Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks aren’t on the brink of postseason elimination just yet, but the ramifications of a disastrous Game 2 have placed them on the fast track toward an unceremonious exit.
Tuesday’s 111-99 loss to the Houston Rockets was bad enough in a vacuum, but the factors contributing to Dallas’ downfall have left the Mavericks grasping for straws as they get set to host Games 3 and 4 at American Airlines Center on Friday and Sunday.
After Rajon Rondo was benched for nearly the entire second half on a night when he produced as many points (four) as personal fouls, Dallas shelved him “indefinitely” due to a back injury, according to ESPN.com’s Marc Stein:
In this case, head coach Rick Carlisle noted indefinite likely means forever when it comes to Rondo’s time with the Mavericks, according to ESPN Dallas’ Tim MacMahon:
Whether Rondo’s injury-induced absence is a cover for his inability to jibe with Dallas’ offensive philosophy or a legitimate ailment worthy of extended rest and rehabilitation remains to be seen, but it’s unquestionably interesting timing given his limited role (10 minutes) in Game 2.
Then came the news on forward Chandler Parsons, who missed Tuesday’s defeat with persisting knee pain.
According to Stein, Dallas’ $ 46 million man has officially been ruled out for the remainder of the postseason:
In other words: When it rains, it pours, and the only way to stem the tide of a raging storm will be to lean on the one constant Dallas has been able to count on for the past 17 seasons.
Enter Nowitzki, the team’s last hope at salvation in a tumultuous time.
Ranked No. 5 overall among active players in postseason scoring (3,489 points), Nowitzki is the lone transcendent talent left for Dallas to turn to, and he’ll need an explosive showing from here on out to compensate for the chemical imbalances consuming what once appeared to be a promising season.
The first step will require piecing together a complete 48 minutes, which the Mavericks have been incapable of doing in the series’ two opening acts.
“We got to be a little more solid in the fourth quarter,” Nowitzki said after Game 2, according to The Dallas Morning News‘ Eddie Sefko. “For some reason, all year long, they’ve finished better than we have. That’s why they won three of four in the regular season and are up 2-0 now. We got to find a way to not give up eight lobs. That would help.”
Thus far, the Rockets have taken a blowtorch to Dallas in the final frame. Tuesday, the Mavericks ceded at least 30 fourth-quarter points for the second straight contest, as Nowitzki (10 points, 3-of-14 shooting) barely broke double figures with Houston draping him in double-teams and defensive attention.
Two games in, Nowitzki is shooting a respectable 46.4 percent from the field while averaging 17 points and 10 rebounds. That conversion rate is particularly impressive considering 16 of his 28 field-goal attempts against the Rockets have been contested, per SportVU player-tracking data.
But now that Rondo’s out of the picture, Dallas is in a position to embrace addition by subtraction.
Nowitzki has been getting bombarded by Houston’s help defense with Rondo running the point, which continually set him up for frustration and failure as stagnancy emerged as a frustrating norm.
Prior to Rondo’s first appearance with the Mavs on Dec. 20, Dallas ranked tops in offensive rating, producing a booming 113.6 points per 100 possessions. Following his arrival, the Mavericks mustered the NBA‘s 13th-best offensive rating (104.1), down nearly 10 points from the pre-Rondo days.
Dirk’s also been exponentially better—and that may be putting in lightly—with J.J. Barea and Devin Harris running the offense.
Those two make the quick passes that allow Dallas’ read-and-react offense to pump out points at an elite clip, and Nowitzki serves as one of the primary beneficiaries.
Here’s how Dirk performed when sharing the floor Barea, Harris and Rondo during the regular season:
And here’s what their production looks like together in (very) limited postseason minutes:
That’s a profound difference—with a capital P.
So here’s the good news: Harris is officially probable for Game 3 after he missed the Game 2 loss because of an aggravated left-big toe injury, according to Fox Sports’ Mark Followill, and Barea has been spacing the floor adequately in ways Rondo couldn’t.
Point guard is just one piece of the puzzle, though.
Without Parsons, Dallas desperately needs a pick-me-up from three-point range. And again, that’s where Nowitzki comes in.
The Mavericks offense is predicated on floor spacing and balance, and the loss of Parsons only stands to hamper the team’s best efforts to feed Dirk for open looks beyond the arc. Houston can now thrust even more attention on denying Dirk the ball in favorable spots, thus restricting the team’s most productive source of scoring.
The German marksman also needs to step up his effort on defense. While it’s a lot to task a 36-year-old with, there’s a reason Dallas is minus-20 with Dirk on the floor in this series, and it all comes back to his lackluster foot speed and lateral agility when defending ball-handlers like James Harden in the pick-and-roll.
“Guarding James (Harden) in the screen-and-roll is not for one guy, it’s not for two guys, it’s for five guys that are helping and on a string,” he said, according to Sefko. “And sometimes, actually, our pick-and-roll coverage wasn’t that bad. What hurt us was his passing.”
Rim protection is pretty elusive for Dallas outside of Tyson Chandler, too, after Dallas parted with Brandan Wright to acquire Rondo in the first place.
But if one man’s up for the job, it’s Nowitzki.
“Dirk, meanwhile, is fight a battle no man can beat,” MavsOutsider.com’s Bobby Karalla wrote. “He’s been old for years and slow forever, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. But he’s going for it anyway. If the Mavericks are going to win, they’re going to do it on his back. And if they’re going to lose, they’re going to do it on his back.”
With their backs against the wall and the odds stacked against them, the Mavericks have no choice but to turn to Nowitzki and let him bomb away—for better or for worse.