Sunday, December 2, 2012

Dallas, San Antonio And The Narrative


The seasons of the Dallas Mavericks and the San Antonio Spurs hung in the balance last night.

After blowing a 23-point lead in the second half of Game 4, the Mavericks needed a win in Game 5 to avoid giving Portland a chance to close out the series at the Rose Garden. A Memphis win in Game 4 would give the Grizzlies a 3-1 edge against the Spurs, a deficit only eight teams in NBA history have overcome.

But while both franchises have been phenomenally successful over the last decade, winning more than 50 games for more than ten straight years, the Spurs have won four titles and the Mavericks haven’t won any. As a result, there was a lot less consternation in San Antonio than in Dallas, where Brandon Roy’s fourth-quarter outburst was met with equal parts hysteria and panic.

In a column lamenting the return of “the same old Mavericks”, ESPN’s Tim MacMahon unloaded with both barrels on the team:
But X’s and O’s are far from the only reasons the Mavs earned ridicule at the Rose Garden. Intangibles had just as much to do with this disaster. The Mavs displayed an amazing lack of killer instinct. 
They showed a maddening lack of mental toughness. A veteran team exhibited an alarming lack of poise. They made their army of critics look smart.  Maybe the Mavs recover in this series, which has yet to see a road team win. However, the thought of the Mavs as legitimate contenders is laughable at this point. 
A team that had been trying so hard to distance itself from a painful recent playoff history has to be haunted by those postseason demons now, no matter how many faces and names have changed over the last few years.  
And no matter what the Mavs say. 
In the memory of Dallas basketball fans, the 2006 Finals and the 2007 first round series against Golden State are always looming. But only Dirk and Jason Terry are left from those teams.

A lot of the “same old Mavericks” are coaching in New Jersey (Avery Johnson), playing in Utah (Devin Harris), Miami (Erick Dampier) and Washington (Josh Howard), and out of the NBA entirely (Jerry Stackhouse, Devean George). Why would their playoff failures affect Tyson Chandler, DeShawn Stevenson, Shawn Marion and Jason Kidd?

For many in Dallas, Game 5 would be a test to see whether these Mavericks were “different.” Echoing MacMahon, Mark Followill, Dallas’ TV announcer, declared:
2nite the X & O crap goes out the window, this game is a test of resolve, will, guts, heart, cajones, determination, u name it. 
But if that’s true about Game 5 of Dallas/Portland, why isn’t that true about Game 4 of Memphis/San Antonio or any other basketball game for that matter? Are basketball games determined by “resolve, will and heart” or “X and O’s”?

The Mavericks won Game 5 by 11 points, thanks primarily to the efforts of Tyson Chandler. Chandler grabbed 20 rebounds, including 13 on the offensive end, the most in an NBA playoff game in over 15 years.

By going in a zone defense earlier in the game, Dallas exploited the weak outside shooting of three of Portland’s starters — Andre Miller, Gerald Wallace and Marcus Camby. To counter this and get more jump-shooting on the floor, the Trail Blazers went small, with a front-line of LaMarcus Aldridge, Wallace and Nic Batum.

But the Blazers had to keep Aldridge on Dirk defensively, which meant they had two 6’8 forwards — Wallace and Batum — trying to box out a 7’1 235 center with a 7’3 wingspan and a 33′ vertical.

 On the other end of the floor, with the Mavericks cross-switching defensively (Dirk on Wallace/Batum, Chandler on Aldridge), neither Portland forward could make Dallas pay for defending them with a seven-footer lacking great strength or mobility. Wallace shot 5-13 from the floor, Batum 5-12.

That’s the beauty of an NBA playoff series, a chess match over seven games where each move is met with a counter, until one side is out of answers. Far from a contest where X-and-O’s could be thrown out, Game 5 was decided primarily by tactics and strategy.

And while the Mavericks were overcoming many of their doubters in Dallas, the struggles of San Antonio in Memphis should make us question why the Mavericks had so many doubters in the first place. Just like Dallas in 2007, San Antonio led the Western Conference from wire-to-wire this season, finishing with 61 wins and a +5.7 point differential.

Before the Mavericks lost 4-2 to Golden State that year, no #1 seed had ever lost to a #8 seed in a seven-game series. Coupled with their loss to the Heat in the previous year’s NBA Finals, it cemented Dallas as a “team full of chokers.” In this telling of the story, the Warriors were merely bystanders, perfectly positioned to exploit Dallas’ inability to come through in the clutch. Yet that series was as much Golden State’s win as it was Dallas’ loss.

The Warriors were the ultimate match-up nightmare for the Mavericks, beating them in all three regular season games that year. With two seven-foot behemoths in the middle in Dampier and DeSagana Diop, Dallas’ defense was geared to stop low-post scorers like Tim Duncan.

The Warriors didn’t play a traditional center, eliminating most of the value of the Mavericks’ defensive anchors. Dirk, who was still primarily a jump-shooter, made his living bringing traditionally less mobile power forwards out on the perimeter where they were less comfortable defensively. The Warriors didn’t have any traditional power forwards.

And because the Mavericks’ best two guards were the 6’3 190 Devin Harris and the 6’2 180 Jason Terry, they were vulnerable defensively to big, athletic guards who could use their physicality to attack them off the dribble, a description which fit the Warriors’ three best scorers — Baron Davis, Stephen Jackson and Jason Richardson.

Similarly, the Grizzlies roster causes a few match-up problems for San Antonio. Duncan, who just turned 35, is the Spurs only traditional low-post defender, a problem against Memphis, who have two huge, skilled forwards who operate in the paint in Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. Offensively, the Spurs live off the penetration of Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, which the Grizzlies can counter with the perimeter duo of Shane Battier and Tony Allen.

The Spurs, contrary to their reputation, have become an offensive-minded team. If Tim Duncan and Manu can’t dominate Marc Gasol and Tony Allen, and force double teams to give their shooters open looks, San Antonio can’t win.

If they lose to Memphis, does that make the 2010/2011 Spurs “choke artists”? Or if the Spurs are merely a victim of a particularly bad match-up, what does that make the 2006/2007 Mavericks? But according to the Spurs’ Antonio McDyess, San Antonio’s problems against Memphis run much deeper than mere match-ups: “We’re playing like a bunch of wussies.”

That’s an understandable mind-set for the Spurs players to have: they can change their mentality, but they can’t change their physicality. But does Matt Bonner’s fortitude really make a difference when he’s defending Zach Randolph and Darrell Arthur?

This psychological based analysis of basketball comes from a place deep within American culture. We like to believe in the power of the individual, that hard work and skill determine our success in life.

So when we look at the Spurs and the Mavericks playoff performance, we want to believe that the players are in control of their own destiny: that if only the Mavericks players were tougher, they would have already won a championship. That the Spurs success is a result of the no-nonsense ethic of team-work they built, not because they had a seven-foot Hall of Famer in the middle of the lane.

In psychology, the term “locus of control” refers to a person’s belief in their ability to control their destiny. It can be focused either internally (a belief that your actions determine the course of your life) or externally (a belief that the actions of others, from strangers to a higher power, determines your fate).

Sports are a relief from the real world, where so much of what controls our lives — the vagaries of global weather patterns and macro-economic shifts — is completely out of control. So the idea that match-ups, that who you play has more impact on your success than how you play, determine the fate of your favorite NBA team is antithetical to many. Because if Memphis poses match-up problems the Spurs can’t counter, why even play the game?

For Albert Camus, this was the central question modern philosophy must resolve: what’s the point of living in a random and unjust world with no higher power? His answer: it’s the struggle in the face of insurmountable odds, even when we know that struggle is futile, that makes our lives worth living.

In his treatise “The Myth of Sisyphus”, he imagines the life of Sisyphus, a figure in ancient Greek mythology doomed to endlessly push a boulder to the top of the mountain only to see it roll all the way back down.

He concludes that one must imagine Sisyphus, like the Spurs and the Mavericks, happy.

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