So if you’re browsing NBA League Pass and come across this game, and you aren’t a fan of either team, there might not be much to draw your attention, especially with Kawhi still on the shelf in his original case. Aldridge will be the best player to suit up, and the collection of players vying for second best is pretty depressing (Pau? Barnes? Gay?). But, with a capital B, this is still good basketball to watch. Both clubs are lead by hall of fame coaches who have built solid systems around ball movement and good decision making, and this is still a deep-rooted rivalry (though you wouldn’t really know it by this game).
Thanks to Kawhi’s absence, the talent disparity between the two team’s starting units isn’t as pronounced as it could be. Player to player, I don’t think the Spurs have that significant of an advantage. Aldridge and Mills are marginally better than Barnes and DSJ, and Pau/Green/Anderson feels about even with Dirk/Wes/Yogi. But the Spurs are deeper, and better coached (slightly, and they are the only team in the league I’ll say that about). To win, Dallas is going to have to out-Spurs the Spurs.
- San Antonio is going to use their patented (they didn’t patent it, nor are they the only team that runs it, but I’m going with it) ICE defense, where they try to force the ball handler away from the middle on pick and rolls. This forces the screener to the inside, and closer to the weak side help who are waiting to blow up the play. Dallas counters this early by having Barnes begin a possession in the corner, and getting inside on a pin down screen, with the Spurs being unable to get into ICE position while Barnes is off ball.
- Aldridge gives Barnes some Andre Roberson-level space (i.e. a lot) to operate with the ball, happy to hang back near the basket in order to prevent drives and let Barnes take as many jump shots as he wants. Unfortunately, he wanted to take a lot. The only time Barnes is an efficient scorer is when he has a steadfast commitment to finishing at the rim. Goading him into trying to shoot over you is a good strategy, and it worked (he finishes the game 5-16).
- Dennis Smith Jr. is still slanging wood.
- Noel gets to sub in late in the quarter, eager to prove that he deserves minutes. He promptly gets put on skates and full-on falls over on a Dejounte Murray crossover.
- Both teams begin the game playing sloppy basketball, making bad passes, dribbling out of bounds, etc. The score is 11-13 with only a couple of minutes left.
- A end-of-quarter possession sees Dirk get an open look at a three from his spot at the top of the key, and he bricks it. I feel the usual amount of dread at watching Dirk miss these looks he used to own, but this time I feel even worse for the crowd, who was into the game and really wanted it to drop.
- Klebur gets the ball on the right shoulder, and makes a slick baseline move to get an open dunk. How can Maxitrillian not keep it trill? Looking a little like Kuzma to be honest, that will be a pretty even matchup whenever we see the Lakers.
- While the dunk was thrilling, this might have been my favorite DSJ play. He dances with Green, patiently moving around for a couple of seconds until he finally gets space in front of him. Despite doing all the work, he recognizes that Green trying to recover has left Dirk open and is willing to pass out for the best shot.
- That shot opens a flood gate of sorts (or some kind of weird two-way flood gate with water on both sides, so when the gate opens water somehow rushes through in both directions). Dirk is making old school plays, drawing double and shooting over guards. Klebur is making effort plays on both ends. Dallas looks great offensively, although they’re giving as much as they’re getting.
- When Aldridge gets the ball on the block, Dallas has the help defender coming over from the weak side corner. It is a long way to travel for a small player, and Aldridge doesn’t seem to even notice that he’s being double teamed as he nonchalantly looks around the floor and tosses the ball to the open shooter.
- Another interesting DSJ play: he brings the ball up, uses a screen to penetrate but dribbles out when he can’t find anything, uses another screen to penetrate and again dribbles out, and as the shot clock expires he puts up a three that swishes home. The first thing is that ,instead of picking up his dribble and getting bailed out, he’s now probing and reseting, which shows a more complete grasp of pace and understanding his options. The other thing is that he already can hit that shot: right on a guy who’s defending him tight, in a clutch situation, when everybody knows he’s going to shoot. If you’re hoping for DSJ to become a star in the league (as opposed to just a very good role player), that’s the type of shot you like to see him hit.
- Ball don’t lie: Aldridge, isolated with the ball on the left block, fully knocks over Mejri, but the offensive foul doesn’t get called. Aldridge probably could drive to the basket (and probably wouldn’t even need to dribble), but he instead takes the wide open eight foot shot and bricks it.
- Anime moment #4: Barnes sets a screen for DSJ, forcing the Spurs to switch, so their point guard is on Barnes and Aldridge on DSJ. Barnes is calling for the ball at the high post, and you can almost see the thought bubbles above DSJ’s head: Do I have to give you the ball? Are you really better than me? This is my team now, we all know it. DSJ throws up a three over LMA, which misses, but the decision by the rookie to take his own shot seems incredibly telling.
- Yogi cannot hit from outside tonight. His outside shooting has been in a slump as of late (and he goes 0-4 in this game), although that will improve in the next few games.
- JJ draws a charge on Rudy Gay, who is appropriately trying to use his size advantage to back him down. It’s almost routine at this point, but I still feel compelled to point out every charge JJ draws on a player who is way bigger than him.
- Too much dribbling by Dallas. I don’t know if the early turnovers pushed the team away from passing or they just decided that attacking certain matchups was the way to go, but either way it doesn’t look great.
- JJ subs in for DSJ like three minutes into the quarter. DSJ’s leash has been particularly short lately. I’ve said all year that right now JJ is the better option at point guard; DSJ’s defense isn’t tangibly better, and JJ has a much better handle on the offense (pun intended). So JJ is the better option for playing winning basketball, but then why is DSJ starting? Because he’s the future, and the ceiling is obvious, and you need him to see these defensive sets so that he can adapt and respond. So it seems inconsistent that Carlisle will concede that DSJ needs to start, largely to expose him to the myriad looks that he’ll see game to game, but then yank him when it doesn’t go well. That said, there’s things DSJ knows he should be doing (the opponent doesn’t change the overall system), and not adhering to the system will absolutely get you benched.
- Manuuu checks in for the first time, one of my all time favorite non-Dirk players. He still moves like a Greek God, unlike Dirk, who moves like a statue of a Greek God.
- DSJ checks back in, quickly attacks and gets to the foul line. For being such a slasher he’s really not getting to the free throw line very much this season (these are the only two free throws he takes this game). He’s only shot more than 5 free throws once this season, a 4-10 performance against Golden State.
- As Barnes tries to drive to the rim and ends up getting stripped and turning it over, I think I found an issue with how he attacks: it looks like he occasionally uses one more dribble than he should. He could easily gather one dribble earlier and give himself some movement options in the lane, but he over-dribbles and lets guys get a hand on the ball.
- “A river cuts through rock, not because of its power, but because of its persistence.” LaMarcus Aldridge is the river. He’s not going to take this game over like Curry or LeBron, but he’s applying a constant pressure that’s slowly but surely carving away at the Mavs.
- JJ makes a good play in the next-to-last offensive possession: Mills, going above a screen to cut off JJ’s path to the middle of the floor, gets caught behind JJ, who boxes him out and forces Aldridge to guard both JJ and Mejri. The need for Aldridge to move up to JJ gives Mejri a free lane to catch a lob.
- JJ makes a bad pass out when he gets in trouble in the paint, and Klebur makes a great hustle play to prevent a back court violation. JJ rewards him with a good pass into a Klebur bucket.
- Another weird hitch I notice with Dallas is, whenever a player scores, it seems like they’re always eager to take the very next shot. I wouldn’t even be surprised if this was actually a coaching decision: if you get a bucket, you get rewarded with trying to get the next bucket. It is positive reinforcement, which I’m a fan of, but also seems to result in a lot of bad shots, which I’m not as much of a fan of. But I think the players just want to get hot in a desperate search for good offense, so there’s just way too many heat check shots.
- Dallas has figured out how to double Aldridge, pre-rotating when the extra help moves to LMA so that he can’t just sit and look for the open shooter. LMA finds an “open” shooter in the corner, but Wes arrives at the same time as the ball and forces a bad shot. Good defense.
- …but an offensive rebound gets the Spurs two free throws. Why can’t everything always work out?
- Carlisle saved the zone look for the end of the game, hoping a new defensive look with get enough stops to allow Dallas to get back into the game. It works for one possession, but at their second look at it the Spurs just run a high PnR with Aldridge and Dallas has to foul. This seems to be a common theme with the zone. Carlisle should really just call it for random individual possessions, so it’s just enough to throw off an opponent but not present long enough to get exploited.
- The game ends seeing DSJ turning the ball over on an entry pass to Dirk, and then getting swatted when driving on Anderson (who is also known as Slow Mo). This is his Spurs 101 crash course, eventually he’ll realize that you will hardly ever catch the defense out of position, even if you think you’re faster than your man.
- The dagger of the game comes from Manu, who gets an easy layup over Dirk. Pretty wild that the combined age of the two men involved in the play is 59.
- It wasn’t a great game for DSJ, but he does get some pretty easy junk time buckets when the Spurs’ defense lays off. It is still nice to see that he can score at will against prevent defense; a lot of rookies can’t easily score regardless of how poorly they’re being defended.
Turns out it is really hard to out-Spurs the Spurs. Who knew?