Going Up Against the Champs

There’s an old saying that reads something like, “if you want to be the best, then you have to beat the best”.  While the painful triteness of this cliché destroys souls and devours brain cells, the history of the NBA is flush with examples of its truth. Let’s accept it at its boring face value and move on.

The Dallas Mavericks won the 2011 NBA title Sunday, and they have rightfully made themselves the benchmark against which other teams are measured.  In this post, let’s take a look back at the Bucks’ match-ups with the Mavericks and see what Milwaukee needs to do in order to defeat a championship-level team like Dallas.

The short answer?  Keep playing them.

Yep, that’s right. The Bucks went 2-0 against the Mavericks this year in two of their more interesting games.  The game in Milwaukee featured an epic short-man showdown between Earl Boykins (26 points) and J.J. Barea (29 points) where each lilliputian point guard was his team’s leading scorer. But for substantive analysis, this game isn’t a good indicator because both Brandon Jennings and Dirk Nowitzki missed the game with injuries and Caron Butler’s first-quarter knee injury left the Mavs shellshocked for the remainder of the game.

In Texas, though, all the principals were on hand for the proceedings.  The Mavericks utilized a man-to-man defense on all but one possession in the first quarter. On the other end, Nowitzki smartly made moves to get rookie Larry Sanders out of position and Dallas led 25-15 after 12 minutes.  Then Milwaukee trotted out a Dooling-Douglas-Roberts-Maggette-Luc-Gooden lineup (no, they didn’t get to use six players) and the Mavs switched to a 2-3 halfcourt zone that flummoxed the Bucks, resulting in possessions like this one:

In those seven minutes of the zone defense, the Bucks shot 2-8 FG and one of the made baskets was an horrifically unintentional 21-foot bank shot from the corner by Maggette. Dallas pushed the lead to 20. Fortunately for the Bucks, the Mavs added some 2-2-1 full-court pressure to the zone and when Milwaukee carved it up for a dunk, the Mavericks went back to a man-to-man look for the rest of the first half.

To start the next half, Mbah a Moute and Sanders were out; Chris Douglas-Roberts and Ersan Ilyasova took their place. With Dallas back in a man-to-man defense, Milwaukee began nearly all of its offensive sets with a Jennings/Ilyasova pick-and-roll (or pick-and-pop) set from the right side (pic below) which enabled Jennings to drive left repeatedly and fire up the rest of the Bucks’ offense.  The target was Nowitzki — when he was forced onto Jennings, he had no chance to keep up with Brandon’s speed.










After three quarters, Milwaukee had surprisingly climbed back on top, 75-74, and as a result, Dallas shifted back to the zone. It worked for a while.

This play looks like a dud for Jennings, but what troubles me here is the pick being set by Gooden. He needs to get up much closer to Jennings for this screen to have a chance at working. Instead, precious seconds escape on the shot clock. The Bucks continued to get awful looks against the Dallas zone, but scored against two of the classic weaknesses of the zone: rebounds and pace. In fact, they scrapped their way to three rebound/putbacks and a fast break bucket.  Note that in both of those links, the rebounder comes from the baseline to get the tip-in.  Beautiful.

By fighting their way to points against the zone, Milwaukee kept the game close.  When Dallas swtiched back into a man-to-man defense, the Bucks went into a 14-0 run that won the game.

Skiles made a terrific adjustment: switching from Sanders to Ilyasova.  After Bogut and Jennings, Ilyasova may be the third-most valuable commodity on the roster.  His shooting ability spaces the floor on offense and he rebounds well on both ends.  Plus, the combo of Ersan and Brandon on the pick-and-roll functions more reliably than most of the Bucks’ offensive options.  Sanders can work his way to being a reliable rotation player, but I would rather see him “learn and earn” his minutes in a secondary role until his defensive positioning is flawless, because he’s not a great scorer or shooter yet.  Instead, there’s Ilyasova and he’s the type of “stretch-four” power forward that Dallas just rode all the way to a Larry O’Brien Trophy.  Think of Ersan as a homeless-man’s Nowitzki or a billionaire’s Brian Cardinal.  (Wait a sec, Mark Cuban is a billionaire.  Why is his “Brian Cardinal” actually Brian Cardinal?)

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Tags: Andrew Bogut Brandon Jennings Dallas Mavericks Dirk Nowitzki Earl Boykins Ersan Ilyasova J.J. Barea Milwaukee Bucks Zone Defense

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