Tuesday, May 01, 2007

The next great colossal choke?

[Because game 5 of the series discussed below is tonight, I'm bumping this post up.]

For those of you who can stand watching a full NBA game, the Mavs are in the midst of one of the most colossal playoff failures in history -- right up at the top of the list with the Dodgers scoring two runs in four games against the Orioles in 1966, the Orioles' loss to the Mess in 1969, the Yanks' choke job in 2004 and the Harvard upset of Stanford in the NCAA Women's tourney that remains the only #1 team to lose to a #16 seed.

You see, the Mavs won 67 games this year to rattle off the fourth-best record in league history (only one team has won 70+ -- the 72-10 Bulls in '96, the '97 Bulls and '72 Lakers were 69-13, others have hit 68-14 and 67-15) and despite an 0-4 start, they challenged the 70-win mark for much of the year. Indeed, at one point they went 55-5 to roll to a 55-9 record before cooling off to 12-6 in the last month or so. They slowed down toward the end, both because they lost a couple (most notably to Phoenix) and because they sought to rest for the playoffs.

But there was one slight anomaly -- the Mavs were 0-3 against Golden State. No team with 65+ wins had ever been swept by a conference foe during the regular season. So the first-round matchup with the Warriors, combined with playing their former coach Don Nelson as he led his new team into the playoffs, made the Mavs' first series intriguing.

Now it is nearly disastrous.

Here are the problems:

(1) Golden State is a run-and-gun, small-and-quick team -- kind of a second-class version of Phoenix. And Dallas had tremendous match-up problems with the Suns.

(2) Dallas has had coaching brainlock -- that explains Avery Johnson's foolishness in changing his starting lineup to match-up with the Warriors before game 1. YOU COACH THE BEST TEAM IN THE NBA -- THE OPPONENTS SHOULD HAVE TO MATCH UP TO YOU. And so the Mavs lost. That concession to the Warriors' speed has worked against the Mavs mentally throughout the series.

(3) Dallas has acted as the weaker team. From Johnson pointing out that the smaller lineup he started did well because the Mavs were tied at halftime in Game 1, to Johnson citing "improvement" and lauding his team's "intensity" after Game 4, the Mavs have complimented themselves on small matters as if they were the underdog, not the team that won 25 games more than its opponent during the regular season.

(4) Golden State has played extremely well -- like the Tigers against the Yanks last year, the Warriors look younger, quicker, hungrier and tougher than the staid-and-slow Mavs. Just look at the trouble the Warriors cause the Mavs by deflecting passes and poking away the dribble. And then there's Johnson's own stat from last night: the Mavs trapped GS point guard Baron Davis five times in the final minutes last night and EACH time he broke through the trap, leaving the Mavs defending a 5-on-3.

The result: even without Al Harrington (Golden State's second-class version of Amare Stoudamire) playing well, the Warriors are up 3-1. That makes Dallas the first team to win 60+ and lose 3 games in its first playoff round. One more, and both NBA Finals reps from 2006 will be on the links far earlier than they ever imagined.

[An added note: this morning one of the sportstalk dorks said no team that has ever won 65+ games in a season has failed to win the NBA title. This is incorrect. Just ask the 1973 Celtics, who won 68 and got thumped in game 7, 94-78, in The Other Garden by the last Knicks title team].

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