Monday Morning Mavs Donuts
DONUT 1: CHEMISTRY After the one-sided loss to Miami on Thursday night, we spoke on the fragility of chemistry, a phantom that can invade and conquer a group, possessing them with a strength that seems otherwise impossible. Or, an anti-ghost that can haunt by nothing more than it's absence, leaving the collective weak and more easily seduced by the vulnerability of their imperfections, their cracks.
It's the beautiful woman that can either grant a man impossible confidence by her embrace, or utterly sink him by her denial … only it does so without something as tangible as direct interaction.
Chemistry can arrive amidst the trial, or silently vanish in the moment between breaths.
We delved into this topic after the Heat game with the implication of its absence. The idea for this collection of Donuts came in the wake of that. Then a funny thing happened to the Dallas Mavericks … the Orlando game.
We'll go ahead with our list of reasons to doubt this team, but will do so with the awareness of that outcome, an finish that saw this team show us something they've often appeared to lack this year: the desire to fight when the game is assumed lost, to overcome a double-digit deficit, to show the perseverance, the will of a champion.
Let's look into the reasons to doubt, and dig for the justification of hope.
DONUT 2: SOME NUMBERS The Mavericks are now 4-18 (.181 winning percentage) when trailing by 10 or more points at anytime in a game, including wins in two of the last three of these instances. Compare that to a season ago, to a roster that undeniably proved to have the makeup of a champion, and you'll find that Dallas posted a .441 winning percentage in these games.
When entering the fourth quarter trailing, the Mavs are now 2-19 (.095 winning percentage). Hardly signs of the determination needed to keep pounding away when things have failed to fall in their favor. Last season, they won 40 percent of the games they trailed to open the fourth.
In contrast, or perhaps in line with one viewpoint (more in a moment), Dallas is now 27-6 (.818 winning percentage) in games they've led by 10 or more at any point. Their winning percentage under these circumstances a season ago: a strikingly similar .821.
DONUT 3: CONTRASTING VIEWS All of those numbers could be interpreted to show a team that lacks heart or the killer instinct required to thrive in the playoffs … right?
Perhaps this will prove to be true.
However, it also falls well within the mission statement of a team whose sole desire is to make the playoffs while weathering the compounded fatigue found in a compressed scheduled. In other words, an old team picking and choosing its spots to expel a finite reservoir of energy, doing their best to leave something in the tank.
It may very well be a hopelessly optimistic viewpoint, though there is a sliver of support in the fact that this team does show "killer instinct" when building a significant lead, managing a near identical winning percentage in games they've led by 10 points to that of a season ago.
DONUT 4: NOT ALL SILVER Of course, if one chooses to accept that rosy portrait, you must also accept the mold behind the canvas: coasting, a willingness to sacrifice games.
When viewing these as collateral damage on the course to a greater good, you're accepting casualties nonetheless. You've invited a risk that has surfaced via the bunched up Western Conference standings … where making the playoffs is no longer a given, where what was sacrificed may not be a few individual games, but the very right to take part in the postseason.
"In the first half, we played like a lottery team,'' coach Rick Carlisle said after a game last week, and we could barely believe that those profane words -- "lottery team'' -- came from his mouth.
Obviously this approach cannot forgive or erase some of the lackadaisical, drifting performances we've seen this year. It seems simple, but even if you consciously (or subconsciously) choose to conserve energy rather than spend the added fuel needed to overcome a significant deficit … that deficit was built in the first place.
Regardless of the reasoning, there have been times where this team simply didn't appear "up" for the game at hand from the opening tip.
DONUT 5: SUBTLE NUMBERS Our weekend talk was of the Mavs "rolling'' and whether they possess "stones.'' But let's stay with the tangible for the moment. There are some moderately subtle numbers that would seem to point to the fact that this has been either a mediocre or … dare we say it … old team.
Forgive us the stray into Hollinger territory, but let's look at some point differentials … by quarter.
On their way to a title, whether it was the first half or the game, Dallas played its best when closing, outscoring opponents by an average of 2.34 points in the second quarter (their best) and by 1.45 in the fourth (their second best quarter differential) … though they did post a positive differential in all four quarters.
This season, at 0.28 and minus-1.28, the second and fourth quarters are the Mavs' worst.
Surprising, thanks to some memorably slow starts and third-quarter collapses, those quarters, the first and third, have proven to be their best, each with a positive differential of 1.13.
DONUT 6: SPEAKING OF CLOSING If we're going to mention the term "closing" we're forced to acknowledge the outcome of close games, those with a final margin no larger than five points. Last year, Dallas was 17-11 in such games and made their mark as the ultimate "closers" in the playoffs, where their level of execution proved to be unmatched.
It wasn't merely this 17-11 record, it was the blatant efficiency found in a squad that both leaned on Dirk Nowitzki's greatness and built upon it with a remarkably reliable supporting cast. Even casual observers could become entranced by the fluidity of the Mavs' "flow" offense, a river unable to be dammed, instead, under the guidance of Jason Kidd, easily adapting, redirecting its current around rocks placed in their path … eroding those stones rather than being impeded by them.
This year that precision has been glimpsed, as it was against Orlando Friday night (when Jason Terry, Delonte West and company set the table and Dirk finished the meal), but has not been consistently present. Dallas is now 9-8 in games decided by five or fewer points, and it's taken three wins in a row under these circumstances to make the record look that good (against Charlotte, Houston and Orlando).
DONUT 7: NOT SO DIFFERENT One aspect of that can feed success in the "clutch" or in general is easy baskets, and these are often represented within one or several brands of scoring. So, how does this year's squad stack up in comparison to last? The numbers may surprise you. Here are the per-game differentials in a few scoring categories:
Points in the Paint: -5.37
Second-Chance Points: -1.05
Fast-Break Points: +0.89
Points off of Turnovers: +0.10
Points in the Paint: -1.12
Second-Chance Points: -1.23
Fast-Break Points: -2.04
Points off of Turnovers: +1.29
To sum up, this year's squad has improved significantly, though still inferior to their opponent, in scoring in the paint in comparison to their opponents. They are very similar in second-chance points and have shown a clear uptick in points off of turnovers (thanks to a surge in steals, ranking fourth in the league at 8.8 per game compared to 23rd a season ago at 6.8). The only category they've shown a marked decline is fast-break points.
DONUT 8: THOUGHTS ON THE NUMBERS IN DONUT 7 Some of the numbers above may not coincide with your expectations for the season, or perhaps they do, but do they tell us anything?
In truth: maybe not.
It may come down to something as simple as timing. As reflected by the team's record in games decided by five points or less, much of the numbers above are meaningless if they can't be adhered to as a game finds its conclusion. Over the course of a contest, this year's roster may have closed the gap in the paint, but it's hard to say they have shown signs of this when they either must have an easy basket or a few stops are in absolute demand.
Far too often, they've stumbled in the clutch on the back of broken execution and/or mental lapses at either end of the court. Performing better in any category in comparison to an opponent can be made meaningless if that improvement goes into hiding at the most crucial moments.
DONUT 9: IT'S NOT ALL BAD Even as we second-guess the importance of the above improvements or lack of declines from last year to this, there stands a significant caveat: this season is not over. True, only 13 games remain, but … that means 13 games remain. As shriveled as time may be, it has not evaporated.
For all of the failures, Dallas fate has not played out. This team still has Dirk, Kidd, Terry and Shawn Marion … all primary players in the outcome a year ago. Can you guarantee they won't suddenly click?
Just as you cannot have complete faith that they will, you cannot.
DONUT 10: MORE REASON FOR CONCERN: In the last 22 games: Dallas has a record of 10-12 and a point differential of minus-1.95. They have a field-goal percentage of only 43.9, while allowing opponents to convert at a rate of 45.6 percent, and have been out-rebounded by an average of 2.82 rebounds per game – including having at least 10 less rebounds than their opponent in five of the last six contests.
None of this will contribute to positive emotions from their fans.
DONUT 11: BUT … As we've covered previously here, this is a team that's had the perceptions of it altered by injury. For the first time since Feb. 15, after missing 21 consecutive games, Delonte West returned to play eight minutes against the Heat and appeared to fully reclaim his spot in the rotation a night later against the Magic, and was instrumental in the win.
Brendan Haywood played a single minute against the Thunder on March 5 and then missed 11 of the next 13 games, but also reclaimed his spot against the Magic. What the returning Delonte did in that game is now well-documented. But how about the less-noticeable work of Big Wood, who got into Dwight Howard's head and body and under his skin, too, causing a protest from Stan Van Gundy ... all because of this "punch'':
It's not a shock that injuries to impactful players have had a significant role in the struggles of the last 22 games, not only by the lack of their contributions but by the strain their absence placed on the depth that happened to directly coincide with the most physically taxing portion of the schedule that included nine games in 12 nights and concluded in a back-to-back-to-back.
DONUT 12: REAL DOUBTS, HESITANT HOPES All of the above has contributed to a team that sits at 30-23 and as the fifth seed in the Western Conference well within reach of climbing as high as the third or missing the playoff entirely. Though they have failed to secure their playoff safety and the schedule doesn't exactly lighten up in level of difficulty (find a great, updated study of the Mavs remaining schedule and the West race here on DB.com Boards), they do find a brief respite after tough matchups with the Clippers and Memphis coming to Dallas with a five-game stretch against teams with a combined winning percentage of .445, including only one team with a winning record (Memphis again).
And, perhaps most promising (assuming a playoff spot can be secured) is the fact that the Mavs play only one game over the final five days of the season, granting the gift of rest when it's impact may be the most beneficial.
This team has failed to put forth an extended stretch of anything approaching dominance this season. They've seen the ability to close out teams in a manner that made them contenders a year ago elude them, and there's every reason to doubt that they can make a deep playoff run. And, they bear the emotional scars of a group that holds no delusions about their future, about the changes already set in motion.
It's fair to wonder if the soul of the team is burdened by the knowledge that the death of the collective is guaranteed … soon. Jason Terry hasn't been shy about his contractual concerns, again in recent days casting verbal barbs wearing the guise of job-interviews or interests in other teams, but only thinly concealing his distaste for the direction management has embraced.
If Terry's saying it publicly, the odds that this emotion resides solely in him seem slim. What remains to be seen, what's been left unanswered by the facts of this season, is whether the team as a whole will rage against the opposition at the dying of their era, showing their dissatisfaction with the team's chosen path by unleashing their frustration on their opponents … or by allowing it to fester internally, essentially ushering in the coming changes as quickly as possible rather than prolonging what time, what chances, remain.
There's no way around the concerns constructed through the ups and downs that have led to this moment. Based solely on what we've seen this season, there's little reason to harbor unfettered hope. Yet, this team has a core that remains entangled in something Dallas NBA fans have so often seen tossed casually in the favor of their playoff opponents.
They are champions.
Dirk, Terry, Kidd, Marion, Haywood, Mahinmi, and Lamar Odom have all played significant roles on championship teams. They understand the shift between regular-season and playoff basketball. Until the final seconds tick off, hope cannot be declared deceased.
"We've got an old team, so, if we don't have experience then nobody out there does,'' says Dirk Nowitzki.
Prior to that moment when the team's death knell tolls, no outcome is preordained. In the playoffs, anything can happen … they just have to get there.