The Three-Pointer: Something To Prove
1. Casey passes gut-check
Tonight's 91-78 win over Dallas was significant for many reasons. The Wolves haven't been below .500 since November 15 (3-4) and likewise haven't been out of first place in their horrid division in nearly that long. They were coming off two merciless beatings by at least 20 points heading into this, the first of three games against teams with the two best records in the Western Conference.
It is exactly the kind of situation that tests a coach's mettle. One sensed that the Wolves could go either way tonight; quit and get hammered by another embarrassing margin, and respond to the situation and start hoarding back their dignity. And more often than not, the coach is the fulcrum upon which way the ballclub tilts.
Well, Dwane Casey not only got his win, he scored it in character, with smart, diligent defense and a triumverate of scorers. The 23-8 Mavs haven't been held below 80 points all season, and under 90 only once since November 17, a span of 23 games in which they went 17-6. Throughout the game, Casey mixed and matched his defenses well, frequently switching on the pick and roll and resorting to the occasional zone to keep Dallas off balance. Anticipating that the Mavs would go small in the 4th quarter, he left Troy Hudson in instead of Eddie Griffin when Michael Olowokandi went to the bench, wanting the smaller unit to have a little momentum when Dallas deployed Dirk Nowitzki and a squadron of tweeners. And the gambit worked. Casey also got that third fount of points so important to his deliberate offensive schemes. Which bring us to...
2. Marko Jaric resurrects his intensity
The beat writers will lean on Jaric's performance in their game stories tomorrow morning, and properly so. But it was easy to curse him during the first half, which saw him come out determined to be aggressive and get to the hoop, only to blow a series of makeable layups and clang the occasional jumper. During a half when the refs were rewarding penetrators with whistles off the slightest contact, Jaric not only shot 2-8 (including an 0-5 beginning)but was the only starter without a free throw despite ranking second on the team in shot attempts. And while his counterpart Jason Terry only managed two points and one assist in the half, the cause seemed as much Terry's lethargy (the Mavs played last night at home) as Jaric's tenacity.
But Jaric was arguably the differnce in the second half, and thus the ballgame, spurring a 53-37 Wolves' advantage at both ends of the court. He took more than twice as many shots as any of his teammates, nailing 7-11 from the field, got to the free throw line 6 times, and was second only to KG with four rebounds. The result was 18 points and just one assist in the second half, an approach totally at odds with his customary dish-don't-shoot ethic, which clearly caught the Mavs by surprise. What's more, Terry shot 2-9 from the floor and committed four fouls trying to contain Jaric, who is five inches taller.
After the game, Casey raved about Jaric's "defensive containment," code for the fact that guards weren't breaking his ankles and the Wolves' perimeter D with simple crossover moves and quick first steps. Now Terry isn't that quick, certainly not as fast as Jameer Nelson of Orlando, but he is kind of like Miami's Jason Williams, who also schooled Jaric on the recent road trip. Bottom line: Jaric has actually had much better games defensively, and tonight was as good rotating over and getting his hands in the passing lanes and boarding in the paint as he was on on-ball defense; but the real difference was that he stepped up offensively and flummoxed Dallas's obvious strategy of limiting KG and Wally's point production. And yeah, the resolve was a tad better than paper-thin.
3.Kandi as enforcer off the bench
I'm not about to predict this is going to continue, but Michael Olowokandi also earned praise from Casey tonight for the way he handled himself on pick and rolls and aggressively contested shots in the paint. Usually when Kandi's line includes zero points and five fouls it's been one of his infamous no-shows mentally and physically. But tonight he didn't score because he didn't shoot--zero field goal attempts in 20:46, which, blows to hell all those theories that it is important to get Kandi off with some early shots because he's more thoroughly engaged in the game. On the contrary, except for his fifth infraction out of the perimeter, Kandi's fouls were delightfully purposeful enforcement in the paint--messages to the Mavs that penetration would be painful, and a welcome sign that her was indeed engaged from the get-go once he replaced KG (saddled with a pair of quick fouls) late in the first quarter. With Mark Madsen off to attend a family funeral, Kandi's selfless contribution off the bench was emblematic of the teamwork Casey and the Wolves required tonight. The big man didn't sulk about losing his starting position to Griffin, and in an ironic twist, grabbed the 4th quarter minutes Eddie usually snares when he is the sub and Kandi's the starter.