Good Defense, But No Win: Dallas Mavericks 87, New Jersey Nets 86

The Nets should have won, but Dallas played keep-away. AP Photo/Bill Kostroun

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Coincidence or not, there’s no question that the Nets have been playing better basketball since the infamous Mikhail Prokhorov “I must break you, Denver” press conference on Wednesday. But after knocking off a very good Utah Jazz team and a very bad Detroit Pistons team, expectations were a little mixed as to how the Nets would hand the Dallas Mavericks last night. A good team that’s been struggling since the New Year, especially on the road, the Mavericks feature a host of offensive weapons that Nets have seemingly been unable to contain around the league this season. Yet, when the dust settled last night, the Nets ended up losing a game they unquestionably should have won.

It was an 87-86 win for the Mavericks, a one-point game which means it could have gone either way. However, the Nets outplayed the Mavericks in so many areas, I don’t understand how they were ever in a position to have to storm back and take a lead in the game on an 8-0 run in the last 4 minutes, only to watch Dirk Notwitzki take the whole thing away with an up an under move that dropped in after rolling around on the rim for what seemed like an eternity.

Let’s start with the Nets’ entire defensive effort, which I thought was pretty solid. While the Mavs are not the juggernaut they once were, they still have Dirk and Jason Kidd in the starting line-up and a great instant offense guy in Jason Terry lurking on the bench. The Nets held the Mavs to 35 percent shooting for the game and 87 points on about 90 possessions, which works out to an offensive efficiency of about 97 points per 100 possessions, well below the Mavs season average of 104.9 points per 100 possessions. I thought the Nets bigs, despite Brook Lopez (4), Derrick Favors (4) and Johan Petro (5) all getting into foul trouble, did a good job rotating on Dirk and holding him to 7-24 shooting for the game. The Mavs kept riding Dirk all night, and obviously with good reward, but while he did miss a few wide open shots, he also missed a bunch of shots because they Nets kept throwing a different mix of defenders at him and constantly had two hands in his face before any jumper.

Of course how the Nets chose to defend Dirk on Dallas’ final possession will probably raise some eyebrows.  After giving Dallas the ball back with 20 seconds left (we’ll get to the last two offensive possessions for the Nets in a moment), everyone in the arena knew who was going to get the next shot. The only question for me was how many seconds the Mavericks were going to leave the Nets at the end. I’ve been a very vocal critic of Avery Johnson’s insistence that Stephen Graham is some kind of defensive whiz. Despite whatever reputation proceeded him before he joined the Nets this year, earlier this year I used some on court, off court numbers from 82games.com to show that Graham is not making a difference on that end. We’re not more than halfway through the season, a season that Graham has regrettably played a lot of minutes, and the number still hold serve. The Nets defense allows 115.5 points per 100 possessions when Graham is on the floor and 108.9 points per 100 possessions when he’s off. OK, we get it, he has to play right now because of injuries the Nets are super thin at SG and SF, but he shouldn’t be anywhere near the floor in a crunch time defensive situation. The Nets would even be better with Travis Outlaw on the floor in those spots (113 points per 100 possessions defensively), but I don’t expect things to change from Avery anytime soon.

It’s not even that Graham played Dirk that poorly on the final possession but I felt the Nets let the two of them go one-on-one for far too long. It was inevitable before Graham bit on one of Dirk’s fakes, and the help defender, Lopez, came over a tick too late as Dirk had already worked his way up and under with a clear shot of the rim. It was still a tough angle shot to hit, but it’s Dirk, he hits those. I would have much rather seen the Nets throw a pair of defenders at Dirk earlier and either force him to shoot or pass to someone else. The Nets had done a solid job rotating all night. That last possession was not the time to get cocky and play Dirk straight-up.

Still, even with that last Dirk shot, the Nets had 6 seconds and a timeout left to try and pull out the victory. The Nets offense was nowhere near as efficient last night as it was on Friday, only shooting 44.4 percent from the floor, but they did rack up 23 assists to the Mavs’ 18, and Devin Harris (11 assists) especially did a good job moving the ball around … until the end. On the possession prior, with the Nets milking a one-point lead, the Nets ran an isolation for Harris and he ended up air-balling a 15-footer. It also looked like he was hit in the head on the play by Shawn Marion, but prior to that, Marion also tipped the ball. You could quibble about the non-call, but it was an extremely predictable play by Avery/Devin.  Brook Lopez, despite 6 turnovers, was having a decent night offensively with 24 points on 10-15 shooting. Tyson Chandler (19 points on 7-11 shooting), probably the biggest beneficiary offensively of the Nets double teaming of Dirk, also had five fouls at the end of the game. In other words, the Mavs were having a hard time stopping Brook in the closing minutes in the fourth. So naturally, the Nets moved away from that plan and went to Devin.

Similarly on the last possession, the ball was in Devin’s hands for the most of it. This time he was looking to pass, but exhibited zero urgency during the play. After an awful in-bounds pass that saw the ball sail over Devin’s head to the opposite baseline he dribbled, dribbled, dribbled some more and didn’t make his move until there was only about two seconds left. He motioned as if he was going to try and thread the needle from top of the key into the paint to draw defenders, but Dallas collapsed early and Harris left his feet mid-move, forced to make a bad pass to Jordan Farmar. It was a bas pass for two reasons – leaving his feet left Harris with no momentum in the direction where the pass was going, so it was a weak little pass that cost valuable tenths of seconds. Second, Farmar was covered like a glove. The result was an airball from Farmar, but even if he hit the shot, I don’t think he got the shot off on time because of how long it took Devin to get into his offense. For the past two seasons, the Nets have developed a track record of not even being able to get the final shot off when they have that opportunity. And I think the common thread here is Harris. I like Harris, I really do, but I’ve never seen a guy’s sense of urgency and decision making abilities go on the fritz in crunch time quite like his. It’s almost as if that half-court heave he sank against Philly two years back inversely robbed him of his ability to efficiently manufacture the game’s final shot. Even during the Chicago game where Sasha Vujacic won the game with five second left, Sasha’s shot came off the rebound of a bad pass from Devin to Brook with the game’s final second ticking down. Sasha was in the right place at the right time, otherwise the Nets would have ended the game turning the ball over.

A few more thoughts after the jump:

I spent the bulk of the recap really focusing on two offensive possessions for the Nets, but as an overall theme, the team was just way to sloppy with the ball. They committed 17 turnovers, which is pretty bad on its own, but more offensively, 11 of those turnovers came off Dallas steals. If you check out the ESPN game log, 9 of those steals came off the dreaded “bad pass” non-stat, and I can see why. The Nets overthrowing/underthrowing passes, trying to force alley-oops to Brook and Favors, etc. all night.

Of the three-game series since the press conference, this was probably Favors’ weakest effort, and a large part of it had to do with him being unable to stay on the floor again due to foul trouble. He racked up four fouls in the first three quarters, before Avery decided to roll with Kris Humphries for the rest of the game. This didn’t surprise me. Dirk has an ability to draw fouls even on elite defenders, so I knew going in that the rookie was going to have a hard time not picking up nickel-and-dimes. A positive to take away is Favors remains efficient on the offensive end, scoring his 6 points on 3-5 shooting. I’m yet to see a night where Favors tries to do more offensively than he’s capable, maybe because the Nets aren’t giving him the ball enough to try and let him create. Still, the high field goal percentage is a good sign for when it all starts to click for the guy.

It was a disappointing second game of a back-to-back for the returning from injury Anthony Morrow, finishing with two points that came on a pair of free throws. He only took two shot attempts, both three pointers, and never looked comfortable, grabbing three fouls in the first half as well. I’m going to try and stay positive and hope that Morrow is just getting his sea legs back under him and nothing was reinsured.

Sasha is still shooting too much sometimes (9 points, 4-12 shooting), but I actually liked that when the Nets made their run in the fourth quarter, the Machine was actually running the point, with Devin and Farmar playing off the ball. And you can’t argue with the results considering how the Nets offense came alive during that stretch and went back to sleep when they went back to the more traditional, everything runs through Devin, approach.

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