This was a tough one for the Mavs. After getting out to a huge early lead, they were outplayed and out coached by the Celtics in a game they absolutely needed to have. It would have been a really bad loss for a team that couldn't afford one - they are in the midst of their toughest stretch of the schedule this season and the middle of the pack in the West is right on their heels. Dirk was having a tough game for the first 3Q's and he looked like the weight of playing so many games in such a short amount of time was really getting to him. Then, like so many times before, he came alive in the 4Q, with the Mavs giving him the ball on almost every possession and letting him do the rest.
Dirk has bailed this organization out of so many bad performances and so many decisions over the years and he's still doing it at the age of 37. When the game gets close late, they can always put him in the two-man game and generate a wide open shot for someone. They got the Celtics switching and Dirk just pounded the smaller defenders they had on him. He finished with 31 points and 11 rebounds on 24 shots and he closed out the game with a huge corner 3 late in OT. I don't know what's going to happen when he finally has to retire but it's pretty amazing how long they have been able to ride his coattails and remain a relevant team.
2) The Mavs demolished Isaiah Thomas early
The reason the Celtics were in such a huge early hole (17-2 after eight minutes and 29-16 at the end of the 1Q) was because the Mavs mercilessly attacked Thomas all over the floor. Whoever he was guarding was posting him up and going right at the rim and forcing the Celtics to scramble on D and create wide open shots on the perimeter. There just isn't much that Thomas (5'9 185) is going to be able to do when Deron Williams (6'3 200) is posting him up. It's really something the Mavs should think about doing more often - Williams isn't great at creating off the dribble anymore so leveraging his size in the post is one of the best ways for him to create offense and it's relatively easy for them to invert their offense and leave him a ton of room to operate in the paint.
The way this game started is why I'm not sure Thomas is an All-Star, regardless of how good he can be on offense. It's just hard to win night-in and night-out in the NBA when you have a 5'9 PG as the tip of the spear on defense and he has to match up with some of the best players in the league or the team has to cross-match all over the floor in order to cover for him. The reality is that if Thomas is playing on a really good team he's probably coming off the bench. There's a ceiling (literally and metaphorically) when you are featuring such a small player. When the goal is 10 feet off the ground, it helps to be tall.
Even if you have everything going well, having such a small PG is a huge Achilles heel in a playoff series. That's what happened to the Denver Nuggets in 2013 - they couldn't put Ty Lawson because Steph Curry could shoot over him like he was a chair, they couldn't put him on Klay Thompson for the same reason and even putting him on Harry Barnes left Lawson guarding a 6'8 guy on the block. You get in the wrong series and having a sub-5'10 PG is just going to absolutely kill you.
3) Thomas wound up on Parsons, which shows how poorly the Mavs are using him
Thomas couldn't guard Williams or Matthews at all but he managed to survive on Parsons, despite literally giving up a foot on him. That was the place of last resort that Brad Stevens went too with Thomas - the $15 million a year man the Mavs are (theoretically) trying to build their team around. The problem is that Parsons isn't great defensively so the only way to maximize his game is to let him dominate the ball and that's tough when he's spending so much of the game spotting up off ball-dominant PG's and not playing with a natural roll man in the 2-man game.
Parsons tried to half-heartedly post up Thomas a few times and he wasn't able to get much out of it. That's an emasculating experience for a 6'9+ player and the Mavs have to do a better job of getting him the ball where he can be most effective with it. That means playing him with Dirk Nowitzki and JaVale McGee as much as possible and minimizing his time with JJ Barea, who basically has magnets on his hands when it comes to dominating the ball. Barea could play with LeBron James and it wouldn't matter - he's still playing with the ball in his hands when he's on the floor.
God, how do any of you like Barea. He's where great ball movement goes to die— PandaTobo (@andytobo) January 19, 2016
4) The Celtics got back in the game by going small
After digging themselves into such a huge hole, they were able to turn it into a nail-biter by scrapping their conventional line-ups and going 4-out with either Jae Crowder or Jonas Jerebko for most of the 2nd half. It was the best of both worlds for the Celtics - their smaller line-ups were able to pressure the Mavs and turn them over on defense and they were able to spread the floor on offense and create driving lanes to the rim. They struggled to stop Dirk late but it's not like any of their big men were having any more luck in guarding him.
The Celtics hardly ever played two big men together after the 1Q. Amir Johnson only played 14 minutes and he somehow managed to have a plus/minus of -19. For the most part, they were rotating Jared Sullinger (-9 in 28 minutes) and Kelly Olynyk (+27 in 26 minutes) at the 5 and playing 4-out around them. The plus/minus didn't lie in this one, as playing Olynyk at the 5 with a small line-up spread the floor wide open and generated a ton of offense for the Celtics guards. The Mavs couldn't really take advantage of him on defense and that was the story of the game - they weren't able to match-up with the Celtics smaller line-ups on offense and they weren't able to punish them on defense and if it weren't for Dirk they would have lost this one.
The way Boston was playing is just a further example of how the 4-out revolution is taking over the NBA. Crowder at the 4 is something that wouldn't have even been conceivable a generation ago and now it's the best way for the Celtics to win the game. It's not so much how great he was playing as much as the fact that Boston doesn't have two-way big men who can control the game on both sides of the floor so there's no reason for them to play two bigs and get exploited on either offense or defense. And if you don't have great big men, you might as well play smaller and faster players who can play on the perimeter on both sides of the ball.
5) The Mavs needed JaVale McGee out there
The reason the Mavs couldn't get anything going against the smaller Boston line-ups is that they couldn't generate a lot of offense going to the rim, primarily because they were playing Zaza and Dwight Powell at the 5. Zaza is one of the worst rolling big men in the league and Powell doesn't seem to know what's going on when he's on the floor these days. The worry is that it's tough for McGee to guard 25+ feet from the basket but it's not like Zaza is much more effective that far away from the rim. Rick Carlisle even tried to go with a zone for a good portion of the 2Q and that would have been a good time to have JaVale out there. There's no reason to funnel penetration to Dwight Powell.
6) Rick Carlisle was drawing dead against Brad Stevens for most of the second half
Some of the line-ups he had out there in the midst of the Celtics 3Q run just had no chance to succeed. He was playing some of the worst line-ups in his rotation - Barea, Harris, Felton, Dirk, Zaza - against some of the Celtics best line-ups - Thomas, Bradley, Smart, Crowder, Olynyk - and Boston was eating up the deficit as fast as they possibly could. They were 33-18 in the 3Q as Carlisle stubbornly stuck to his game-plan rather than adjusting to what Stevens was doing. The Mavs were walking right into a buzzsaw and they were doing it with their eyes wide open. It was bizarre.
7) Marcus Smart in the post
Smart had one of the best games of his young career in his return home to Dallas - 20 points, 8 rebounds, 3 assists on 13 shots - because the Celtics did a great job of playing to his strengths and utilizing him in small-ball line-ups that allowed him to take smaller guards into the paint. He's a wide-bodied and athletic guard who loves to mix it up physically and his shot selection on the perimeter is questionable at best. He's shooting 32% from the floor and 19% from 3 this season so you don't want him hanging out too much on the perimeter. And he's the most high-upside guy on their roster so they should do whatever they can to get him going.
8) Will David Lee be in the NBA next season?
David Lee couldn't stick in the rotation for the best team in the NBA and he couldn't stick in the rotation for a middle of the pack team. Maybe he can go to one of the worst teams in the league but what would be the point of that for anyone? What has happened to him in Boston is a microcosm of what's happening to guys with his skill-set league wide - the Celtics are better off going small with only one big man on the floor instead of playing two and it's really hard to keep Lee on the floor when he's the only big man when he can't either A) protect the rim or B) stretch the floor. He kills you on defense and he kills you on offense and it didn't take long for Brad Stevens to pull the plug on him. He has gone from starting to out of the rotation in a matter of months on each of his last two teams. The NBA is an efficient ecosystem and guys who can't play anymore get cycled out of the league pretty quickly. David Lee is the white Carlos Boozer. Maybe he winds up on the Lakers because they are the last ones to know these days.