Grit and grind.
That’s been the motto of the Memphis Grizzlies these last six seasons to produce the third longest active streak of consecutive winning seasons behind San Antonio (19) and Oklahoma City (7). Yet right now the NBA’s ultimate grit and grind team are the Mavericks, as they attempt to match a season best six game winning streak tonight at the American Airlines Center against those aforementioned Grizzlies.
How it’s happened is nothing short of astonishing. NBA teams just don’t change their stripes 70 games into an NBA season, but sometimes, desperate times call for and produce desperate measures, and when the Mavericks allowed 133 points and 62.2 percent shooting to the Sacramento Kings on March 27, desperation was the order of the day. They had just lost their tenth game in their last twelve. They had allowed 120+ points in four out of five games – something they hadn’t done since allowing five straight such games back in 1993. You might recall the Mavericks won ELEVEN games that year.
So Rick Carlisle rolls the dice. He doesn’t have his second and third leading scorers Chandler Parsons and Deron Williams, so instead of trying to continue to play his preferred fast-paced slow game, he decides to slow the game down. Limit the number of possessions in the game so that gives his team the chance to better set its defense and VOILA, five straight wins. Five straight games in which they’ve held their opponents to fewer than 90 points, and averaging just 86 a game. It’s the second longest streak in team history. Opponents are shooting just 42.4 percent.
Carlisle wanted energy and he’s getting it from rookie Justin Anderson, who has requisite size for his position. His rebounding has been excellent from the small forward spot. Many fans seeing this are wondering (and have been wondering) why he wasn’t playing earlier in the season. By Anderson’s own admission, he didn’t know then what he knows now. The slower tempo is more akin to what he played at Virginia, and thus he’s very comfortable.
Wesley Matthews has had some Tour de Force defensive efforts this year (most notably against Jimmy Butler and Carmelo Anthony), but his work on Wednesday night against James Harden might have been his best, hounding him into 8-22 shooting and a six turnover game. Not to mention his batting the ball down the court on the final play of the game to keep the Rockets from a potential game tying or winning shot.
So much of this has been a result of a decision to pick up higher on the floor, and as a result forcing opponents to use more time to get the ball into the front court and not having as much time to run their offense. The Mavericks have also occasionally employed a little bit of the North Carolina famed “run and jump” trapping defense on the wings to force rushed shots and turnovers. For those who, for years, have seen the Mavericks react to offenses instead of making offenses react to them, this has been an incredibly wonderfully jarring sight.
But of course you don’t win if you can’t score more points than your opponents and that’s where J.J. Barea comes in. Playing the best sustained basketball of his career, he’s become an offensive juggernaut – and a much needed one with the current shooting struggles of Dirk Nowitzki. He became the first Maverick since Monta Ellis two years ago to win Western Conference Player of the Week (for the record, Dirk hasn’t won since December 2010) by averaging 24.2 points and shooting over 53 percent – and a whopping 49 percent from three point range. The slower pace has benefitted Barea who has taken advantage of the extra time teams have had to load up on Dirk. When they do it leaves a man open, and more often than not it’s been Berea and he’s been monstrous.
What a difference twelve days makes. The Mavericks were road kill after the Sacramento debacle, but now here they are with a magic number of two to clinch a playoff spot. If you’re going to make the playoffs you might as well play some playoff style basketball. Grit and grind, more often than not is that style. Looks like the Mavericks are getting a jump start on doing just that.