Print and Go Back ESPN.com: Page 2 [Print without images]

Tuesday, November 19, 2002
Updated: November 20, 1:26 PM ET
Mavericks are top guns

By Charley Rosen
Special to Page 2

I've never liked the Dallas Mavericks. They were too soft, too loose, and too hyped by the media. And wasn't coach Don Nelson regarded by many of his peers as a self-proclaimed genius who habitually resorted to gimmicks? (Remember his Golden State teams of yore that featured Chris Mullin, Mitch Richmond and Tim Hardaway playing 3-on-3, and turned his big men into spectators?)  "Nellie-ball" was "junk ball."  

Accordingly, I was profoundly unimpressed (despite their unblemished record) by my first peek at the Mavs -- a Nov. 15 telecast of their victory at Boston. I mean, what did they run on offense? Some soft screen/rolls with Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki that were more like brush picks and fades -- designed to open jump-shooting space for the big guy and open the middle for the little one. Some isos at the left foul-line extended for Michael Finley. An occasional post-up for Nowitzki. And that's it.

Mavs vs. Celtics
The Mavs game plan continues to work, despite some questionable decisions.
The basic idea seemed to be to get penetration from somebody, then, when the defense collapsed, pitch the ball to an open shooter. A soft-bellied offense, liable to be eviscerated by the kind of rough-and-tumble defense that's the standard in postseason competition.

Like the great state of Texas, Dallas's man-to-man defense also had lots of wide-open spaces. The shock here was that, as the game raced toward the wire, the Mavs exclusively used either a 2-3 or a 2-1-2 zone defense!

Say what?

Sure, use a zone as a change-up, perhaps to hide a defensive cripple, or to protect a star with foul trouble. Aggressive zone defenses also discourage dribble penetration and cramp pivot play. But I bought into the conventional wisdom that viewed the dependency on zone defenses as a foolish practice in the NBA.

One general manager puts it this way:  "You simply cannot win playing zone defense in this league. All an offense has to do is reverse the ball quickly and somebody will be wide open. NBA shooters are just too good to give them open looks. Also, if you flood the paint or overload one side, then the defender in that area is going to have to choose which player to guard." 

What are some other standard anti-zone tactics? Having a speedy guard split the two top-most defenders ... then, as the zone collapses around the ball, rotate shooters into the vacated spots. An up-tempo team can also generate good looks before the zoners settle into their assigned areas.

That's why the poop around the NBA was that the Mavericks' 9-0 start was mostly an illusion -- Dallas' only highly regarded victim was Detroit. So the November 16 match-up at New Jersey (the Nets being perhaps the fourth or fifth best team in the league, but the Eastern Conference's defending champs)  was sure to give some indication of just how good Dallas is.

Even though I, too, was convinced that the Mavericks were merely pretenders, I had to see for myself.

Mark Cuban
Mark Cuban knows his team better than anyone.
The first true believer I encounter in the Swamp is the Mavericks' irascible owner, Mark Cuban. A casual but well-groomed young man, Cuban just bristles with charisma. Despite the Mavs' record, Cuban insists his team wasn't playing well.  

"We're committing too many turnovers," he says. "Our defensive rotation is still too slow, so we're giving up too many open shots. But worst of all, we're also too slow getting into our offense. The shots we are finding are coming with four or five seconds left on the shot clock, and that's not us. Our game is to get open shots as quickly as possible."

More heresy! The objective of an offense is to force the bad guys to play defense for as long as possible, and that, by so doing, better and better shots will be available for the good guys. Cuban has everything bass-ackwards.

Next up is one of Dallas' posse of assistant coaches, Del Harris. He explains that the Mavericks' overall philosophy is based on the concept that the team that scores the most points always wins the game.

"If you could take teams like Denver, Miami and Memphis," says Harris, "and somehow turn all of their players into absolute powerhouse defenders, those teams would still be among the worst teams in the league. That's because to win in the NBA, you must be able to score. Period."

Harris notes that the core of the team (Nash, Finley and Nowitzki) has already been together since 1998. But starter Adrian Griffin has played in 67 games for Dallas, and two injured players, Nick Van Excel (33 games) and Raef LaFrentz (29), have had limited tenure.

"Our overriding plan," says Harris, "was to emphasize offense, and then to work on our defense. The reason behind this is that good offensive players can learn to become good defensive players, but the reverse is not true. And believe me, we've got more half-court offense than you think we do."

But what about the zone defense?

"This is only the second season that zones have been allowed in the NBA," Harris says, "so it's way too early to come to any conclusions. Another thing -- because the backgrounds of so many of the league's head coaches and assistant coaches are in professional ball, the zone offenses aren't very sophisticated."

Hmmm &

"But talk is cheap," Harris cautions. "We'll just have to see what happens."

What happens is a wonderful ballgame. A touch sloppy because after only two-plus weeks, NBA players are still getting into synch with themselves, their teammates and the demands of their coaches. Even so, it is also as hard-fought as a playoff game, with both teams eager to claim charter membership among the new season's elite.

The Mavericks' headline player is Nowitzki -- 6-foot-11, 237 -- mobile, active, excellent range from 20 feet to the 3-point line with a quick release. Will post on left-block and take right hand to middle. When face to face, likes to drive middle and spin to baseline. Has pump fakes galore. Will frequently dribble into traffic. Soft on defense.

Dirk Nowitzki
Nowitzki may be a lethal scorer, but critics question his heart.
There are three defensive keys to containing Nowitzki: Keep him within reach at all times. Don't bite on his pump fakes. And (since most scouts and opponents see him as Mister Softee) bang him at every turning. Nowitzki's primary defender on the Nets is Kenyon Martin. Proud to be a tough hombre, Martin is wearing a face mask to protect a recently broken nose.

There's K-Mart body-to-body with the No-man, immune to his fakes, clearly bothering Nowitzki and making him uncomfortable. Nowitzki forces a 20-footer, and Martin takes a roundhouse swing to try and block the shot, missing the ball, but smacking Nowitzki flush in the face. (Why do so many referees ignore the after-shot action in lieu of tracking the flight of the ball?) The shot misses, and all three attending refs suck on their whistles. Instead of protesting, Nowitzki hustles back on defense.

At the start of a game, most players need a few trips up and down the court and a few touches to get themselves focused and involved in the flow. Which is why a player like Michael Finley is so valuable -- somebody who can come out of the gate and score in a hurry. At 6-7 and 215, Finley has excellent quickness and speed to go with an explosive first step. Streaky shooter. Extremely creative shot-maker. Best to deny him the ball and limit his catches.

The Mavs run several isos for Finley on his favorite spot, the left elbow. Bang! He hits a jumper going left. Bang! Another going right. For the first quarter, Finley takes six shots -- more than anybody else. In addition, he draws two quick fouls on Richard Jefferson, sending the Nets' prize soph to the bench.

Nellie also knows that it's important to get some early shots for his big man. Get him involved ASAP, so that he'll be more inclined to hustle, rebound and play defense. The Mavs' man in the middle is Shawn Bradley -- 7-6, 265, long-armed, good shot-blocker coming from weakside, OK passer, poor lateral movement (one scout describes Bradley as  a "test tube rebounder"). Opponents want to be physical with Bradley, take the ball into his body, then spin. Bradley was currently out of Nellie's dog house (primarily because LaFrentz had a sprained ankle) and is reputed to be the team's most accurate shooter from 15-17.

After Finley gets the offense greased, Bradley sets a pick for Nash a step above the foul line. But instead of rolling hoopward, Bradley fades to a spot just below the key, receives a pass from Nash and buries the jumper. Nellie is an habitual play-repeater, so the Mavs run the same play once more -- this time Bradley misses. Once again &  another miss. 

By far the most important player on the team is Steve Nash -- 6-3, 195. High-energy floor leader who pushes the ball on every possession. Plays like a younger version of John Stockton. Penetrates, looking to kick. Excellent vision. Strong. Terrific scorer when team needs him to look for his -- 40 percent career shooter from 3-point line. Extremely smart. A flopper on defense.

Defenders are advised to pressure Nash and make him work hard. Meanwhile, everybody else has to stay at home on their own defensive assignments and avoid helping on Nash.

During the first quarter, Nash takes only two shots. Intent on establishing the Mav's high-powered offense, he hands out four "dimes."

After playing man-to-man for about six minutes, Dallas changes to zone -- constantly shifting from 2-3, 2-1-2, and occasionally a 3-2 alignment.

Dallas 25, NJ 21. 

Martin continues to Bogart Nowitzki with considerable success, so Nelson calls for several tight S/Rs which force the Nets to switch. Now Martin is guarding Nash, and Jason Kidd defends Nowitzki (who immediately dives into the low post). There's Kidd poking away Nash's entry pass. There's Kidd utilizing his lower center of gravity to bump Nowitzki into taking an off-balance TAJ. Against Kidd, Nowitzki is 0-4 with one turnover.

As advertised, the No-man appeared to be a wuss.

At the intermission, the Mavs lead, 48-43.

OK. What have I seen so far?

Shawn Bradley
Clogging the paint is Bradley's specialty.
Kidd driving through the zone from the top of the key to the hoop. And Kidd finding Lucious Harris alone underneath. Count a few 3-pointers by Harris, Kidd and Kerry Kittles. Even so, I'm surprised by how effective the Mavs' defense is. When the Nets' guards split the defenders at the top of the zone, they run into Bradley. The Nets sometimes try to sneak someone behind the zone, but are content to mostly pass around the perimeter, and even throw skip passes -- but their offense remains stagnant and good looks are hard to find.

I am also surprised by the revealed contents of the Mavs' playbook: at least a dozen different sets with maybe four or five variations each.

Wow!

As the game resumes, Nowitzki continues to be bumped and bullied by Martin. Nowitzki shoots 3-for-12 through the third quarter -- leaving Nash and Finley to assume the burden of the Mavs' scoring.

Then, with the Nets' new big man, Dikembe Mutombo ensconced on the bench, New Jersey unloosens its running game and catches the Mavs' zone is disarray. Kidd is all over the place -- stealing, shooting, assisting -- and after three quarters, the Nets race into the lead, 73-67.

Okay. Here it comes. Do-or-die time. Can Dallas come from behind and beat a good team on the road?

That's when the Mavericks' point guard turns East Rutherford into Nashville East. Making impeccable decisions with the ball. Knocking down one improbable shot after another. A push shot, a twisting lefty scooper, a sudden 3-pointer. Count 'em.

Nash is the man of a thousand release points. John Stockton in his prime?  At least that good.

Here's the sequence that puts the game on ice:  The score is knotted at 85 and the Mavs will inbound the ball under their basket with only one tick remaining on the shot clock. Suddenly, Bradley flashes to the nearest corner, catches the inbounds pass and buries a jumper. (Kidd misses long.) Nellie dusts off the same Screen-Flare that worked early in the first quarter and Bradley cans another J. (Kidd misses long.) Then Nash hits a jumper in a broken field and the Mavs lead 89-83.

Only the details remain to be determined ... the game is essentially over:  Dallas prevails, 96-88, to remain unbeaten. And the final stats are always meaningful.

Finley has 20 points (9-20) and 13 rebounds. His instant-points offense is as expected. The only disappointment?  That Finley doesn't play defense as well as he did when he first came into the league.

Nowitzki hit a late (and superfluous) 3-ball, and converted a pair of late (and superfluous) free throws, so his point total of 18 (on 5-18 shooting) is misleading. I'm still not convinced that this guy has the inner umph to be a go-to scorer in the playoffs.

Shawn Bradley has 12 points and four blocked shots and proves that he can be effective against the ghost of Dikembe Mutombo. Against anybody else with more bulk and more juice, Bradley will not be a major factor. But ... against the Nets in an important game, he does do what he has to do.

The one player who elevates the Mavericks above the sum of their constituent parts is Steve Nash. Look at his line -- 12-18 FG, 2-2 3P, 4-4 FT, 9 A, and only 3 TO.

For sure, Sacramento's Mike Bibby hogtied Nash in last season's playoffs. But ... on the basis of eye-witnessing this one comparatively crucial contest, I feel compelled to commit my own form of heresy and invoke the name of a diety:

Steve Nash
Nash's line evokes memories of Larry Legend.
Steve Nash's ability/instinct for seeing (and moving into) open spaces before they actually open, for being able to play the game a heartbeat ahead of everyone else, reminds me of (gasp!) ... a pint-sized Larry Bird!

Yes, this team is probably for real. Yes, they have to work on their defensive transition and also reduce unforced turnovers. Yes, they will be better when LaFrentz returns. But ... there remain several pertinent questions that must be answered as the season rolls along:

Can Nowitzki take a licking and keep on ticking?

Can the Mavericks' zone defense continue to befuddle the league?

Can Nash continue to play like a Hall of Famer?

Can the Mavs beat the Lakers?

Actually, preparing for an eventual showdown with the defending champs is the very reason why the Mavs acquired the sharpshooting 6-11 LaFrentz last spring. To overcome Shaq and his Laker playmates, Dallas plans to field five good shooters at the same time. Whoever Shaq guards, the theory goes, will get as many open shots as he wants to take.

"The Lakers are a great ball club," says Del Harris, "but we've got as good a chance to beat them as anybody else."

Yes. No. Maybe so.

I'm no longer a disbeliever, and I'm certainly intrigued by this team, especially by the iconoclastic nature of their game plan. Intrigued enough to see them again, and again.

Charley Rosen, a former coach in the Continental Basketball Association, has been intimately involved with basketball for the better part of five decades -- as a writer, a player, a coach and a passionate fan. Rosen's books include "More Than a Game," "The Cockroach Basketball League," "The Wizard of Odds: How Jack Molinas Almost Destroyed the Game of Basketball," "Scandals of '51: How the Gamblers Almost Killed College Basketball" and "The House of Moses All-Stars: A Novel."