Back to Back: 11.03.2017 – New Orleans Pelicans at Dallas Mavericks, 11.04.2017 – Dallas Mavericks at Minnesota Timberwolves

Due to a combination of work schedule and winter illness (well, because it’s Texas, more likely due to the weather refusing to feel like winter), this recap is going up a little late. I’m going to look at both games of the back-to-back, which was the plan all along, but I had hoped to have it up before the Washington game. Having said that, maybe it is good that I’m writing this the morning after the Mavs’ trip to D.C.; there is a lot of Debbie Downer material from these two games that may get revisited. I’ll have the Washington recap up soon, it may feel different because I had to try and pay attention to the best looking Mavs game this season while dealing with a migraine. So, on to the Pelicans’ visit to Big D:

1st Quarter

  • Noel and Dirk start together, a preemptive attempt to counter the Pelicans’ unnatural combination of size and talent in the frontcourt. Typically when a team has had enough size to force Dirk to PF there is an opposing player where Dirk can hide to some degree, which seemingly isn’t the case here.
  • The Pelicans’ are great at stopping penetration before the ball can get to the rim. Dallas’ possessions repeatedly stalled when the ball handler got held up in the middle of the floor and had to take a beat to find a pass out while defenders converged on his position.
  • Returning to the Dirk conundrum of asking him to try and guard Davis or Boogie: he actually draws Dante Cunningham for his defensive assignment, which actually isn’t a terrible idea, as he’s typically just (unlike Baby) put in the corner. There were moments where Dante got the ball and was able to force help by taking Dirk off the dribble, but in the regular season teams aren’t going to shift their entire offensive philosophy to attack one bad matchup, so Dirk gets a free pass most of the time.
  • During a timeout Boogie and Carlisle were having a nice chat. I can only assume it was about how Boogie is going to come to Dallas when his contract expires, provided that AD and Gendry don’t lock him in a room to keep him from signing.
  • There is nothing Dallas can do to combat Davis when he gets the ball in the post, other than desperation fouls.
  • JJ always brings a calm demeanor to the offense when he subs in, but that was particularly important in this game, where New Orleans was doing a great job of taking away the looks that DSJ typically seeks out.
  • One of my favorite spectacles in the NBA is when Boogie gets a defensive rebound and decides to lead the break himself. Half NBA play, half scene from Mad Max, the best option may be to just man up and hope that Boogie’s man can somehow stop the 270 pound train from running them over.

2nd Quarter

  • It still seems odd to me to see Harris getting so many minutes at small forward, mostly because I’ll always think of him as the mousy speedster guard out of Wisconsin.
  • (I just googled Devin Harris, and when the options pop up while typing his name in the search bar the very first one is “Devin Harris wife”, which I had to click out of curiosity. Let’s just say the word “softcore” is in her Google bio, so there’s that.)
  • Yogi still doing work on defense, draws a charge against AD like a man.
  • I’m glad to see Jameer Nelson is still in the league. Hard to believe it’s been almost a decade since he was the starting point guard on an NBA Finals team, now he’s getting solid rotation minutes on a team desperate for players who don’t send up prayers along with their three point shots.
  • With Boogie on the bench, the Mavs defense can sell out on stopping AD. The offense is structured to get him good looks, and he does get good low post position, but Dallas is getting the double team to him pretty much as fast as the Pels get the ball to him. He does his job to find the open shooter in the corner, but at least in this quarter Dallas is bailed out by some fortuitous misses. If the double doesn’t come, then Barnes just ends up getting worked over.
  • DSJ receives the ball on an inbound, and Boogie smartly posts up right in front of him while DSJ is still looking back at the pass. DSJ runs into him and Boogie gets the charge, even though it should be physically impossible for DSJ to charge into Boogie.
  • Dallas gets an offensive rebound resulting in another DSJ wood-slanging dunk. Harper calls the dunk provocative.
  • New Orleans seems happy to give Dallas enough space to shoot, but Dallas is still probing around, trying to find paths to the basket. It is a difficult balance to strike; on the one hand you want to keep up an attacking philosophy, which keeps the players engaged and puts more pressure on the defense. On the other hand, we have good shooters, and the games that Dallas has played well in have involved a copious amount of three point bombing (though seeing as how Dallas ended up shooting .265 from deep this game, it really just wasn’t in the cards).
  • As annoyed as I get seeing the offense stop for a Barnes iso that ends in a mediocre shot, his aggression and generally adequate ball skills are useful when Dallas is having trouble finding looks. When he’s committed to forcing the issue at the basket  he’s the team’s best chance at conjuring a positive outcome when they really need one.
  • The Pelicans had one of the strangest turnovers I’ve seen at the end of the quarter. After driving inside, the ball gets kicked out to a wide open shooter in the corner, and AD stakes his position in the paint for the potential offensive rebound. After about two seconds of thinking about it, a pass is made to a wide open Boogie on the wing. Boogie, wide open the entire time, takes another couple of seconds to consider his shot before trying to pass to an open player under the basket (why all these players are wide open I have no idea). By then a whistle is blown on AD, who just stood under the basket wondering why his teammates weren’t taking wide open threes. I’m sure Gentry honestly can’t complain about a turnover resulting from oversharing, these hiccups happen. It was like Dallas somehow weaponized the “too open” phenomenon.

3rd Quarter

  • DSJ tries to take AD to the rim, and Davis swats the shot attempt away like a dad whose kid has just talked a little too much trash while shooting around in the driveway.
  • Dallas runs the high flare that I’m a fan of for DSJ, it produces a good look but the shot doesn’t fall.
  • Less than four minutes into the quarter Mejri comes off the bench. I was going to talk about how the Pelicans’ frontcourt is definitely above the Mejri Line, but from what I’ve now seen from Dallas Mejri is might just be the first big off the bench. You can see why, as he actually looks like he should be defending NO’s bigs and makes plays on both ends of the court. He finishes this game with five (!) blocks and is +6 while on the floor.
  • Nelson comes onto the floor for New Orleans, and Dallas repeatedly forces a switch to get him to guard Barnes at the high post. The Barnes/Nelson matchup is one of the few matchups Dallas has forced this season where they had the clear advantage.  I’ll talk about a more puzzling matchup in the Washington recap.
  • Dallas makes a run to keep the game competitive with a lineup consisting of four wings and Mejri locking down the middle, a lineup that makes a lot of sense from a structural standpoint. By going clearly 4-out on offense and having Mejri set good screens, the Pelicans were forced to send obvious help defenders and Dallas was finding those holes and exploiting them. The zone defense with Mejri in the middle is actually effective, unlike the zone used to (unsuccessfully) hide Dirk’s lack of mobility.

4th Quarter

  • Dirk takes a shot to the face, which I imagine causes an existential crisis as he wonders why he’s 40 and still putting himself in a position to take a shot to the face. After review, the refs call it a flagrant 1, because you don’t just take a cheap shot on a living legend without getting called out for it.
  • As the quarter chugs along, New Orleans’ size just puts too much pressure on Dallas. There’s no room to get to the rim, and the outside shots aren’t falling. One of AD or Boogie is always being guarded by somebody who really shouldn’t be guarding them. If this was a playoff game the Pelicans would be seeking out these mismatches ruthlessly (I can only assume, the jury is still out on if we’ll see this team in the postseason), but they can get by on just running their typical sets. Their slow pace of play really works for them when they have a good point lead in the fourth. Being able to dribble out half the shot clock before just kicking it down low to one of their bigs is quite the luxury. Dallas would have to be executing at a very high level to overcome the talent disparity. They weren’t, and didn’t.
  • The third anime moment of the season reveals itself as the competitive juices between Boogie and Mejri finally boil over into a typical “hold me back!” NBA skirmish. You could see this coming as Mejri was actually finding some defensive success in the post, which wasn’t sitting right with Boogie (and let’s be honest, nothing ever sits right with Boogie). That doesn’t mean it wasn’t fun to watch, and that fire may be part of the reason Mejri has seen the floor more recently.
  • Barnes posting up Nelson is the fun-sized version of AD posting up Barnes.
  • Just a thought, I much prefer Barnes use his size against a smaller player, rather than using his speed against a bigger one. Seeing as he’s the embodiment of a perfect average of an NBA player’s physique (if that makes any sense), Dallas is constantly trying to get him mismatches in either direction. It just looks to me that he’s more successful overpowering a guard than outmaneuvering a big.

The Pelicans look like they’re this close to being a very good team. The pressure that the Davis/Boogie combo puts on you is undeniable, and that should remain true even when they aren’t playing one of the worst teams in the league. I like the slow pace that they utilize, and honestly they could even lean into it a little more. They really just need more outside shooting, which is a problem I’m not sure they can solve before the end of the season, which is when everybody predicts the Davis/Boogie divorce will happen, although I’d really like to watch those two build something together.

Three point shooting is the quarterback of the NBA; despite all the factors that go into building a successful offense in football, the skill of the quarterback is going to overshadow all of that, and the same applies to how influential good shooting is in building a successful NBA offense. It’s why surrounding LeBron with snipers last year produced one of the most dominant offenses in NBA history despite the lack of athleticism (which did cost them on the other side of the court). It is also why, despite having two monstrous talents, New Orleans’ offense is just middling right now. Rondo, who is one of my favorite players in the league (despite him blowing up the last great Maverick team), isn’t going to help in that regard. I don’t know what assets NO has to turn into a floor spacer, though there always seems to be a player that you can talk yourself into being one that gets bought out near the end of the season.

After the game the Mavs have to hop on a plane to head up to Minneapolis, towards another chapter in the I-35 rivalry (look it up, they’re technically on the I-35 rivalry list with the Thunder and Spurs).

1st Quarter

  • Mejri’s great play from the previous evening is rewarded as he gets the start, and his poor play from this evening is rewarded as he ends up only playing for 9 minutes.
  • DSJ uses a Dirk screen to get a step on Teague, and uses solid recognition to see the open lane and gets an easy layup. Gibson staying home on Dirk is forgivable; KAT staying home on Mejri instead of contesting the drive is one of the unforgivable sins that Kevin O’Conner wrote about on The Ringer recently.
  • With how many people have been jumping from the AD bandwagon to the KAT bandwagon (I’m not one of them) like they are committing a bank heist in a western, it was interesting seeing them play back to back. KAT is just as much of a physical presence, if not more so, than AD, but I feel like he just doesn’t have the same touch as Davis, on either end of the court. There’s something about his jump shot that doesn’t sit well with me, even if it drops, and his post game is predicated more on his size than skill. That should still be enough to dominate against most teams, but ultimately he’ll have to have a reliable shot that is able to get over defenders that are on his level (as few of those as there are in the league).
  • Minnesota has that classic Thib’s pressuring style, on and off ball. Carlisle’s Flow offense is well equipped to counter it though, as it constantly forces help and rotations, leaving defenders in compromised positions if you don’t. Barnes gets a good bucket on a pin down screen and uses a drop step to beat his man to the rim, helped in part by Gibson staying home on Dirk (just like the DSJ layup).
  • Noel comes in early and plays with great energy and okay awareness, which you would expect after losing your starting spot. A tough to watch play found Noel with a free lane to the basket in transition ready to make the front page of r/nba, but DSJ sees him too late and the bad pass leads to a turnover. The “okay” awareness showed itself on a Gibson offensive rebound, where Noel left KAT and ran over to guard Taj (who already had Dirk on him and is hardly a threat), allowing KAT to Leeroy Jenkins his way to the rim.

Screen Shot 2017-11-08 at 1.45.28 PM

  • A frustrating (but ultimately encouraging) part of watching this Mavs team is the good play that gets no positive reinforcement due to the players just not having the ability to capitalize. A sequence late in the quarter saw the Mavs properly attack a switch, pass to the weak side, beat a defender that closed out too aggressively, leading to a pass to a wide open Dirk who misses a mid range shot that used to be automatic. Noel gets the offensive rebound with a great effort play, but can’t get the putback. Great basketball but zero points.

2nd Quarter

  • Remember when I talked about how important good outside shooting is? Minny’s bench has better shooters than the starters (at least tonight), and therefore looked like a more potent offense. The starters shot 5-16 from deep; the bench shot 5-8.
  • I know that Taj is a devout Thibs disciple, but it surprised me to see that he was starting this season. I know he was hampered by injuries last year, but he still played for OKC, and didn’t look good at all, something that hasn’t changed much this season from what I can tell. I’ve always liked Dieng, and having him start next to KAT would be a formidable frontcourt (and would lessen KAT’s role as a rim protector, which he seems to detest). It will be interesting to see if Taj’s starting role holds up for the entire season.
  • Barnes gets a smooth solo transition bucket, using good handle and touch at the rim to beat his man basically the whole way down the court.
  • Despite the kinks in his game, KAT is undeniably a monster down low. It didn’t really matter who Dallas threw at him, he just bullied his way to the rim, making good reads on attacking his defender’s positioning.
  • I’m ready for Seth to make his triumphant return.
  • The Mavs get a rare five-point possession, beginning with a Harris and-1 and turning the offensive rebound into a three. Like I said earlier, it is odd to see Harris at SF, but he knows who he is and how to attack, and is quicker than most of the bench SF’s that he goes against.
  • JJ is a ball of lightning near the end of the half: he yells at himself after missing Barnes in the corner, but is able to make up for it by LeBron-ing Butler and drawing the charge on the other end. He gets even angrier as he gets smacked on a drive and doesn’t hear a whistle.
  • A classic Dirk play throughout his career is to kind of unassumingly (spell check didn’t catch that so it must be a word) be the last guy up the court on offense, only to catch his man off guard and step into a catch-and-shoot three (the “trailing three”) at the top of the key. KAT has the same play, except instead of launching a three he just launches himself into the lane for vicious dunks.

3rd Quarter

  • Minnesota’s stars, starting the second half up 10, are trying to make sure they get to take the fourth quarter off. Dallas’ strategy has been to try and take away one of the big three, in this case Butler, and hoping that the other two can’t put the game away. Spoiler: they do.
  • Wes finally hits a three and gives a half-assed arrow shot. I don’t want to see Bran in the Game of Thrones premier, I want to see Legolas working on that body count.
  • Mejri only gets a few mediocre minutes in the game, but his presence on the court shows why traditional positional basketball is still relevant. The defense just feels stronger with him manning the paint. After a good practice that will especially reveal itself against Washington.
  • I don’t think I’ve ever heard a four-man crew call a game, but that is on display tonight as you get to hear all the action called by Followill, Harper, Skin, and Thibodeau.
  • Kleber doubles Butler on the wing and makes a good recovery to get back to his man on the pass out. I’m still not sure what position Kleber is; he’s listed as a PF, but  plays a lot of minutes at SF, and might be strong enough to competently defend some bench centers.

4th Quarter

Minny is still a work in progress, but the upside of the team was on full display against Dallas. It was going to be a tough game anyways on the second night of a back to back (and traveling between games), whereas the Wolves just kind of came out and did their thing.

I was going to spend some time here making a (admittedly pessimistic) look at where the Mavs are at right now and what they can look for moving forward, but that was before the team’s trip to Washington. I’ll have more to say on that win soon, and while it is encouraging I doubt it reflects an impending vault into the thick of the western conference playoff race. Despite top-tier coaching this is still the NBA, and as these two games have shown talent is usually going to win at the end of the day. But that doesn’t diminish the respect that I have for the work this team is putting in, and I think that Carlisle is arriving at rotations and sets that could lead to more consistent success (“more” being the operative word), something we’ll see in the next game.

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