NBA coaching strategies are far more complex than we give them credit for, but the Mavericks’ gameplan Wednesday night was actually pretty simple: defend the drive, defend the pass, and run. There are many layers to that scheme, but at the basis of head coach Rick Carlisle’s winning strategy in Game 2 was the team’s collective commitment to disrupting everything San Antonio does at a fundamental level.
Through two games, the three-step recipe for an upset is becoming just a bit more clear. Dallas has now played San Antonio six times this season, and at this point Carlisle, Dirk Nowitzki, and the rest of the gang know that the surest way to beat the Spurs is to slow down their passing and throw Tony Parker off his game. That’s easier said than done, but the Mavs hatched a masterful defensive plan Wednesday and are now tied 1-1 with the next two games at home.
There’s no reward for getting just one win, however. Dallas needs to execute its plan three more times in order to win the series, so get used to watching this swarming defense for at least three more games. Let’s take a look at what Dallas was able to do in three easy steps to grab the road W.
Step one to beating the Spurs is keeping Parker, one of the best point guards in the game, outside the paint. The Frenchman is devastating in the pick-and-roll game, and because Dallas has committed to switching on almost every Spurs ball screen, it’s important that the big men (particularly Nowitzki) can stay in front of him.
The play below occurred in Game 1. Parker realized Nowitzki switched onto him, so the crafty point guard dribbled back out to the three-point line. Nowitzki unwittingly followed all the way out before Parker blazed by him for a layup.
You never want to see a big man that off-balance against a point guard as quick as Parker. The correction, however, was simple: Whenever a big switched onto Parker in Game 2, the key was just to stay as far back as possible. The Mavericks allowed the Spurs guard all the space in the world to take 18-footers in favor of keeping him out of the paint. In fairness, Parker has developed into a terrific mid-range shooter, but as far as Dallas is concerned, surrendering a jumper is a much more desirable outcome than giving up a layup.
This is a play from Game 2. Tiago Splitter set a screen on Shawn Marion, once again leaving Parker isolated against Dirk. This time, however, Nowitzki chose not to greet Parker 25 feet from the rim. Instead, the German stayed back and invited Parker into taking a 15-foot jumper.
Again, Parker can and will knock those down at a fairly regular rate — he shot nearly 45 percent on mid-range shots this season — but that beats giving up a shot at the rim, where Parker hit 59.9 percent of his attempts this season. Everything Nowitzki did here was correct. He maintained balance, most importantly, but he’s also keeping his body between Parker and the rim. In the first image, Parker has a clear driving lane to his right (preferred) hand. That wasn’t the case in Game 2.
Parker was still at times able to navigate his way into the paint, and even restricted area, in Game 2. But when he or another San Antonio ball-handler would, the Dallas defense would swarm the player and force either a pass or a turnover. The result? Parker had just one point-blank attempt in Game 2 versus the nine he had in Game 1, and the Spurs had 12 fewer attempts at the rim than on Sunday.
The Mavericks came away with 13 steals in Game 2, their most in the playoffs since Game 4 of the 2011 Western Conference Finals. All together, Dallas coaxed San Antonio into 22 turnovers, and the pesky Mavs were able to convert the extra possessions into 33 points — 16 more than the team’s season average. It’s an uncharacteristically high number of turnovers for the typically well-disciplined Spurs, but the Mavericks deserve plenty of credit for giving Manu Ginobili (six turnovers), Parker (three), and the rest of the team fits all night. The Mavs intercepted passes, they deflected them, and they even committed three kicked ball violations. The defense did whatever it could to impede the pass-happy Spurs.
The most exhilarating play of the game might have come on a steal in the open floor. After rebounding a missed Monta Ellis three-pointer, Tim Duncan began dribbling up the floor before throwing a long outlet pass intended for Danny Green. Ellis, though, had other plans. He leaped into the air, snagged the ball, and led a fast break the other way, ultimately assisting on a Shawn Marion dunk.
Ellis’s transition charge represents step three of the Mavs’ Game 2 win. All night, Dallas ran and ran hard off of any Spurs turnover. After converting just three fast break points in Game 1, the Mavs upped their total to 17 in Game 2. That played no small part in the win. Fast break buckets are easy and momentum-shifting, and the Mavs found fast breaks aplenty Wednesday night.
As much credit as the Mavs deserve for slowing down Parker’s driving game, they were also able to keep Manu Ginobili on the perimeter. The Spurs’ sixth man did score a game-high 27 points and knocked down 5-of-6 from beyond the arc, but when he put the ball on the floor, Dallas made him pay. Ginobili’s six turnovers nearly matched the Mavs’ team total of seven, and they were caused by plays like the one DeJuan Blair made on the Argentinian wing in the third quarter. As Ginobili accepted a screen from Jeff Ayres, Blair stepped up and swiped at the ball, then led a dramatic one-man charge down the floor before finishing with a layup.
The extra fast break chances contributed to the 32 shots at the rim Dallas attempted in Game 2, up from just 19 in Game 1. For reference, the Mavs made as many layups in Game 2 as they attempted in Game 1.
Combined with Jose Calderon’s patient play in the third quarter, yet another outstanding cast performance by the bench, and some vintage Dirk sprinkled throughout, the Mavs’ defensive gameplan paid off in Wednesday’s road win. Dallas will now come home for Games 3 and 4 (to an American Airlines Center that is sure to be rocking), and that atmosphere could potentially further influence the turnover battle that swayed so dramatically in Dallas’s favor in Game 2. However, newly minted Coach of the Year Gregg Popovich is sure to unveil some challenging adjustments Saturday afternoon, so Nowitzki, Ellis, and the rest will once again need to play top-notch defense in order to stop the Spurs’ offensive machine. Carlisle will likely tweak his gampelan just a bit more before Game 3 tips off, but through the first two games of the series, he’s proved he has the smarts to stymie one of the most efficient teams of our time. He’s provided his players with the blueprint for an upset. All that’s left is executing the plan.
Game 3 will be by far the most important yet. The winner of Game 3 in a best-of-seven series tied 1-1 has won 78.6 percent of the series. Home teams — in this case, the Mavs — are 37-16 all-time in series after taking Game 3. Surely, Saturday’s contest will tilt the momentum and odds in one team’s favor. It’s a must-win for both teams, and expect even more intensity on both sides than we’ve seen so far.
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