Better than most fan bases, we who root for the Lakers understand how long a strong and persuasive narrative can survive. For example, even when Kobe was accepting double teams, hitting the open man, and generally sharing the ball expertly in the playoff run of 2009 (and beyond), the “Kobe’s selfish” meme was alive and well in the minds of many NBA fans. It takes a lot to dispel common held assumptions. So, it’s no surprise that the “Dallas chokes/is mentally soft” narrative was still a major theme coming into this series. After all, when looking at their playoff history up to this point, the first round ouster by the Warriors or their falling in the Finals to the Heat after being up in the series immediately come to mind.
Well, I’m here to tell you that if you’re expecting that to be a key component of the Lakers winning this series, you’re out of luck. I’ve come to this conclusion for a variety of reasons but mostly because the evidence is right in front of our faces speaking to the contrary. When many picked the Mavs to lose in the first round to the ‘Blazers, this was one of the common reasons. However, after enduring one of the most remarkable kick-in-the-stomach losses in recent memory, these Mavs won the next two games including a close out game on the road in the raucous Rose Garden. Last night was no different as they calmly came back from a 16 point 3rd quarter deficit by executing their sets on both sides of the ball and then closed out the game with even better execution in the final minutes.
This team is experienced, poised, and is made up of the types of veterans that have tasted defeat and don’t want to deal with anymore let downs. Beyond the clichés however, the proof is in the actual performances of these players. Dirk is simply one of the best closers in the game, scoring at elite levels with the game on the line. In the playoffs, in the last 5 minutes of a 5 point game, Dirk’s true shooting percentage is 79% and his individual offensive rating is 143.7, per NBA’s Stat’s Cube. Those are insane numbers. During the regular season, Jason Terry was among the leaders in 4th quarter scoring and has been a top performer in closing out games for years (especially against the Lakers). You add to those guys, Jason Kidd’s floor generalship and Tyson Chandler’s defense and you have the ingredients of a team that will not only score well but will defend too. Those are the exact ingredients that win games, especially close games.
Long story short, don’t expect the Mavs to hand the Lakers this series. You’ll be waiting a long time if that’s the case. The Lakers will need to win these games on their own merit; something that I’m pretty confident that they can still do.
With all that said, some adjustments I’m looking for the next game:
*The Lakers must be more physical with the Mavs off the ball and especially with Dirk. Too often the Mavs were able to move to their preferred spots on the floor and take jumpers within the flow of the game. Dirk was especially brilliant in navigating the Laker defense, simply using a bunch of rub screens and flare cuts off the P&R to find his space and then get his shot up. The Lakers need to better stay connected to Dirk to force his catches further from sweet spots to make him use more energy to get where he wants to go before shooting. Pau can especially be more disruptive as he was the main culprit in allowing Dirk the kind of easy catches that he feasts on.
*Pau can also be more aggressive on offense. Believe me, I love that his stat line included 7 assists and I’ll never complain about Pau’s passing or how he helps his teammates succeed by setting them up for easy scores. However, his 10 shots and 5 free throw attempts aren’t enough. And while I fully support him getting more touches at the expense of the trigger happy guards to help boost these numbers, some of the time that he’s looking to initiate for others needs to be dedicated to hunting his own shots. Again, I love that he’s such a good passer but if he were to take 3-5 more shots a game while his assist number drops to his season average (nearly 4 a contest), I’d be quite happy with the result. In the first half, Gasol was extremely active looking for his own baskets but that seemed to dry up for him in the 2nd half. A lot of that blame needs to go to the guards (starters and reserves) and in an offensive attack that saw poor spacing and over dribbling rule. But, when he has the ball in his hands he needs to think attack more often.
*While there is a practice what you preach element to this, Kobe called out the reserves for not passing the ball to the post and I couldn’t agree with his statement (at least that portion of it) more. Blake and Odom are the only reserves with a mentality that the ball needs to go inside consistently. Both Shannon (most guilty) and Barnes (somewhat quick with his jumper) need to understand that they’ll get better looks later in the clock if the ball simply goes into the post on nearly every possession. There’s a reason that they find themselves open from the perimeter so often – the Mavs want them shooting jumpers. If they work the ball inside and stay away from over dribbling, the 2nd unit’s performance will skyrocket.