The Dallas Mavericks, winners of 67 regular games (out of 82), have been sent packing by the Golden State Warriors. The Warriors won only 42 games this season and qualified for the playoffs on the last day of the regular season. Golden State is coached by former Mavericks coach and Boston Celtic legend Don Nelson. This season, Nelson deployed his trademark wide open offense in order to create mismatches for his under-sized, but overly talented roster. The roster includes players like Baron Davis, Jason Richardson, Steven Jackson and Al Harrington. These highly skilled players possess the unique ability to beat opposing defenders in two fundamental ways: by making outside shots and by attacking the middle of the defense with dribble penetration. It is this second skill which is most fundamental to the game of basketball. It is the foundation of sound offensive basketball, predicated on sapping the core strength of the opposition.
Defense in basketball, and in most sports, is played from the middle to the edge. It is vital that successful teams have the ability to protect the middle of the court or field. Consider the importance of defense in the middle of a baseball diamond. The most important defensive players on a baseball team all play in the middle of the field: the pitcher and the catcher (known as “the battery”), the shortstop, second baseman and the center fielder. In football, the defense is anchored by either a single nose tackle (for 3-4 defensive schemes) or two defensive tackles (for traditional 4-3 schemes). In basketball, the anchors of the defense are the point guard and the center.
On elite defensive teams, the point guard is capable of stopping dribble penetration on a consistent basis. When the point guard is incapable of stopping dribble penetration, it allows the opposing point guard to do two things: 1) enter the lane with the intent to pass to a) cutters from the wing b) spot up shooters on the perimeter or c) big men in the lane competing for position; or 2) enter the lane with the intent to score. All of these scenarios are bad for a defense. The worst case scenario is when the offense scores and is able to draw fouls on primary defenders (usually the center or power forward) and convert a free throw for a three point play. This type of three-point play is the Gold Standard in basketball. It gave birth the phrase And One. A great defensive point guard, then, may be undersized but they provide tremendous value for their teams. In this respect, the point guard resembles a pawn on the chess board that protects the back line.
Premier defensive point guards like Jason Kidd, Gary Payton (Version 1.0 – especially around 1996), and Baron Davis can stifle the offensive plans of the opposition by compelling them to attack along the perimeter or along the edges. The Dallas Mavericks do not have an elite defensive point guard in starter Jason Terry. He is an excellent offensive point guard, but lacks the strength to block the path of players like Warriors point guard, Baron Davis.
Jason Terry is a solid player. He is not the primary reason the Mavericks have gone fishing. The most visible culprit must be MVP candidate and starting power forward Dirk Nowitzki. The Mavericks star was invisible for most of the deciding game. At halftime, he made 1 of 11 shots and the Mavericks trailed by two points. In the third quarter, when the Warriors steamrolled to a 36-15 advantage, Dirk was silent. Baron Davis was roaring. He was hobbled by a hamstring injury during the game, but still managed to summon the will to attack the rim, elevate at the point of contact, and score. When players are fatigued (as they often are in Game 6 of a series), playing aggressive offense is demanding. When players are injured, aggressive offense is usually an afterthought. Players become passive shooters of long distance jump shots. Last night, even Baron’s long-distance jumpers were aggressive. On one play, he drove to the left side of the lane, drew contact and threw up a shot from behind the 3 point line. He thought he was fouled and expected a whistle. The referee never signaled a foul, but the ball went in. It was that type of night for the Dallas Mavericks and Jason Terry.
All that is left now for Dallas is to wonder what might have been for a team that dominated the league during the regular season. The team was so summarily dismissed that owner Mark Cuban will have to consider reconfiguring some elements of the team. Jason Terry’s slight build is not a liability against guards like Phoenix’s Steve Nash or San Antonio’s Tony Parker – but it is against Golden State and Utah’s emerging Deron Williams. What will the Mavericks do with Dirk Nowitzki? He would not be the first superstar to be traded “at the height of his powers.” Perhaps he does not have the essential makeup required to win an N.B.A. championship. In case anyone did not notice, Josh Howard emerged as the Mavericks best all-around player in this series. He lacks the thunderous offensive firepower of Nowitzki, but he can score the ball, rebound, pass, defend and provide a spark for his teammates. The Mavericks are a team sorely in need of on the court leadership. The franchises most visibly faces aside from the tall, blond German are Mark Cuban and head coach Avery Johnson.
For Golden State, the future is brighter. Woody Harrelson was at the game. Kate Hudson was at the game.
She had on more clothing than this – but she was there. Jessica Alba was at Game 4.
She had on more clothing than this – but she was there.
And the Warriors success was not entirely surprising. Coach Don Nelson is as familiar with the Mavericks as his protege Avery Johnson. And the decisive advantage that the Warriors hold (in addition to their fan base) is that each of their roster players were capable of consistently beating Dallas defenders off the dribble. When you can do that, you are never out of any game – and you are awfully difficult to catch. Utah and Houston are teams with more fundamentally sound defensive principles than the Mavericks. The next will be compelling – just not as compelling as Ms. Alba at the beach.