The Beginning of the End

The last game of the season is here! As Southwest Division Champs, we take on a perennial contender for that title tonight. Win, and we’d face Denver in the first round. Lose, and we’d face said Dallas squad. In my April forecast, I mentioned that this should be a definite win, but things have definitely changed. The Mavericks defeated the Warriors and Suns, and gave the Lakers a run for their money all in recent games.

Personally, I hope the guys don’t worry about the potential playoff matchups. I want the Hornets to go out there, play their best game of the season, and feel good about themselves heading into the playoffs. We’ve all seen what this New Orleans team is capable of. When we play up to our full potential, we’re as good as anybody in the West. If we can get rolling like earlier this season, it doesn’t matter whether we face Denver or Dallas.

Obviously, a lot has been going on in Mavs-land since we last met. Kidd didn’t seem to fit in too well to begin, Dirk went down, etc, etc. I talked to the Dallas blog Mavs Moneyball for more insight:

At the Hive: When I first heard of the Kidd-Harris deal, I was absolutely thrilled as a Hornets fan. Harris had posted an 18.1 PER until the trade (improving every year for 3 years), and Kidd had posted a 15.8 PER until the deal (declining every year for 3 years). But since coming over to Dallas, Kidd has posted a 17.6 compared to 16.9 for Harris in NJ. From what I can tell, J-Kidd’s usage rate is way down from his Jersey days, but what else is going on here?

Mavs Moneyball: I think there are a number of ways you can explain this, but I’ll focus on two. The first is that it is quite likely that Jason Kidd–despite all his triple doubles and often great performances–just wasn’t mentally into his game this year for the Nets. There has been speculation that the Mavs had been pursuing Kidd for quite some time, and I think it is distinctly possible that Kidd was simply looking ahead to moving on, enough that it had a discernible impact on his performance.

The second is that, for all the talk about Devin Harris blossoming under a coach that would set him loose, I think the opposite is true: In New Jersey Devin Harris often plays too out-of-control and has difficulty controlling the game without a strong coach like Avery Johnson guiding him. That not only hurts his efficiency, it hurts the team. The Mavs saw that this year. Devin was given free rein for the first twenty games of the season, and the Mavs offense looked like it had multiple personality disorder. Some games were very fast, while others were much slower. I believe it became clear to Avery Johnson that Harris simply didn’t have the ability to control a game like an elite point guard of Jason Kidd or Steve Nash’s caliber.
The breaking point was a Denver loss, where the Mavs played completely at Denver’s pace. After that game, Harris was once again put under Avery’s thumb, the Mavs offensive pace plummeted (but was very consistent no matter who they played), and the team offense and defense both improved. My feeling is that Harris needs a coach like Avery Johnson or Gregg Popovich, who can see Harris’ flaws and limit them. By the way, it is revealing that Kidd is playing at a similar pace to what Harris did with the Mavs in the first 20 games in the season, but you don’t see the huge fluctuations in pace game to game, even against fast teams like Phoenix and Golden Sate. It is pretty clear that Kidd is dictating the pace and controlling the game, rather than letting it control him, as we saw in Harris.

At the Hive: I’m one of the few that think Dirk was every bit deserving of his MVP award last year. The guy had a regular season for the ages, the Mavs just happened to run into a bad matchup in Golden State, and for those that question Dirk’s “heart” or ability to “win”, what about the Finals he led them to? But all that aside, how has he looked since returning from injury? Is he the Dirk of old, or is there something missing?

Mavs Moneyball: This is a bit of a judgement call, but I think the biggest trouble with Dirk is on the defensive end. His defensive rebounding–where he is one of the best in the league–has plummeted, which I can only peg to his injury. Beyond that, he has never been an explosive defender who can provide stunning help side defense like a Kirilenko, but he was getting better and better. With his mobility even further limited, he is a piece that can be definitely targeted on the defensive end. On the offensive side, he has never used athleticism or an explosive first move to get his shots, so he is pretty effective. He can still bull into the lane off a head fake (which obviously doesn’t require strong ankles), and that’s his key offensive move beyond his variety of jumpers. He can still free himself off screens and plain out shoot the ball, so he is definitely still a weapon.

At the Hive: Finally, who do you want to see in the first round of the playoffs?

Mavs Moneyball: I personally don’t really care who the Mavs play. There is a perverse part of me that wants the Mavs to fall into the eighth spot and then upset the No. 1 seed, creating a beautiful story line and irony after what happened last year. There is enough parity that I would say that the Mavs could beat any of the teams in the west in a seven game series and also lose to any of the teams in the west in a seven game series. Anybody who thinks that there is an easy out is being foolish.

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