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NBA Breakdown

In NBA on January 21, 2010 at 6:05 pm

Last Monday, the NBA celebrated Martin Luther King Day the only way they know how – with a feast of basketball action. MLK Day also marked (roughly) the half way point of the season, and with four of the top teams in action, here’s a breakdown of the night’s games and a run-down of the strengths and weaknesses of this quartet of playoff hopefuls.

Dallas Mavericks@Boston Celtics

This game saw the No.2 teams in the East and West battle it out in Boston, and it turned out to be a perfect example of that hoary old cliché, the ‘game of two halves’.

Boston were by far the better team in the first period, and held a deserved 9 point lead at the break. Young point guard Rajon Rondo keyed the offense beautifully. He regularly committed two or more men before slipping the ball off to a teammate with an open look. Centre Kendrick Perkins and Ray Allen were the main beneficiaries, as Perkins racked up 8 points and 8 rebounds, while Allen knocked down numerous open jumpers. The veteran sniper can still take over a game with his outside shooting, and Rondo’s prompting allowed him to slip into rhythm. Brian Scalabrine and Glen Davis also gave them a jolt off the bench which their opponents couldn’t match.

Point guards Rajon Rondo and Jason Kidd both performed well on Monday night

Boston also did a great job taking care of the ball, as they outscored the Mavs 12 to 3 on fastbreak points, which is usually where Dallas flourishes. Dallas forward Dirk Nowitzki can do it all, and he picked up 15 points on 5/9 shooting. He was rarely afforded too much space though, as the returning Rasheed Wallace closed on him every time he touched the ball. Nowitzki never got the support he needed either.

Last season’s 6th man of the year Jason Terry struggled badly, shooting 0/5 for just a solitary point, and if the Celtics’ were tidier from the free throw line (where they shot a miserable 4/11), they would have been in an even deeper hole. As it was, the C’s used big runs at the start and end of the half to claim a 50-41 lead.

In the absence of injured All-Star Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce is the leader of this Boston team. He is a dynamic scorer, and is very difficult to contain. He top-scored for his side in the first half, and looked like he was going to dictate terms in the 2nd too. Taking control of the ball to start the 3rd quarter, he hit a desperation 3 as the shot clock expired to push the home side out to a 12 point lead, and it looked as though they were in cruise control.

But without Garnett to keep them focussed, they lost concentration on the defensive end. They gave up a 9-2 run, and suddenly found themselves in a dogfight. Mavs centre Erick Dampier began to bully Boston in the post, and he gave his side the impetus they needed. The big man hit a quickfire 4/5 for 9 points, and Nowitzki finally broke loose as Wallace, in foul trouble and possibly feeling the effects of his recent injury,  began to tire.

The 3rd quarter was where this game was won and lost, as the visitors outscored the previously cruising Celtics 34-15 and entered the 4th with a 7 point lead, 75-68. That 34 points was the most anyone has scored on Pierce and his boys this season, but they just couldn’t seem to rouse themselves. A horrible turnover midway through the fateful 3rd summed up their sloppy play, as Davis fired a pass out of bounds without a green jersey in sight.

Coach Doc Rivers was apoplectic, and he ripped into his side during a timeout. Afterwards, he admitted that Dallas were ‘more physical, and mentally tougher’ during that 3rd period, while his side had been lazy, as they gambled on rebounds and neglected to hussle back on the defensive end.

Shawn 'Matrix' Marion has been a good addition to this Dallas team

Despite this roasting, their torpor carried over into the 4th and Dallas continued to surge. They stretched their lead as Nowitzki merrily toasted whoever tried to guard him, hitting long shots with impunity over the outmatched Davis and Scalabrine, who couldn’t live with him on the perimeter.

The stats were damning. Boston gave up 13 turnovers and 57% field goal shooting to the Mavericks. Most of those turnovers came in the second half, as Dallas got their fast break going. They totalled 12 points from these turnovers and at one stage in were hitting an incredible 82% from the field in the second half. Nowitzki ended up with a game high 37 points on 14/22 shooting and the Mavericks even ended up out-rebounding the home side on their way to a 99-90 road win.

So what does this game tell us?

Well, it’s hard to draw conclusion this early beyond a basic analysis of each team’s strengths and weaknesses. Both teams were missing players, but the home side’s absences were clearly more keenly felt. Kevin Garnett and Marquis Daniels watched helplessly from the bench as their team imploded, and while the bits and pieces Daniels mightn’t have been able to do much beyond a few quick points, Garnett would have made a big difference. He’s not just a solid scorer and dominating rebounder, but also the spiritual and emotional leader of this team.

Garnett is a future hall of famer who plays with a ferocious intensity, and that was just what was lacking as the Celtics lost their way in the second half. Had they emerged from the dressing room as sleepy as they did with KG on the floor, you can be sure he would have been raging against every dying light in the building. The sooner he comes back from injury the better, as the Celtics aren’t the same team without him. This was their 7th home loss this year, and they only gave up 6 in the whole of last year’s regular season.

The sooner Boston get Kevin Garnett back from injury, the better

Having said that, they definitely have to be considered as serious contenders for the big one. Rajon Rondo has emerged as a fantastic young point guard, and he’s the man who can serve up easy points for the superstars like Pierce, Allen and Garnett. He averages nearly 10 assists a game to go with his 14 points and is getting better year on year. He does need to improve his free throw shooting though.

Kendrick Perkins has also evolved into a solid presence in the centre, leading the league in field goal percentage and providing a threat in the low post. He even drew purring praise from Reggie Miller over his improved physique, and that indicates an excellent attitude and work ethic. These were the two ‘weak links’ when Boston won the Championship in ’08, but they are both strengths in this team now.

The Celtics’ grand tradition of dangerous 6th men is also continued by the fiery Rasheed Wallace. He leads the league in technical fouls yet again, but complements Garnett in giving the team a much needed hard edge. This will be invaluable come playoff time.

As for the Mavericks, they are still the same dangerous Dallas team that routinely advances to the playoffs. The personnel is largely the same, bar the addition of Shawn Marion, who quietly amassed 16 points on Monday and looks to be adapting his game and fitting in well. What will set them apart from their predecessors is how they do once they get there.

Although they still revolve around the notoriously flaky Dirk Nowitzki, the signs aren’t too bad for Mavs fans. This game was a big test, and despite trailing by 12 at the Garden, they still roared back to win with ease. This is the kind of determination and attitude that will serve them well in the playoffs. Point guard Jason Kidd has also been performing well. He conjured 17 assists on Monday night and has seen it all before in the postseason. His experience will be a huge boon for his side.

The question mark is, as always, hanging over the head of their German superstar Nowitzki. Playoff meltdowns have become commonplace for Dirk, and it remains to be seen whether he has matured enough to be able to handle the pressure this time around. If he has, then the Mavericks will be a danger to anyone. If he hasn’t, then it will be another season of playoff misery in big D.

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