- As it is LeBron’s annual trip to the AAC, there’s a palpable excitement in the air heading into the matchup. Though the Cavs are understandable favored, it could be easy to talk yourself into Dallas having a puncher’s chance at taking this game. No Isaiah Thomas, no effort on defense, and no rim protection is a good starting point for the Mavs. The talent disparity is clear, but execution and effort is a good counterweight to a team that likes to rely on the prowess of its stars.
- LeBron is only 1,200 points behind Dirk in all time scoring. Hoping he doesn’t make up that difference tonight.
- The strengths of the Mavs show themselves early, as the team comes out hot. Yogi again makes the most of his starting position, playing good defense and being aggressive with the ball, in one sequence getting a layup on a pin down and then pulling up for a three in transition on the next possession.
- Dennis Smith Jr. is playing his 11th NBA game, so when I say that JJ and Yogi are more consistent offensive options, I’m not putting the rookie on blast, it is just something that’s obvious whenever they take over. If the team was better and in the playoff race DSJ might be coming off the bench, but as it is Carlisle’s guard rotation is fine. DSJ gets his reps against other starting PG’s, and the team gets to lean into the (shark) tanking.
- Shumpert gets matched up on Dirk and hits a jump shot over him. If you have the ball and Dirk is guarding you, you either get a free jump shot or a dollar store layup; I’ll take the jump shot every time.
- Cleveland, similar to the Heatles teams, like to hedge and pressure the ball on screens, forcing the ball handler to make the tough pass (though they aren’t as aggressive about it as those Miami teams were with Bosh and Battier). DSJ gets the first go at it and has real trouble finding a very open Dirk (who is probably fantasizing about the Kidd days, a prescient passer who made sure to make teams pay for leaving Dirk). For all their deficiencies, Cleveland has legitimate size on the perimeter, and they make it hard to split double teams or find the weak side pass. Barea will do a little better at beating the pressure, but it is a good strategy by the Cavs to throw a wrench into Dallas’ bread and butter action.
- I assumed that Barnes would guard LeBron, but I forgot that Dirk playing causes all sorts of cross-match hysteria; Dirk (our center) has to defend Crowder (their SF), which means Barnes has to guard Love, leaving Wes with the unenviable task of slowing down the King. Maybe he should envy these matchups though, as he absolutely killed it. Barnes is bigger, but I think Wes might still have the stronger base, and played some top-shelf post defense in standing his ground and not allowing any easy looks. It kind of fell apart late, but trusting Wes to handle his island allowed the rest of the team to be aware of the passes LeBron was seeking out, and sniffing out many of their typical looks.
- Near the end of the quarter I was wondering to myself what could have become of Kevin Love’s game had he not spent the prime of his career in the LeBron-release-valve role. He’ll answer that question later.
- Wade getting terrible calls and going to the line still triggers my 2006 PTSD.
- Seeing Jeff Green getting minutes is almost sad, like some failed science experiment that is still on the loose and haunting villagers. Coming off a typical “did Jeff Green finally figure it out?” game the he puts up a few times a season so he can keep getting contracts, I wasn’t too worried about him doing that twice in a row. He still looks like he belongs on the floor though, and can make things happen when he’s aggressive. Still an all time NBA what-if: how good would Westbrook/Harden/Green/Durant/Ibaka be right now?
- As mentioned earlier, JJ comes in and is more effective at identifying Cleveland’s ball pressure and finding Dirk’s rolls into space. Cleveland’s recovery is actually pretty good, and despite good penetration and ball movement Dallas has trouble finding buckets.
- Dallas is running most of its ball screens from the center of the floor, allowing Cleveland to pre-rotate and overload the strong side. They could be getting better looks if they moved the two-man game to the wing (an oft-used Dirk-centric play in the past), where leaving the screener to double the ball would give the screener that entire side of the court to himself, lest Cleveland send help all the way from the weak side. Dirk runs this earlier with DSJ, who can’t find the pass, and I don’t really see it after that.
- DSJ gets Love isolated on the perimeter and gets around him for the easy layup. Apparently from now on whenever a guard gets the Love mismatch on the outside I’m going to flash back to game 7 of the 2016 Finals, when Curry got that exact mismatch in crunch time but couldn’t convert. (Hot take: the only reason GS didn’t win the title that year is because Curry slipped on sweat in the first round and sprained his knee)
- Mejri doesn’t make an appearance until late in the quarter (Carlisle went with Powell in the first), but when he does he acts as the keystone for a Dallas run that gets them back in the game. If the Warriors have a Lineup of Death, Dallas running out DSJ/Yogi/Wes/Barnes/Mejri is a Lineup of Getting Your Wind Knocked Out. We’ve seen it before, but having four athletic wings with legit ball skills around Mejri just feels like a real two-way lineup.
- Dirk comes out hot and gets a few quick buckets. Gotta give the people what they want.
- Cleveland comes out of halftime intent on showing that Love can do more than stand in the corner ready to catch a LeBron pass, and he really shows up. They don’t do anything fancy to try and get a mismatch, they’re happy to let Love get early post position and go to work on Barnes, who just can’t hang with him. Barnes tries to make up for it by working over Shumpert on the other end. It felt similar to the Pelicans game, where Barnes was getting destroyed by AD but similarly destroying Nelson.
- After balling out in the second quarter, Carlisle makes Mejri the first off the bench in the second half. This time Carlisle’s concerns about the matchup are well founded, and Powell subs in for Mejri about two minutes later. Powell makes the most sense as a counter to Love, but it doesn’t really matter.
- I miss Kevin Love’s 1970’s tennis-slash-porn-star look. It made him look like he used to play with Jackie Moon.
- Dallas’ pace slows to a crawl as they are making a concerted effort to get Barnes the ball and do his thing. Cleveland feasts on this though; stopping the ball allows for help defenders to swarm, and this is still an elite team with championship experience. They know how to pressure the ball without giving up easy looks on the first pass out, repeatedly blowing up the Mavs plans.
- There’s a few moments where the Cavs are bringing the ball up in transition and DSJ finds himself guarding LeBron. I’ve never seen a player seek out a teammate for help with such desperation, for obvious reasons.
- LeBron enters the fourth with a 13-8-3 stat line. Well rounded, but tame by his standards. LeBron never really needed to take the game over, so there are plenty of grains of salt to take with this, but to me this is another page in Carlisle’s book of being the LeBron whisperer. He just knows how to defend him, always keeping a guy in between LeBron and the basket, and making sure the team is cognizant of the fact that when LeBron has the ball, in a split second any other player could be catching and shooting. The 2011 Finals is still the lowest point of LBJ’s career, when Carlisle engineered the switch heavy, Tyson Chandler-fueled zone that flummoxed the King (and was a progenitor of the modern NBA defense).
- Korver spent the first three quarters largely neutralized, and missing the few looks he was able to find (decent looks curling around screens, they just weren’t dropping), but some mean regression rears its head and Korver starts hitting in the fourth. Being Dallas’ best option to stick with him off ball, the defensive assignment goes to Yogi, but for some reason Yogi just can’t hang with him. Korver finds his looks from the outside, and down the stretch makes a lot of plays using his size advantage, making cuts inside and getting physical under the basket.
- DSJ had a great fourth quarter. He blocks Kevin Love twice (!), turning his crazy vertical into legitimate rim protection. Wade’s blocking instincts as a guard are the one thing about his game I enjoy; if DSJ can harness that, I’m not sure if I can handle it.
- Cleveland looked to push the game out of reach early in the quarter, but a 10-0 run fueled by some nice DSJ assists closes the gap to 1 with about 6 minutes left.
- A few plays were ran by the Cavs to get Dirk switched onto LeBron outside. God bless Dirk, there was no way that wasn’t going to go horribly for Dallas. A contingency plan (i.e. getting Dirk off the floor) had to be drawn up on the fly.
- Down the stretch LeBron wanted to take the game over (and ultimately did), but DSJ was saying “not today“, going punch for punch with James. As much as breaking down the intricacies of his handle/vision/etc. is important in evaluating DSJ, this sequence to me was just as (if not more) indicative of who he is as a player and competitor. DSJ either scored or assisted on Dallas’ final eight buckets in the game, and seemed to elevate his level of play as the best player in the world was trying to put the game away. The final dagger in Dallas’ back came when DSJ missed a seemingly easy layup that he unnecessarily adjusted in mid-air, probably aware of the potential to be blocked from behind (and like I’ve said before about DSJ, I’ll always take overthinking to underthinking). LeBron even seemed to be coaching him up in the final minutes as Cleveland was putting the game away, as taken with the young Maverick’s performance as everybody else in the arena. You know there’s something special brewing when a rook demands respect from a King.