal to one year.

“It was a pretty complex negotiation last time,” Harris said. “I don’t really know where (contract talks) will go. My intent is to come back, but only time will tell whether that will happen or not.”

Nelson stressed the importance of having a player as quick as Harris. “I think in the new game, to have guys who can get in the paint in create, is extremely important, especially given the dynamic of the Mavericks,” he said.

DEJUAN BLAIR

2013-14 Stats: 6.4 points, 4.7 rebounds, 53.4 FG%

Blair proved during the series against San Antonio that he can be a difference-maker on a playoff team. He brought energy and toughness to the team during the near-upset, and never failed to provide a jolt of excitement to get the crowd going.

Blair spent the first four seasons of his career in San Antonio before the Mavs inked him to a one-year contract last summer.

BERNARD JAMES

2013-14 Stats: .9 points, .9 rebounds

James played just 30 games this season after appearing in 46 last year for Dallas. The Mavs’ three-center rotation of Blair, Dalembert, and Brandan Wright left little room for James to find playing time. However, Carlisle loves Sarge’s maturity and his ability to stay ready. An athletic big man who’s still learning the game, James can become a rotation player in the NBA if he continues improving.

(Sarge’s fellow center, Sam Dalembert, has just a partially guaranteed contract for the 2014-15 campaign. However, Nelson and Carlisle have both commented on Dalembert’s future with the club, and all indications are that he’ll be back manning the middle next season.)

Once the Mavs take care of their own free agents, their plans for the rest of the summer will become more clear. Dallas plans to make some noise in the playoffs next season, but first bring in some new talent in addition to the group of players it chooses to retain.

“The ultimate goal is to bring a championship here to Dallas as quickly as possible,” Nelson said. “We also respect those that have put us in this position. Those are the two things that we’ve got to blend.”

Monta Ellis masterful in final minutes of Game 6

Postgame: Monta Ellis

Monta Ellis addresses the media following the Game 6 win over the Spurs to force Game 7.

As Rick Carlisle, Dirk Nowitzki, and every other Maverick said heading into Game 6, it all starts with defense. Dallas was able to get the win last night for many reasons, and most of them had to do with what the Mavs were able to accomplish without the ball. Despite giving up 111 points in Fridays win, it was the Mavs’ defense in the middle of the fourth quarter that propelled the team to a 16-4 run, awarding Dallas a lead it never surrendered.

Nowitzki pointed out after Game 5 that much of his offensive success late in the loss came after Dallas was able to push the ball after a stop at the opposite end. The same held true for the Mavs in Game 6, only this time Monta Ellis was the beneficiary. He put together a masterpiece in the decisive final frame on Friday night, scoring 12 of the Mavs’ last 22 points of the game — eight of which followed a Spurs miss.

Let’s take a look at each possession and see how those points came to be.

THE PICK-AND-POP

A staple of the Dallas offense throughout Nowitzki’s entire career has been the pick-and-pop, a set during which Nowitzki sets a ball-screen and then fades backward or sideways before spotting up for a jumper. It’s a nearly impossible play to defend, regardless of the ball-handler, because Dirk is such a terrific spot-up shooter. Ellis only creates more problems in such sets, as his driving ability and pure speed give opponents one more element to consider when drawing up a defense. Dallas has run the set several times throughout the series, and it gave Ellis a wide-open look at a three-pointer in Game 6.

Monta 3

Manu Ginobili was so concerned with giving Nowitzki an open shot that he stuck with him until Tiago Splitter could recover, which left Monta all alone behind the arc. We’ve seen Ellis hit that shot many times this season, and he drilled this one as well to give Dallas a 94-92 lead.

THE FAST BREAK

But it didn’t stop there. As we all know, Ellis is perhaps the most dangerous player in the open floor in the game. With 3:28 left in Game 6, Tim Duncan missed a jump shot and the Mavs pushed off the miss. Devin Harris carried the ball up the floor before tossing it behind him to one of the fastest players in the game.

Monta Break

In a 3-on-3 situation with no San Antonio big man to protect the rim, Ellis will win this battle every time. Manu Ginobili tried drawing a charge, but was called for a blocking foul instead and Monta came away with an and-one. Had Ginobili committed to defending the drive earlier, Ellis could have swung the ball to Vince Carter in the corner for an open three-pointer. Dallas ran this specific fast break perfectly, and it resulted in three points. Watch the whole play below.

Pure Athleticism

Monta Ellis barrels into the lane, draws the foul, and still manages to convert the layup.

THE EARLY ATTACK

As big a threat as Ellis can be in the open floor, he’s just as lethal in halfcourt sets if he has the room to turn the corner off a screen and barrel into the lane. That was the case on the Mavs’ next possession after his and-one layup. Marion advanced the ball up the floor to Ellis, but the 2-guard held the ball and waited for a DeJuan Blair screen. Carter once again moved to the corner to spot up. But watch what his defender, Ginobili, is looking at as Ellis takes the Blair screen.

Monta Drive

Unlike the fast break a few seconds prior, Ginobili above has his back turned to the ball carrier. He simply is not in position to help against a drive. So as Ellis turns the corner, all that stands between him and a layup is Tim Duncan — still an imposing defender at this stage in his career, but without any help from Ginobili even Duncan is at a disadvantage against Monta.

The result: Ellis flew through the air and delivered a floater that extended the Mavs lead to 102-94.

Monta Finish

This is why the Spurs have focused so much on keeping Ellis out of the lane. Once he gathers a full head of steam, not many players in this league — even future Hall of Famers — can stop him.

So, to review, Ellis scored eight of his 12 points off of Dallas stops by:

1. Running a quick pick-and-pop with Nowitzki
2. Attacking the rim at full speed in the open floor
3. Waiting for a screen, then attacking before the defense can get set

The Mavs must take advantage of Spurs misses by attacking early in the shot clock before San Antonio’s defense has time to get set. If Dallas can do that in Game 7, and if Ellis can remain aggressive, the Mavs have a shot at pulling off the upset and advancing to the second round.

Mavs’ defense keyed Dirk Nowitzki’s fourth-quarter outburst in Game 5

Practice Report: Dirk Nowitzki

Mavs F Dirk Nowitzki weighs in on his monstrous fourth quarter in Game 5, what the team needs to do to have success in Game 6 Friday night, the importance of getting DeJuan Blair back and much more.

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.

MISMATCHES IN TRANSITION

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.

Dirk 1

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.

Dirk 3pt

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.

GIVE HIM SOME BREATHING ROOM

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.

Dirk 2

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.

Practice Report: Rick Carlisle

Mavs head coach Rick Carlisle looks ahead to Friday's do-or-die Game 6, getting DeJuan Blair back, focusing in on the defensive end and more.

Sam Dalembert, Brandan Wright have shoes to fill in Game 5

Practice Report: Rick Carlisle

Mavs head coach Rick Carlisle looks ahead to Game 5 against the Spurs on Wednesday, comments on NBA Commissioner Adam Silver's punishment of Donald Sterling and much more.

After news broke that Mavs center DeJuan Blair would be suspended for tonight’s Game 5 in San Antonio, the gears in head coach Rick Carlisle’s head surely started turning quickly. Blair might have been the best player on the floor during Game 4, and he plays with the type of energy and fearlessness that coaches love, especially when trying to complete an upset in a seven-game series.

But Carlisle won’t have Blair at his disposal in the pivotal Game 5, which means he’ll need to find Blair’s energy and production elsewhere. Where might he look? Well, if the first four games are any indication, Carlisle might stick with what he knows best.

Each of the Mavs’ three most-used five-man units in the playoffs include either Sam Dalembert or Brandan Wright at center, not Blair. What’s more, each of those units has a positive net rating, meaning they score more points than they allow per 100 possessions. Those three groups combined have averaged about 26 minutes of playing time per game, or just over half the game. Dallas has found success with its starting lineup during the last few games against the Spurs, shooting woes in Game 4 aside.

That could mean Blair’s absence likely means more playing time for Dalembert at center, which is not a bad thing. Dalembert has been excellent defensively in this series and has been able to keep possessions alive offensively, giving the Mavs plenty of second chances. He’s averaging 4.7 offensive rebounds per game in Games 2 through 4 and 10.7 total rebounds. Add that to his 1.8 blocks per game in the playoffs and it becomes quite clear that Dalembert has answered the call in the playoffs. He was also able to coax Tim Duncan into foul trouble in Game 4.

But he can’t play 48 minutes per game. At some point, Dalembert will rest, meaning Carlisle will fill the void at center by turning either to Wright or possibly even Bernard James, who’s seen only two minutes of action in the series. There’s a chance, as well, that the Mavs will go small by putting Dirk Nowitzki at the center spot. Don’t be surprised to see a lineup with Dirk at the 5; San Antonio went very small at points during Game 4, playing a “four-out” offense — a lineup featuring one ball-handler, three shooters, and one big man. That particular lineup gave Dallas fits on Monday night when the Mavs used a “traditional” center, so there’s a chance Carlisle was planning to counter with Nowitzki anyway.

Seeing Nowitzki at center isn’t an extremely rare sight — according to Basketball-Reference, Nowitzki was the center for 29 percent of his minutes this season, or for about 10 minutes per game. One possible unit including Dirk at the 5 could be a three-guard lineup with Jose Calderon, Devin Harris, Monta Ellis, Shawn Marion at the power forward, and Nowitzki. Dallas might also move to a switching lineup if San Antonio goes “four-out,” playing with Nowitzki, Marion, Vince Carter, Jae Crowder, and one of the Mavs’ three small guards. Clearly, Carlisle has plenty of options to go with.

Regardless, Wright is the most likely candidate to receive the majority of the backup minutes at the center spot. Offensively, Wright was phenomenal all season, and that’s held true in the playoffs — to the point that he’s having perhaps the most efficient playoffs ever. At the same time, Blair and Dalembert have performed better against Tim Duncan defensively in the series, which led to the increase in Blair’s minutes after Game 1. Wright will need to be very active on the defensive end tonight against the pick-and-rolls involving Manu Ginobili and Duncan, especially if the Mavericks cover those looks the same way they did in Game 4. That shouldn’t be a problem in theory; Wright’s athleticism is unmatched by anyone on either team’s roster. He’ll just need to be on his “A” game.

Bernard James could also see some minutes here and there, especially if either Dalembert or Wright get into foul trouble. He’s not a bad third option off the bench at all. Mavs fans haven’t seen much of Sarge this season, but he’s a capable player in the pick-and-roll game and has good hands. Defensively, he has the length and strength to challenge shots at the rim, but if he sees minutes in tonight’s game, he’ll need to make sure he avoids committing fouls. Dallas can’t afford for all three of its centers to be battling foul trouble in addition to a Hall of Famer in the post.

Game 5 is just a few hours away, now. Shortly after 6 p.m. we’ll see how Carlisle tweaks his rotation to make up for Blair’s absence. Each candidate for the extra minutes must be ready. This series is too close and full of too much quality on both sides to bring anything less their best.

DeJuan Blair’s energy, second-half defense spur Mavs’ 20-point comeback

Postgame: DeJuan Blair

Mavs F DeJuan Blair comments on the play that resulted in his ejection, the impact it had on the game and more.

At the end of a game in which they trailed by as many as 20 points and shot below 39 percent as a team, the Mavericks were still in position to tie the game with three seconds left on the clock. There’s no such thing as a moral victory in the playoffs, but the Mavs outscored the Spurs by 10 in the second half and nearly stole a game that seemed to be under San Antonio’s control for most of the contest.

As has been the case throughout the entire series, a reserve played a key role in jump-starting a second-half run. In Game 4, DeJuan Blair’s hustle gave the Mavs the energy boost they sorely needed. In just over 13 minutes in the second half, Blair hit all five of his field goal attempts and grabbed nine rebounds, four of which came on the offensive end. Dallas scored eight second chance points in the second half, and Blair had plenty to do with it. He also swiped two steals, upping his series total to six.

Unfortunately, he faced an early exit from the game as he was ejected with 3:08 left in the fourth quarter and the Mavs up by one point. Still, he was +6 in the second half and, if nothing else, brought Dallas out of a 20-point hole with the effort and emotion we’ve come to expect from the center.

“He did a great job,” Monta Ellis said of Blair’s play. “He came in and gave us energy and tough defense. He got rebounds and a lot of put-backs. He was a big part of us making that run to get back into the game.”

Added Dirk Nowitzki: “He was fantastic. I thought his energy was great. He was into it.”

Blair has played just 37 minutes thus far in the series — primarily finding minutes in Games 2 and 4 — but he’s made that precious playing time count. The Mavs’ numbers are better across the board when Blair takes the floor, and he has a hand in most of it. When he’s on his game, flying around the floor and creating second chances, he’s dominated the series and the Mavericks are reaping the benefits.

Blair’s Impact

  Blair Off Blair On
Mavs points/100 possessions 103.1 124.4*
Mavs pts allowed/100 possessions 103.9 99.7
Mavs net rating/100 possessions -.8 24.8*
Mavs FG% 42.5 54.4*
Mavs 3-pt% 34.7 36.4
Mavs offensive rebound % 26.4 35.7*
* denotes team-high in respective category

So what must Blair do to find more playing time? The center, though he stands at just 6′ 7″, showed in Game 4 that he has the strength to defend Spurs big men. In fact, Tim Duncan has hit just 40 percent of his shots in the series when Blair has been on the floor versus 57.8 percent when he rests. If Blair can stay active on both ends, he shouldn’t have a problem finding playing time throughout the rest of the series.

There was plenty else to watch in Game 4, of course. Here’s a brief rundown of the Mavs’ offensive and defensive performance in yet another close contest.

MAVS DEFENSE

The Mavericks have done well to limit Tony Parker and Tim Duncan throughout the series, especially in Games 2-4. It’s the third member of the Spurs’ longtime “big 3,” Manu Ginobili, who’s had the biggest impact in this series. The Mavs have had difficulty guarding him in the pick-and-roll — that is, until the second half of Game 4. A pretty simple adjustment made it all possible.

The left-handed Ginobili relies almost exclusively on his strong hand as he attacks the basket. He might begin a drive by moving to his right, but he will usually crossover back to his left before taking the shot. It might look like he had another big game last night — 23 points and five assists on 50 percent shooting — but Shawn Marion and Jae Crowder were able to hold Ginobili to just eight points, one assist, and one turnover in 14-plus second-half minutes. The secret? They made him go right.

Marion has spent most of his time and energy checking Spurs’ point guard Tony Parker, but due to both Marion’s defense and Ginobili’s stellar play, Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich has run most of the offense through Ginobili in second halves. Last night, Marion switched over to guarding Ginobili instead of Parker, and the results paid off. Below is an example of Crowder forcing Ginobili to his right in the pick-and-roll.

Crowder Forces Manu Right

As Tim Duncan approached Crowder, the Mavs’ wing chose not to accept the screen and instead literally act as a wall, essentially blocking off Ginobili’s strong hand and in effect isolating Blair against the Spurs’ veteran guard. But, in what was nearly identical to a sequence we saw in Game 2, Blair was able to strip Ginobili as he came off the screen and it resulted in a Spurs turnover. Ginobili might end up in the Hall of Fame some day, but no player is perfect. Manu struggles going to his right, and the Mavs took advantage.

Marion covered Ginobili the exact same way Crowder did in the second half. For example, here’s another example of a Mavs wing teaming up with Blair to force him right.

Marion Forces Manu Right

Dallas was even more successful this time around, as Ginobili was blocked off entirely from the basket with just nine seconds left on the shot clock. In a hurry, he fired a cross-court pass to Kawhi Leonard, who immediately caught and drove to the rim, drawing a foul in the process. The Mavs could even take their aggressive defense a little further in the future by having Monta Ellis worry only about his man, Leonard, and completely ignore Tim Duncan as he rolls to the rim. If Ellis had taken a risk by playing the passing lane more aggressively, the possession might have ended in a fast break for Dallas.

The coverage scheme only appeared for one half, and Dallas still lost the game, but it will be interesting to see if Carlisle elects to continue defending Ginobili’s left hand the same way moving forward. It greatly limited the Argentine’s scoring output in the second half and forced the Spurs into some difficult late-clock situations, so it might be worth a shot. However, it could also mean moving Marion off of Tony Parker for longer stretches of the game, meaning Parker could see some extra chances on the ball. The Spurs are the No. 1 seed for a reason: They have plenty of weapons. Stopping them isn’t easy, but Dallas has been able to do so for prolonged stretches in every game thus far.

MAVS OFFENSE

DeJuan Blair wasn’t the only player to bring some energy to the floor. The Spurs played with desperation in the first half, and that extra fire played no small role in building their 14-point halftime lead. San Antonio held Dallas to just 29.3 percent shooting in the first half before the Mavs bounced back to shoot at a 46.5 percent clip in the second act. The key behind the second-half push — for the umpteenth time this season — was the team’s insistence on getting shots at the rim.

The Mavs attempted just five shots at the rim in the first half, hitting only two of them. All in all, Dallas took just one less three-pointer (13) than shots in the paint (14) before the break. In the second half that trend reversed, as the Mavs took 18 shots in the paint compared to just 11 beyond the arc.

And for the second consecutive game, Mavs head coach Rick Carlisle drew up a play to get Monta Ellis running toward the rim in the final seconds. In Game 3, Ellis was able to convert a tough runner over Tim Duncan, but Monday night Monta’s attempt against Duncan rimmed out. Following the game, all Carlisle said about the play was that the Mavs don’t want to find themselves in last-second situations, especially during games in which they fall behind so early. However, it’s safe to bet Carlisle’s squad was thrilled with the chance Ellis had to tie the score at 91. The Spurs know by now that Ellis is perhaps the most lethal driver in the game, and Popovich’s team has geared its defense accordingly, but Ellis was still able to beat them for six shots in the paint in the second half alone.

Many times this season, it appeared as if Dallas might have been forcing the three-point shot even when it wasn’t falling, but that wasn’t the case in Game 4. The Spurs led the league in fewest three-point attempts allowed per game, but Dallas managed to shoot 24 three-pointers Monday night and many of them were extremely good looks. If the Mavs can cobble together during Game 5 the same types of looks they found in Game 4, it will likely mean good things for the boys in blue.

The team executed Carlisle’s gameplan yet again in Game 4, especially in the second half, and Dallas was once again in position to tie or take the lead in the closing seconds. Considering the Mavs are the underdogs in this series, that isn’t such a bad scenario to be in moving forward.

Mavs’ supporting cast making significant impact against Spurs

Practice Report: Vince Carter

Mavs G-F Vince Carter talks about putting his game-winner behind him and focusing on getting a win in Game 4.

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.

Practice Report: Devin Harris

Mavs G Devin Harris on how Vince Carter's shot boosts the team's confidence, needing to tighten things up on defense and more.

Monta Ellis’ relentlessness fuels Mavs’ Game 3 win

Before the Mavs made up a five-point deficit in two minutes, and before Vince Carter hit the game-winning shot heard ’round the world, we saw a true battle of wits in Game 3. Dallas and San Antonio both played their best offensive game of the series, forcing each team’s defense to dig deep in search of anything to stop the scoring.

In the end, the Mavericks made just enough adjustments to grab a last-second win in one of greatest and most tactically sound games ever played at the American Airlines Center. Here’s a look at how the Mavs made it happen.

MONTA IN THE PAINT

The Spurs were able to keep the electric Monta Ellis out of the paint for the most part in Game 1, and that was a big reason San Antonio walked away with a victory. But in the last two games, Ellis has really forced the issue on the perimeter and getting to the rim at whatever cost. After taking just three shots at the rim in Game 1 (making two), Ellis was 4-of-10 at the rim in Game 2 and 4-of-6 there in Game 3. His six made field goals in the paint on Saturday is his series-high.

It’s paying off. Per SportVU, the Mavs are scoring 11.7 points per game on Ellis drives in the playoffs, third-most in the league. In addition, the 1.41 points Dallas scores per Ellis drive is by far the highest mark among players with at least six drives per game in the post-season. In other words, if Ellis can get to the rim, Dallas is most likely going to come away with points.

The Spurs have thrown everything they can at Ellis throughout the series to keep him on the perimeter, at times even building human walls in the paint and giving him open jump shots. But on Saturday it didn’t matter what San Antonio tried to do against Ellis. He was getting to the rim, and no one was stopping him.

Ellis’ Sick Euro Finish

Monta Ellis abuses the defense with the sick eurostep and makes an incredible circus bucket and-one.

In addition to getting Monta in the lane, the Mavs made two very subtle changes defensively that had very positive results. And in a contest as close as Game 3, even the slightest tweaks can impact the final result.

FRONTING KAWHI LEONARD

One of the Spurs’ biggest matchup advantages throughout the series has been utilizing Kawhi Leonard’s size in the post against some of the Mavs’ smaller guards. Anytime the Spurs run a set that results in a post touch for Leonard, the Mavs have scrambled to double him. For example, when matched up against Monta Ellis in the first quarter, Leonard catches the ball in the post and is immediately double-teamed.

Mavs Double Leonard

After Shawn Marion arrives to help, Leonard immediately kicks it out to Tony Parker, with 11 seconds still on the clock, plenty of time for San Antonio to run something else to generate a quality look. In the meantime, Marion’s man, Boris Diaw, slipped to the rim. That forces Sam Dalembert to sink off Tim Duncan in order to prevent any pass to Diaw. Once Parker makes the catch, Duncan sets a quick screen for Parker and the result is a wide-open jumper.

Parker J out of Double

Dalembert was so far off of Duncan once the Mavs doubled that he doesn’t have enough time to recover to contest the Parker jump shot. But after seeing those looks for Leonard a few times throughout Games 1, 2, and the early part of Game 3, the Mavs made a slight adjustment that ended up working out.

Harris Front

In the play above, Devin Harris is fronting Leonard, or playing between him and Parker, the ball-handler. Parker can’t get the ball in to Leonard unless he lobs a pass over the top, but that’s a risk, as Dalembert is lurking not far away. But not only is Harris denying the entry pass; his struggle for position against Leonard is also draining precious seconds off San Antonio’s shot clock.

Parker can’t get the ball in to Leonard, so he eventually swung it to Diaw. After a few more seconds of grappling on the block, the Spurs eventually got the ball into the post — but only with eight seconds left to shoot. Once Leonard made the catch, Nowitzki arrived to double-team, and because he didn’t have much time to work with, Leonard committed an offensive foul while trying to put up a last-second three-pointer.

There’s a monumental difference between making a catch with eight seconds left versus 12 seconds left. The Spurs don’t like milking the shot clock all the way down to its final few ticks, so anything Dallas can do to essentially waste the Spurs’ time works in the Mavs’ favor. In the second half, San Antonio tried a similar play, but Harris fronted again. Leonard didn’t touch the ball on that possession. By fronting the Spurs’ bigger wing in Game 3, Dallas essentially erased one of the Spurs’ most important advantages.

A BRIEF 2-3 ZONE CAMEO

Dallas used the 2-3 zone effectively in the team’s final regular season meeting against San Antonio on April 10, but until Saturday the Mavs hadn’t used the zone at all throughout the series. That isn’t to say, however, that the Mavs used it much in Game 3, either. In fact, Dallas only deployed the zone on one or two possessions in the game, but — like so many other Mavs adjustments — it paid off.

At a critical juncture in the game — with less than 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter — Dallas debuted its matchup zone made famous during the Mavs’ 2011 championship run. During the regular season and in earlier playoff meetings the Spurs have typically run an “overload” offense against the Dallas zone, basically flooding one side of the floor with as many players as possible to try and get an open look somewhere. However, San Antonio ran no such play against the Dallas zone on this possession, and ended up tossing the ball around the floor to no effect before Danny Green attempted a tough jumper off the dribble. The miss resulted in a long rebound which kickstarted a Dallas fast break the other way, and after a smart Marion find, Devin Harris sank a wide-open three-pointer to give the Mavs the lead.

It’s difficult to set up a 2-3 zone on defense after a miss on the offensive end — especially against a team which enjoys fast breaks as much as the Spurs — but don’t be surprised to see Dallas use some more 2-3 if the Mavs’ personnel doesn’t match up well with San Antonio’s. If anything, it will give the Spurs one more thing to think about and plan for before Monday’s Game 4. And if the quality of play we saw in Game 3 is any indication of what’s yet to come, Game 4 will be the most exciting and interesting tilt yet.