Dallas has managed to stay afloat without Dirk Nowitzki with a lot of smoke and mirrors this season. On Saturday night, in front of a packed house at the American Airlines Center, the whole house of cards came crumbling down. The Mavericks aren't as bad as they looked in their 115-89 loss to the Lakers, but make no mistake about it, without their best player, this is about how far away they are from the top of the NBA. The second-round sweep in 2011, when Dallas humbled LA and sent Phil Jackson into retirement, seems like a lifetime ago.
As I've been saying for awhile, this version of the Mavs will go as far as Darren Collison will take them. Against a Lakers team he wrecked on Opening Night, the Dallas PG went 1-10 for 2 points with 4 assists on 4 turnovers. If he continues to play like that, you can expect more blowouts for the bad guys in the next few weeks. The hope was, in bringing him to Dallas on the last year of his rookie deal, he would be motivated to play for a new contract. Instead, he's justifying why the Hornets and the Pacers gave up on him.
This version of the Mavs needs Chris Kaman to give them offense in the paint. But with Dwight Howard pushing him away from the basket, he reverted to many of his worst tendencies. He took a lot of the type of shots that Dirk takes; the difference, of course, is that Kaman is going to go something like 2-12 from the field when he's hoisting fade-aways. That being said, it's hard to blame him for what happened. Even against a severely limited version of Dwight Howard, he didn't have much of a chance to play his game. Just a bad match-up for him.
Speaking of Howard, I don't think he's 100%. Frankly, I'm not sure he's even close. I'm not a doctor, but he doesn't seem like he has any movement in his back. If I threw a coin on the ground, I question whether he could bend over to pick it up right now. Forget all of the media circus surrounding LA: Howard needs to be the player he was in Orlando if they're going to have a chance to win an NBA title. This might the most important story-line of the regular season going forward.
LA came into this game on a two-game losing streak with tensions flying between Pau Gasol and Mike D'Antoni. The Mavs front-court, though, was the perfect get well gift. In 17 minutes, Elton Brand went 0-3 with 4 rebounds, 1 assists, 5 fouls, 1 turnover and 1 block. In 14 minutes, Troy Murphy went 0-2 with 1 rebound, 1 foul and 1 turnover. I have nothing to add about those stat-lines. They speak for themselves.
There weren't many bright spots for Dallas, but the play of Bernard James was one of them. "Sarge" scored 7 points on 3-4 shooting in 15 minutes while chipping in 5 rebounds and 4 blocked shots. Yet he played as much as Murphy and Brand! That makes sense.
Here's the bottom line: Carlisle has not been playing his best line-up this season, but because of their soft schedule, Dallas has been able to overcome his questionable rotation decisions. Against LA, the Mavs margin of error was very low and they just couldn't overcome their coach unloading a clip into his own foot.
The other questionable decision the coaching staff made was not putting Shawn Marion on Kobe more often. Kobe isn't what he once was, but if he's playing against someone shorter than he is, he can shoot over their head and score at will. Marion and Dahntay Jones are the only guys on the Mavs roster who can defend Kobe. Not on that list: OJ Mayo and Jae Crowder. No offense, fellas, it is what it is.
Speaking of OJ the Juiceman, this game was a good reality check after his blistering start to the season. He's undersized, he's not great at creating his own shot off the bounce and he isn't a great playmaker. There's a reason he was available for 1-year $4 million in the off-season. That being said, I think he can be a better version of Jet Terry when Dirk comes back and, of all the guys Dallas brought in the off-season, he's probably the guy I'd like them to keep the most.
Rodrigue Beaubois actually had a few good moments in relief of Collison tonight. In particular, there was a nice sequence where he stole the ball from Darius Morris and finished with authority at the rim. He runs the pick-and-roll better than Collison and, I'll say this yet again, I'd like to see him run a two-man game with Brandan Wright, the most effective P/R big on the Mavs roster.
Until Dirk gets back, Dallas has to go with this foursome in their front-court: Kaman, Wright, Sarge and Marion playing as a small-ball 4. This team just isn't good enough to carry Brand and Murphy any longer. Don't get me wrong, there are plenty of things wrong with the group I'm suggesting, but they simply couldn't play as poorly as Murphy and Brand have played this year. I'm not sure that's even possible.
However, before Mavs fans start to panic, let's not forget that this was an LA team that had slipped below .500 after two consecutive road losses to the Kings and the Grizzlies. They had their backs against the wall (metaphorically) and they played like it on Saturday. And if Metta World Peace (7-10) and Antawn Jamison (7-11) can shoot as well as they did against Dallas, it's going to be hard for anyone to beat them.
The Big Picture:
The Mavs have a tough road back-to-back this week against Philadelphia and Chicago. As long as Dirk is out, they just need to keep treading water, so a split of those two games would be great. The good news is that the schedule in the first two weeks of December isn't that tough, so staying at .500 until their superstar returns is still a possibility. That is, if he's coming back in mid-December.