Friday, October 31, 2008

Opening with a bang, then clang

The Dallas Mavericks 2008-2009 edition debuted last night, bringing back memories of seasons past. Fast-tempo, running, high-scoring offense. Little defense. High energy through the first three quarters. And then, in a tribute to so many Mavericks teams of yore, a fourth quarter jack-'em-up-fest.

The Houston Rockets knocked off the Mavs, 112-102, at the AAC in Dallas' home opener. It's not disappointing because I was expecting this team to go 82-0, but frankly, I would have liked to see anything during the fourth quarter. Dirk Nowitzki played amazing for three quarters, scoring 35 points before adding only one point, on a technical foul free throw no less, in the fourth quarter.

But on a festive opening night in Dallas, the Mavs' second-fiddle Josh Howard kicked off the night by scoring at will, quickly erasing the memories of a checkered offseason with a 15-point first quarter. Throughout the first three quarters, J-Ho displayed great athleticism and even dare I say decision-making (4 assists). At 8:18 in the 3rd quarter, J-Ho slashed to the basket and finished with a strong two-hand jam. At that point, I thought, "I don't know who these Mavericks are, but I like 'em!"

After that jam, Howard made one other field goal the rest of the night, his lone 4th quarter bucket to finish the night with 28 points. Another solid night for Howard: 28 points, 11 rebounds, 4 assists, 6-9 from the free throw line in 41 minutes. Once again, it looks great from the stat sheet, but to the trained eye of an MFFL, we know when those points are being compiled. Don't get me wrong, over the course of an NBA game, someone needs to score points to get the total high enough to compete. You can't score only in the fourth. But you can't score not at all in the fourth either.

One other thing that kinda irked me. At 5:42 in the 3rd, J-Kidd swished a three-poi- what? his foot was on the line? I've liked what I've seen with Jason Kidd so far this game, but why does he always have his toe on the line when shooting a should-be three-pointer? If the NBA kept stats on toe-on-the-line two-pointers, J-Kidd would have to be the league leader.

4:38 in the 4th: J-Ho, crossover, clank. Same old, same old.

Ron Artest got a technical for his history according to announcer Reggie Miller. Artest, if he's trying to get to Yao Ming to defend him as Miller suggests, should have gone around Josh Howard and Jason Kidd instead of trying to go through them. Maybe just a harmless accident, but that's what happens when you've got Artest's history.

Dallas is an older team in a deep division and scary conference. The Spurs, Rockets, Suns, Lakers, Hornets, Nuggets, Jazz (the other playoff teams from last season) are all arguable just as good if not better. Then there's the Warriors, Clippers, Trail Blazers, Thunder, and pretty much everyone except the Grizzlies making up ground behind them.

My bold Mavericks season prediction:
They will finish third in the Southwest Division, behind New Orleans and Houston (yes, ahead of San Antonio), and will make the playoffs as a 6th/7th seed. Once you get in the post season, anything can happen (see 2007 series versus Golden State), so let's not worry about that just yet.

Other Mavericks takes:
ESPN's Marc Stein sees a fast-paced team in Dallas this season. Let's hope their age doesn't catch up with them.

The Mavericks, according to one veteran scout, "probably play the fastest pace in the Western Conference" now that Mike D'Antoni has relocated from Phoenix to New York, with new coach Rick Carlisle installing a system heavy on ball and player movement and featuring elements of the Princeton offense Jason Kidd ran in New Jersey.

For three quarters Thursday night, Dallas definitely lived up to that rep.

The Mavericks had racked up 30 fast-break points entering the fourth quarter when the combination of Houston's improved transition D and Dallas' repeated inability to get stops left the Mavs scuffling in the half court to keep up with the surging Rockets. With Ron Artest on Josh Howard and Chuck Hayes bodying Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas' big guns managed just one basket between them in the final period after scoring a combined 61 points to that point.

"Look," Carlisle said, reminding assembled reporters that the Mavericks are still adjusting to the new system. "There's going to be a formula that's going to be the right formula for us. We're not Loyola Marymount from the late '80s and we're not Phoenix from the last four years, but we have to use Jason Kidd's abilities to generate easy baskets to the best of our ability. And at the same time we've got to do it in a way that doesn't erode our defense."

I wonder if 2008-09 is going to be another season of the world pointing out how this team, anchored around Dirk Nowitzki, just isn't "tough enough" to win a title.

Stop me if this sounds familiar: The Mavs settled for way too many jump shots and didn't get near enough stops in the fourth quarter.

That was the consensus opinion of the three All-Star-caliber players in the Dallas locker room. Different coach, same ol' late-game problems, at least in the season-opening loss to the Rockets.

The Mavs didn't play much defense the whole night, but they were able to trade buckets with the Rockets until it was winning time. The Mavs managed to make only six of 24 shots from the floor in the fourth quarter.

"We took some tough jump shots and got a little stagnant again," said Dirk Nowitzki, who had only one of his game-high 36 points in the fourth quarter. "You know, we didn't get many stops, didn't get the running game going. We just didn't have a good flow to the game."

Added Josh Howard, who had two of his 28 points in the fourth: "We just didn't execute like we should have. We should have got to the basket, I think, instead of settle for jump shots."

Jason Kidd echoed the too-many-jumpers take, but he's much more worried about the Mavs' miserable defense.

"We put up enough points," Kidd said after his seven-point, 12-assist performance, "but we didn't stop anybody."

That was Rick Carlisle's primary concern, too. After all, the best way for the Mavs to get easy baskets is to get out on the fast break, which is tough to do when you're taking the ball out of the basket to start most possessions.

And in the Battle of the Embattled (Josh Howard vs. Ron Artest), advantage Artest.

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