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May 9, 2011
Playoff Prospectus
Decisive Ending

by Kevin Pelton

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at Dallas 122, L.A. Lakers 86 (Dallas wins 4-0)
Pace: 82.5
Offensive Ratings: Dallas 133.3, L.A. Lakers 94.9

I feel like I already wrote this column seven years ago. Just replace the Detroit Pistons with the Dallas Mavericks and the general tone of my analysis of the 2004 NBA Finals holds up now. The parallels between the two series are striking. Both saw the Lakers enter as prohibitive favorites only to be thoroughly outplayed by a less-heralded foe, with Phil Jackson looking on from the sidelines as he prepared to ride off into the sunset.

Then as now, most of the commentary centered on what went wrong for the Lakers. We'll hear talk of locker-room rifts and questions about trust to go along with the less reliable whispers and rumors. Who knows? Maybe Jackson will write another book and we'll get an inside perspectfive. Whatever ultimately comes out, it cannot change the inescapable fact that the Mavericks won this series with an incredible effort by coaches and players alike.

The biggest difference between 2004 and 2011 was that the Lakers won a close game in that NBA Finals, extending the series to seven games. This time, the difference between Dallas and L.A. wasn't quite as dramatic as the sweep or the final margin would seem to indicate. Change a couple of plays down the stretch in Game One or Game Three and we're looking at a different series. Still, the Lakers never conclusively held the upper hand, as the Mavericks did in Game Two and again--by a tragicomic margin--Sunday.

In Game Four, Dallas put together a shooting display the likes of which we may not see in a playoff game again for a long time. Led by Jason Terry and Peja Stojakovic, the Mavericks tied a playoff record with their 20 three-pointers and did so with the third-highest accuracy (.625) of any team with at least 20 attempts in a playoff game with the current three-point line. (The Seattle SuperSonics' 20-of-27 effort during their 1996 sweep of the two-time defending champion Houston Rockets came when the line was moved in.)

Unlike Game Three, this wasn't a case of the Lakers' strategy to allow the three backfiring. Phil Jackson told ABC he wanted his players to run Dallas off the three-point line, as they did with mixed success during the first two games of this series. The Lakers failed to execute that strategy, and it's open for debate how much of that was because of poor defensive effort. What is clear is that the Mavericks did their best to make rotations impossible for the Lakers by breaking down their defense at the point of attack and then moving the basketball quickly to their best shooters. The result was a series of warm-up jumpers, the kind shooters like Stojakovic and Terry dream of getting. Even when the Lakers were in the right place defensively, Dallas was going so well the shots mostly went down nonetheless.

All series long, the Mavericks provided a clinic in ball movement. 70.3 percent of their made field goals came off assists, a staggering figure far better than their league-leading 63.7 percent mark during the regular season. In Game Four, Dallas improved that to 72.7 percent, handing out 32 assists on 44 field goals. Because of their length, the Lakers get out to contest shots better than anyone else in the league (the biggest reason they've shown a unique consistent ability to defend threes well). That was rendered useless by the Mavericks' hot-potato passing. Eventually, the Lakers ran out of defenders. The defining play in this regard came late in Game Three, when a defender closed out hard on Jason Kidd, who calmly dished to Terry in the corner for a wide-open shot that gave Dallas the lead.

None of that would have happened if not for the Mavericks' matchup advantages. The most obvious is Dirk Nowitzki, whose relatively pedestrian Game Four stat line (17 points on 7-of-11 shooting with four assists) fails to do justice to his impact. During the 32 minutes Nowitzki was on the floor, Dallas outscored the Lakers by more than a point per minute (+37). According to our Sebastian Pruiti, Nowitzki was involved in 12 of the Mavericks' 20 three-pointers, largely by drawing the attention of the Laker defense.

Beyond Nowitzki, the Dallas players who gave the Lakers the most problem came off the bench. When the Mavericks go to their second-team perimeter trio of Stojakovic, Terry and Jose Barea, they take on a totally different look. While this group has its defensive issues, the Lakers were never able to stop it offensively. In addition to being uber-quick, Barea has a masterful command of the pick-and-roll game. Add in the shooters spacing the floor and there are no easy answers for opposing defenses. Game Four was the ultimate testament to the capability of these players, as Terry and Stojakovic combined to make 15 of their 16 attempts from downtown and Barea had a brilliant all-around game with 22 points on 8-of-14 shooting and eight assists.

As with the 2004 Pistons, it took their success against the Lakers and a reassessment of their regular-season performance to understand just how good this Dallas team truly is. Unlike in 2004, the Mavericks' job isn't finished. In fact, it's only halfway complete, and the Mavericks' toughest tests may still lie ahead. That shouldn't take away from an incredible performance in this series.

What is unfortunate is that the lingering images from Game Four won't be Stojakovic and Terry threes, but instead Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum being escorted off the floor after being ejected for committing flagrant fouls. Sadly, those misguided acts of frustration represented as much fight as the Lakers showed all game. After Dallas caught fire in the second quarter, the Lakers could never mount a sustained run, and their defensive will eventually broke. If the end was predictable given the way the Lakers lost in similar situations in past postseasons, it also was one unbefitting the two-time defending champs. Jackson will not have the chance to erase the memory of this defeat, but the rest of the Lakers need to take full advantage of that opportunity.

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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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