What To Watch For: Game 2

Shootaround: Dirk Nowitzki

Mavs F Dirk Nowtizki dishes on the gameplan for Game 2, how important a healthy Chandler Parsons is to the team and more.

After just one game, both the Mavs and the Rockets have plenty of adjustments to make in preparation for Game 2. The thing to remember, though, is that one game never tells the whole story of a series. Last season, for example, the Spurs took Game 1 from the Mavs before Dallas stormed back and won Game 2 in blowout fashion. The beauty of the postseason (and the most frustrating part of it) is that momentum can change so quickly. One team might be on top of the world, but if the opponent tweaks one thing and hits an extra shot, all of a sudden the entire series can change course.

The job of every road team in a playoff series is to take at least one game on the road and then protect home. Dallas will have another crack at stealing homecourt from Houston before the series heads north, and the Mavs will fortunately have another day of practice time to fine-tune things for Game 2. During this two-day break, they’ll be left to wonder what they’ll change, what they’ll try to keep the same, and what kinds of curveballs Houston might throw their way Tuesday night. What might some of those changes be? What can Dallas do to win Game 2? Let’s take a look.

PLAYOFF DIRK

We’ve heard a whole lot about “Playoff Rondo,” Rajon Rondo’s postseason persona. Rondo had stretches of excellent play in Game 1, but so did his running mate Dirk Nowitzki. He scored 24 points on 10-of-14 shooting, and Dallas scored 109.4 points per 100 possessions during his 34:13 of floor time, best on the team among anyone with at least five minutes played. Nowitzki rolled out the same moves we’ve seen his entire career, and it proved once again that he’s still one of the most difficult one-on-one assignments in the NBA.

More importantly, as it relates to the Mavs’ gameplan, is Houston was liberally switching smaller players onto Nowitzki after every ball-screen he set. More often than not, Dirk would end a possession guarded by Jason Terry or James Harden, and neither of those players are strong or tall enough to really bother Nowitzki on the low block, especially without a double-team.

The key, though, is handling double-teams as they come. The Rockets’ wing players are very aggressive in the passing lanes, starting with Trevor Ariza. They will take major risks if it means launching a fast break the other way, and that tenacity is even more apparent when an opponent is double-teamed.

Nowitzki turned it over six times in Game 1, the most he’s had in a game this season. His career playoff turnover rate is below 10 percent, meaning he turns it over less than one out of every 10 possessions, matched only by Michael Jordan among high-usage players in the postseason, per Basketball-Reference. Dirk hasn’t really been double-teamed very much this season, so perhaps it came as a surprise to Dallas that Houston would switch and then double. If that’s the same way Houston handles Game 2, however, I suspect Dirk will be ready for it and Dallas will know what to do in those situations.

Dirk has shown throughout his playoff career, though, that he can make adjustments as needed. After all, he’s one of two guys since the merger in 1976 to average 25 and 10 in the playoffs. The other is Hakeem Olajuwon.

ELLIS AND PARSONS

Monta Ellis and Chandler Parsons, two of the team’s three top scorers in the regular season, combined to shoot just 10-of-31 in Game 1. Parsons fought through some serious knee pain throughout the entire game and even briefly left the game at one point. Ellis, meanwhile, faced a wall of bodies protecting the rim which made finishing very difficult. One cause for hope, to be sure, is that the pair combined to shoot just 3-of-13 on uncontested field goals, per SportVU. That takes into account open jump shots and relatively easy layups, and the Mavs saw plenty of those simply bounce out on Saturday night, Ellis and Parsons in particular.

It goes without saying that the Mavericks are better when Ellis and Parsons are hitting their shots, but the difference we’re talking about here with these two guys is significant. Below are the Mavs’ records when Ellis and Parsons hit 45 percent from the field, versus their records when they don’t, per Basketball-Reference.

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The two-day break should give Parsons’ knee a chance to heal just a bit more and hopefully he can get some more strength to help with his jumper. Ellis, meanwhile, is one player who can benefit from Houston’s defensive strategy against Dirk. If the Rockets switch a smaller player onto Nowitzki, Ellis would be left one-on-one against a Houston forward, against whom he’d have a significant speed and quickness advantage.

However, what if Dallas doesn’t want to play to that advantage? There could be something the Mavs could do that will make life easier on everyone, except perhaps Nowitzki. Dwight Howard was a rim-protecting menace in Game 1, as Dallas shot 1-of-8 against him on point-blank opportunities. That was primarily because players drove off of Nowitzki ball-screens, allowing Howard to position himself for a contest. However, if Dallas uses Tyson Chandler or Amar’e Stoudemire as the screener in a pick-and-roll, it will pull Howard far away from the rim, giving Ellis and other ball-handlers more room to potentially blow past Howard and get a shot at the rim.

This is a matter of preference. Dallas did try both strategies in Game 1, but Howard was so limited by foul trouble that he played only 17 minutes. Here’s the Mavs’ shot chart in the second quarter once Howard picked up his third foul with just under 10 minutes left.

That’s a whole lot of green (which is good), and the Mavs made seven of their nine field goal attempts at the rim. That certainly helped the Mavs in the first contest. It will be interesting to see how the rest of the series is officiated — both Howard and Nowitzki faced foul trouble, and in general the game was called tightly. This is a rivalry, after all. I would almost expect it to stay that way.

TEMPO, TEMPO, TEMPO

The Mavs took 99 field goal attempts in Game 1, a pretty astronomical number, and the game was played at a very fast pace. However, much of that had to do with bountiful transition opportunities for both teams — Dallas had 20, and Houston 28. That will always speed up a game.

Where the Mavs ran into trouble, though, was when the shot clock would begin winding down. Dallas took 19 shots when the shot clock read six or fewer seconds, and made just six of those attempts. Otherwise, the Mavs shot a terrific 38-of-80 from the field, good for nearly 50 percent. The offense often got into trouble when the initial action (say, a pick-and-roll) wouldn’t get an easy shot opportunity, and then the Mavs would try going elsewhere, usually to Stoudemire in the post.

Dallas has been at its best all season when the tempo is high. It’s much easier to keep it that way, though, coming off an opponent miss or turnover. Offensive success is completely dependent on defensive success, and vice versa. If Dallas can get a stop or force a mistake, the Mavs will usually get points the other way. Meanwhile, a quality possession for the Mavs (especially a make) will keep the opponent in the halfcourt, and that’s exactly where Houston doesn’t want to be. These teams are very similar in that they both want to get out and run. Houston had the tempo advantage in Game 1, however, so now it’s the Mavs’ turn to return serve.

SLOWING DOWN JAMES HARDEN

It says a lot about a player that, when he scored 24 points and dishes out 11 assists, his opponent is commended for holding him in check. But that’s almost how you have you view James Harden, an MVP candidate and the second-leading scorer in the NBA. The Mavs’ defensive gameplan in Game 1 was fairly clear: Try to keep Harden from beating you, and instead let the role players beat you if they can. The problem is Houston’s shooters were scorching hot for most of the game, but we’ll get to that later. Let’s focus on Harden.

Tyson Chandler said after the game that one adjustment the Mavs could make moving forward is simply applying more pressure on Harden and the other players. “We have to come out and be the aggressor,” he said. “I think we need to be picking up full court and turning them and denying the wings, making it more difficult for them. I think they were way too comfortable bringing the ball up the floor and more comfortable getting into their offense.”

Indeed, Dallas could make things harder for Harden. Of all the players to appear in Game 1 for both teams, only Josh Smith moved at a slower average speed than Harden, per SportVU, which supports Chandler’s notion that Harden might have been too comfortable.

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This isn’t to say the Mavs’ defenders weren’t working hard. Rondo, for example, moved at an average of 4.36 miles per hour, while Al-Farouq Aminu moved at an even quicker 4.65 miles per hour. Defense is always more physically strenuous than offense, but if Dallas presses Harden, denies him the ball, or does anything else that makes simply getting the ball in his hands a little more difficult — or even running him off screens on defense — he could be mentally and physically exhausted by the end of the game. This is asking a lot of Rondo and Aminu, but if Nowitzki, Ellis, and Parsons can carry the offensive load, those two players can exert most of their energy defensively. That’s some balance for you.

HOUSTON’S SHOOTERS

Sometimes there’s just not much you can do if the opponent’s shots are falling. In the fourth quarter, Houston hit a couple shot clock buzzer-beaters and Corey Brewer, who shot just 8.3 percent on threes in April, hit three by himself in the final frame as Houston put the game away.

The Mavs opted to give Brewer, Jason Terry, Trevor Ariza, and other Houston perimeter players the chance to beat them, and in Game 1 all of those players were simply on fire. Those three players combined to shoot 9-of-13 on three-pointers in Game 1, good for 69.2 percent. While your snap reaction to that stat is probably “that won’t happen again” — and while you might be right — the fact is that it happened. Dallas now must work just a bit harder in an effort to run the shooters off the line, or at least contest their shots a hair more aggressively. Non-Harden Rockets shot 14-of-28 on uncontested field goal attempts, per NBA.com. Dallas has got to find a way to get hands in those shooters’ faces.

That’s the problem you face, though, when going up against the Rockets. If the Mavs send everyone half a step closer to the three-point line, they run the risk of Harden snaking his way through the extra space and either finishing at the rim or getting to the free throw line. Meanwhile, you still have to worry about Dwight Howard on the inside and Terrence Jones everywhere else. Houston is a well-built team, but everything starts with Harden. He’s the guy that makes every choice just a bit more difficult.