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Saturday, June 10, 2006

Importance of Erick Dampier

Taking a step away from the perpetual articles on the NBA Finals, I’d like to spread some love on one of the most hated Mavericks, Erick Dampier.

After averaging a surprising 12/12/2 season in 2004 with the Warriors, Dampier was a hot commodity in the free agent market – teams such as the Knicks and Grizzlies were fighting over him. Ultimately, Dallas organized a sign and trade for a 7 year / 64 million dollar contract and many fans thought Cuban had done it again, tried to mess with the chemistry and just overpaid a lackluster player. Not only that, but Dampier’s signing meant the end of the Steve Nash/Big 3 era in Dallas – a team that consistently averaged more than 50 wins a season but consistently were exposed for what they were in the playoffs.

Dampier was hailed as the first great center for Dallas since the James Donaldson era. The front office had hopes he’d replace the woeful memories of Shawn Bradley and Raef LaFrentz with new defensive memories of monster blocks and ferocious dunks not seen since Finley’s prime. But alas, as Nash went on to win MVP and the Suns eliminated Dallas, Nowitzki was calling out Dampier – who averaged 7/7 – for his nonchalant effort and continued lack of enthusiasm.

The Mavericks then signed supposed-project DeSagana Diop in the hopes he could turn into a serviceable backup. Midway through the season, Diop replaced Dampier in the lineup (and Dallas subsequently went on a 14-0 streak) – since then, neither have looked back. Damp has come off the bench with an abundance of success, he’s fought the opposing bench players with new-found determination that was definitely missing last season. The benching acted as a catalyst to revive his motivation. You can see it in his eyes, his gestures, his yelling, his expressions clarify that this is the Damp that was playing for a big contract.

Looking at his stats, he seems worthless. Why pay a big guy $8 million a year to play 23 minutes and score a measly 5 points and grab 8 rebounds? Luckily, there’s more to basketball than statistics. Dampier boxes outs, and rebounding has been one of Dallas’ most successful categories (they were out rebounded for the first time in the playoffs against Miami). He manages his turnovers when holding the ball, he sets strong picks and he is the banger inside the blue paint in the American Airlines Center. His rebounds per 48 minutes are two and a half higher than last year, rivaling 2004 for his best numbers ever.

Everyone who’s watched a single Mavericks game this year knows the most relayed stat in the NBA, the Mavericks are 25-0 when Josh Howard scores over 20 points. Well here’s an interested stat, Dallas is 32-6 when Dampier grabs 9 or more rebounds.

Since Erick Dampier arrived here, Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavericks are having two of the best seasons in franchise history. Nowitzki has established him as one of the best in the league partly due to the ability of Dampier. Damp allows Dirk to roam the perimeter which helps the defensive matchups. He keeps defenses honest and forces opponents to guard the Diggler with a power forward since he is capable of scoring. He creates space on offense for teammates who drive, something the Mavericks have relied upon since Johnson became coach. Another great thing about Dampiers game is his improved offensive rebounding, he consistently allows Dallas to have the opportunity for second chance points.

His defense is relatively astounding as he can mark the premier centers in the league (to a certain extent). But most importantly, he can play Shaquille O’Neal as good as any other big man in the league. His fast paced footwork and huge frame provide the basics for stopping one of the most dominant players ever, who hates to admit it, but knows Damp can do a good a job as anyone against him. Since Dampier’s arrival in Dallas, they have gone 5-0 against Shaq and his Miami Heat (I added this now, because it will be dispelled soon). His one play against Tim Duncan won us that series, and if Dallas wins the title – is his contract worth it?

Someone reading this article may think he urinates holy-water the way I’ve been raving on about him – but he’s not. There’s a reason he was relegated to the bench and there’s a reason he’s one of the most hated players in Dallas – he can’t hit his freethrows (on the bright-side, at least he did not go 1-9), his offensive repertoire is redundant (at least he has one, Diop) and he picks up ticky-tack fouls which generally set the Mavericks off for a sub-par game. He only played in 2 games in the Phoenix series, but even with these shortcomings, Erick and DeSagana form one of the best center pairs in the league.

NBA Finals: Mavs-Heat

From One Hot Extremity to another

The last time Miami beat Dallas was in the 2003-04 season, thanks to a lucky three by Rafer Alston. Dallas has beat Miami 10 out of their last 12 matchups, and they are 2-0 this season, including a 36 point victory.

But if there's one thing the Heat have proven these playoffs, it's that the regular season does not mean anything.

Both teams have flexed their muscles over their, in superhero terms, arch nemeses. The Heat defeated the Pistons emphatically, four games to two, and Dallas has overcome not one, but two rivals – the Spurs in 7 and then the Suns in 6. The matchups will prove to be intriguing and entertaining, as playoff experience will come in handy – both teams are NBA Championship virgins.

It will be a battle of superheroes, and the most fitting way to end one of the greatest NBA playoffs in years. So, what does Dallas have to do to win the debacle?

First and foremost, there’s a little matter of Shaquille O’Neal, who has no nice feelings for opposing center Erick Dampier. As the Big Aristotle said himself, “Dampier is soft. Quote it, underline it, tape it and send it to him.” Damp will need to have a big series, as he rarely played against Phoenix. However, a tactic Avery Johnson wisely uses is bringing in Keith Van Horn to draw Shaq out of the post. Dallas will need to contain a motivated Shaq, who is trying to bring true on his promise to win Miami a championship.

Secondly, Dirk Nowitzki needs to continue to pump out Larry Bird-like performances in order for Dallas to win. He is averaging upwards of 28 points, 12 rebounds and three assists in the playoffs, dispelling all theories that he struggles during the playoffs – many thanks to his recent 22 point fourth quarter / 50 point game in game 5. We are all Nowitnesses to Dirk’s clutch performance, and a big NBA finals will push him further into superstardom. Look for Antoine Walker or James Posey to attempt to guard the real MVP.

Josh Howard needs to continue to step up and score over 20, as Dallas is yet to lose this season when he reaches that mark (25-0). Howard also needs to stay on top of his defensive game – Dwyane Wade lives for the limelight and will be looking to carry Miami.

As one can tell – the series will be filled with interesting matchups, but the coaches gameplan will be equally important. Dallas should look to the opposite of what they did against Phoenix, and try to force Antoine Walker and company into longer shots. Dallas should try to avoid letting any Heatians (I’m looking at Wade) walk through the defense. If worse comes to worse, Dallas should employ the infamous Hack-a-Shaq, but with a defensive tandem of Diop and Dampier, Dallas is as set as they ever will be to take on Shaq.

Dallas also needs to go back to their Nellie roots and be able to stroke the 3 consistently – Jason Terry needs to step up and get back to performing consistently. In its two games this season, Dallas hit a combined 19 three’s out of 30 which paved the way for easy drives. The X-Factor for Dallas will be Devin Harris whose speed will have Payton or Wade gasping for breath. If he can drive and get Shaq (like he did to Duncan) in foul trouble, then Dallas is in a good position to bring home the Maurice Podoloff trophy.

Dallas needs to watch out for Miami’s equally-deep bench. Players like Walker, Posey, Payton and even Williams will all be looking to get some recognition by playing their hearts out. Dallas needs to reply to them with guys like Marquis Daniels, Keith Van Horn and Jerry Stackhouse stepping up and giving 100 percent effort. They need to make smart decisions (Mr. Stackhouse…) and have an equal balance between threes and driving.

First it was Michael Finley, then Steve Nash. Now look for Dallas to leave behind Antoine Walker – Mr. Detrimental in 2004.

“I think for the first time in my life I'm speechless,” said Mark Cuban, something I don't believe.

I have correctly predicted Dallas over Memphis in 4, San Antonio in 7 and Phoenix in 6. If Dallas wins in 6 again versus Miami, I will consider becoming clairvoyant. Dallas will need to play their best and get the little important things done correctly; make free throws, offensive rebound and control the ball.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

NBA WCF: Mavs-Suns

Sun down

With both teams coming off inspiring Game 7 victories, look for the 2006 Western Conference Finals to be more intense than “Jaws”. The stakes are high with both teams looking to dispel the thoughts that they aren’t built for the playoffs and make an entrance to the NBA finals, facing the winner of the Detroit-Miami series.

The Mavericks just finished off the reigning NBA Champions with a 119-111 overtime victory were Dirk Nowitzki proved critics wrong with his tough 37 points and 15 rebounds. Despite being up 3-1 then losing two heart-wrenching games in a row, the Mavericks pulled through in emphatic style partly due to the 27 points from returning boxer, Jason Terry. The Suns, on the other hand, cruised to victory in Game 7 with 20 points to spare. Lead by a combined 59 points from Marion and Nash (30 & 29 respectively) the Suns smashed the longtime playoff virgins, the Clippers.

Returning Western Conference Finals competitors, Phoenix Suns, face a tough task when they arrive in the American Airlines Center on Wednesday for Game 1. The Mavericks have the momentum of a running bull, thanks to the defeat of the Spurs recently, they are the hottest team in the league, and all eyes will be placed upon the blue and white boys of Fort Worth.

Avery Johnson out-coached mentor Gregg Poppovich, but what gameplan lies ahead against the team that eliminated Dallas last year? Well, the Suns can be defeated, and Avery just needs to press the right buttons and the Mavericks will be too hot for the Suns.

Dirk Nowitzki needs to attack the basket relentlessly, he averaged 27/13 against the Spurs thanks to his attacking mindset. He shot over the quicker Michael Finley, the Mavs legend for 8 years, and drove against the defensive Tim Duncan. He faces another task against rebounding machine Shawn Marion where not only does Marion have quickness and agility working for him, but he has an amazing array of defensive moves – partly thanks to his long arms. Nowitzki needs to be “our MVP” (as Harris describes him) and step up, to erase last year’s embarrassing early playoff exit.

The X factor for Dallas will be sophomore Devin Harris, whose importance in swinging the series in Dallas’ favour is understated. He averaged 20.6 PPG between game 2 and game 5, but then did a Houdini and disappeared when during the “clutch”. Dallas needs him to step up big and prove to be a slashing machine, to make do for the post defense the Suns don’t have. The Suns have let Elton Brand dominate them, the same way Dallas let Tim Duncan dominate them, but I will choose to ignore that section history. Devin Harris, if on his game, has the chance to embarrass two time MVP Steve Nash. Nash struggled with fatigue during the Second Round, and against a speedster like Devin, Nash’ legs could fall off. The game were Harris bullied Nash into 10 turnovers will forever be etched into my mind.

The Mavericks also have to deny the Phoenix Suns their 3 ball, they made a record 15 3 pointer’s in Game 7. Dallas need to put their arms in the face of every 3 point shot that Phoenix takes, challenge all attempts and the hustle will be paid off. The Suns live by the 3, and Dallas’ goal will to make them die by it as well. However, Dallas still needs to be able to hit the bucket consistently to mix up their offense. In comparison, Dallas made 29 3 pointers in their 2nd round, compared to Phoenix’ 77 makes.

Dallas can not be burnt by the other Suns, namely Boris Diaw. His versatility proves to be an imminent threat to Dallas, whoever matches up on him is faced with a difficult task, to stop the consistent rebounding and playmaking that Diaw brings to Phoenix. The Mavs need to counter with their “forgotten stars”, like Stackhouse, Dampier (whose post defense will anchor the series) and even DJ MBenga, who has 2 career starts à both against Phoenix

The upcoming series will undoubtedly be a defining moment in Dallas Mavericks history, they lost last season in 6 games to former Dallas All-Star Steve Nash and his Valley boys – but the team has another Avery Johnson buckle on their belt and their defense has risen. They need to control the pace of the game and not get sucked into the Suns run’n’gun system, they run it to a tee, matching up with the Showtime Lakers. I hope the precedent of a great 2nd round will not be forgotten and I assure you that it will have more twists than “Saw” and Grant Hills ankle combined, it will certainly get the heart racing.

“As a franchise and as a team we have definitely taken a step in the right direction, but we are not done yet” promised Jason Terry

I almost forgot, Mavs fans, Dirk (I) implore you to boo Steve Nash until your throat is sore. Not because he bolted for less money, but because it’d be unjust to Finley.

Dallas in 6. Book it.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

NBA WC Semi Finals: Mavs-Spurs

Imagine a desolate street, windows creaking due to the incessant wind, townspeople peeping through the cracks for a glimpse and two Texans fighting over a salacious girl in the centre of the town throwing out clichés like “This town ain’t big enough for the both of us”. They face each other and draw their guns, the quickest “competitor” defeats his opponent with reflexes and aim, and he wins over the girl and rides off into the sunset – soon to inevitably face another problem.

Adapt this scenario from a cheesy Western film to the highlife, glitzed-out lifestyles of the NBA players in the playoffs and you get a scene eerily similar to the Western Conference Semi-Finals. Two Texas teams battle it out, where reflexes and aim will be two big factors in deciding who advances for a date in the Western Conference Finals.

Enough with my lame metaphor riddled comparisons, the Mavericks will have their hands full with the reigning NBA champs when the series starts on Sunday at midday.

"Dallas has probably been off longer than Avery wants them to be," said Poppovich. "We will be more tired than we want to be."

The series will be a clash of matchups; Coach of the Year Avery Johnson against mentor Gregg Poppovich (Johnson won a ring in ’99 with the Spurs). Amnesty day victim Michael Finley playing against the team where he played 9 seasons. Dirk Nowitzki clashing heads with Tim Duncan à two of the premier players in the league. Dallas needs to remember their Nellie roots and capitalize on mismatches, because, obviously with Dirk the oppositions defense is going to be muddled and the perimeter match ups will vary from (for example): Duncan to Howard or Oberto to Daniels. Dallas needs to take advantage of this and these players need to score on the perimeter, dragging them out further and further from their comfort zone. They need to make them stick out like when Van Horn went to the Million Man March.

So what does Dallas have to do to win the series? Well, where to begin…

The Mavericks need to play their own game plan, not get sucked into the Spurs slow style – which means exposing a (rare) flaw in the Spurs system by running and gunning (and they’re good at that as well).

There’s yet to be a game where these two teams have been healthy, and the looming series hopes to provide that (knock on wood), both teams are extremely deep and Dallas needs to be able to rest their players and still compete, the bench production needs to be big, Mengke Bateer big.

Although, Dallas’ defense is more improved than Boris, they still need to focus on boxing out to stop them from dominating the offensive boards as they have done in prior matchups – guys like Oberto, Duncan and Mohammed made the frontline look the Mavericks where Shawn Bradley and Juwan Howard manned the paint. Subsequently, the offensive rebounds lead to second chance points and because of the potent offensive daggers San Antonio has, it’s always a threat to be stabbed.

Dallas matches up well with San Antonio defensively, playoff rookie DeSagana Diop plays Tim Duncan quite well with his athleticism and timing on shot blocking, Griffin and Howard will hassle whomever they guard and most importantly with Devin Harris becoming healthy, Dallas will have someone to run with Tony Parker and challenge him. If Parker should get through, the Mavericks need to rotate on defense and have someone step in front of him to not give him an easy lay-up, which was something they did quite well recently. Dallas’ weakness still lies here though, they have struggled with perimeter defense (and it is obvious), they are thrown out by fakes and have weak 3 point defense. Tim Duncan is not the player he used to be, he averaged 18/9 against a soft Brad Miller and Kenny Thomas – but he is still capable of All-NBA level play by anchoring the post and scoring in the paint.. He’s just not that good.

One of the biggest factors in this series will be not physical, but mental. Dallas has shown they can come into the Spurs house, take off their shoes and make themselves at home, they love the hate given to them by the Spurs fans. Momentum will play a huge part of the games, when a team has momentum they can will their shots in and they break into another gear, a gear they rarely use. Momentum mixed with intensity will take San Antonio by storm and show them a new Dallas they’ve never encountered.

With that said, I am predicting Dallas wins in 7 games. The Spurs may have playoff experience, but I am feeling it for Dallas, who are the only team to have swept their opening round match up.

It is better to be rusty for 2 quarters than unhealthy for a series.

So as the first matchup draws closer and closer, the Mavericks need Dirk Nowitzki to be their Clint Eastwood by overcoming the deadly and dirty villain of Bruce Bowen.

I’ll leave with a fitting Manu Ginobili quote. It's going to be like the conference finals”.

Friday, April 14, 2006

DJ MBenga

When your backstory includes being convicted to death, being recruited from a bus stop and living in a refugee center - Didier (DJ) Ilunga-Mbenga (MBenga) went surprisingly under the radar in his short stint in the Belgian league.

And with Free Agency looming, it's likely DJ MBenga (right) won't find his way back to Texas.

Born again DeSagana Diop has worked himself into the starting lineup with his ferocious defense and died again Erick Dampier still consistently gets minutes as Dallas' strongest big man. The man to set a screen if need, or to pound a player who's getting out of line.

And as fitting as this saying ever was, considering Texas' cowboy heritage, This (team) ain't big enough for the (4) of us". Not forgetting project Pavel Podkolzin who is doing diddily-squat in the D-League, who unfortunately is signed for longer. DJ seems to be the odd man out, some team can offer him just a big a contract as Dallas, but more playing time.

If you were to look at his NBA profile, you'd think he's a worthless scrub - but to the Mavericks fan who bleed blue (lately, it could be green judging by the popularity of the alternatives) every minute he plays is scrutinized and over analysed, like the popular TV show Lost (those who watch know what I'm saying).

Lately, Avery Johnson has made more and more faith in him. In his rookie season, DJ played more than 10 minutes once, and in appeared in a huge 15 games totalling 41 minutes. This season, DJ has almost (read: almost) cracking into the regular rotation.

MBenga was a late bloomer, and I don't mean puberty, because from the looks of it he hasn't stop developing since he was 8, he didn't get into basketball until apparently he was 20 (give or take). To show for that, he has a very raw offensive game which is slowly moving into 13 foot jumpers - he is foul prone and falls for headfakes. So what's to like? Everyone likes the amazingly gifted athlete, throw in the fact he is a foreigner and has an amusing name and he should stick around the NBA for a while.

The Belgian / Congo native was born in the same town as Dikembe Mutombo (something in the water?) and has developed a bond with him. Showing himself as a raw Dikembe, with shotblocking talent, basketball instinct that isn't taught and a tough-rugged attitude, DJ MBenga is progressing in leaps and strides, jumping into play lately.

In the last three games, DJ has played more than ten minutes twice - averaging an extremely respectable 3.2 ppg / 3.2 rpg / .5 bpg in 8 minutes. Don't get too overwhelmed.

So when Dallas is facing the pressures of re-signing starting PG Jason "Jet" Terry, a little Congonese voice should be in the back of their minds reminding them of his potential.

In a league where anyone can turn into a valuable contributor, big athletic men like DJ MBenga should be watched and scouted.

"DJ Mbenga has to stop fouling when he walks in the gym," said coach Johnson.

Did you know?
DJ has a black belt in Tae-Kwan Doe
His career high in blocks is 5 against the New York Knicks

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Game Preview, Dallas @ Phoenix (4.13.06)

MVP candidate Dirk Nowitzki failed to get in done when it mattered the most.

Compare this to last game when he was ice cold in the match and then calmly pulled up a free-throw line jumpshot to put Dallas ahead in the final second.

The 7 foot German sensation came out like like a man possessed, and made the most of a firey start to the game. He breezed his way to an easy (I'm talkin' Jenna Jameson easy) 15 first quarter points, paving the way for Dallas to open up a 27-19 lead.

From there, he scored 14 points (5-14 FG) in the final 3 quarters and couldn't get going when most needed. Dallas moved to one and a half games behind San Antonio for the title of Best in the West and seemingly put the position further out of reach.

Avery Johnson described the match as "one of the most disappointing games that I have been a part of as Maverick coach"

"Just blame me like we always do, blame me." he said.

The Mavericks face the Phoenix Suns tonight, they are 6-4 in back to back games, where they play the final game at the oppositions arena. Dallas is still looking to catch up to the Spurs and if the Mavericks can win their remaining 3 games, the men in black (and white) need to win 3 of 4 to secure the #1 seed (depending on the tiebreaker, in which Dallas' only hope is an injury-depleted Houston defeats San Antonio in the final game).

If these two teams were to meet in the Western Conference Finals, the Mavericks would have home court advantage regardless of what happens tonight. Avery Johnson's boys lead the season series 2-1, but have a better record against their division (13-3 to 10-4), which is the tiebreaker step right after the results of the season series.

As per usual, Steve Nash will run a riot against his former team and when buddies, turn MVP-enemies slug it out tonight it surely will be a game to tune into (on TNT, 10:30). Nash averages 25 points / 8.3 assists / 4.6 rebounds / 4.3 turnovers against them, Dallas needs to try to clamp onto Nash and limit his productiveness. It's unfortunate for Dallas that sophomore Devin Harris is still injured, as he poses a good match up for the long-haired Canadian with his quickness and defensive ability.

The Suns are coming off a 74 point second half against the Kings to change a 17 point deficit to a 13 point victorious margin.

For Dallas to contemplate winning, and sending some-what of a message out to the league to show that Dallas is ready for the playoffs, they need to do a variety of things

They must not get sucked into Phoenix's run and gun style eerily reminiscent of the Showtime Lakers, by doing this they need to focus on; Slowly dribbling the ball up court, Taking time to inbound it, Pounding them, Remember; Long Shots = Long Rebounds, Long Rebounds = Fast breaks, No need for double team as every Sun will burn you from long distance, Attack the basket and hack at the depth (or lack thereof) of the Suns. Simply put, if the Mavericks want to win they need to forget anything they've learnt in the past 4 years

As mentioned, the Suns don't have fantastic depth - they do however have 6-7 offensive juggernauts who can do a variety of things to win you the game. Most recently, Boris Diaw went for a triple double, before that Shawn Marion crashed the boards so hard that Dennis Rodman would of had a tear in his eye (right under his mascara, which would subsequently drip onto his white wedding dress) and had 23/19, and of course Steve Nash; who scored 30 points, 9 assists and 8 rebounds in the OT season opener

Dallas needs to control the boards, which is rather obvious, but easier said than done. In the 2 victories they average 54.5 rebounds per game compared to a measly 37 in the recent loss. This could possibly be to Josh Howards absence.

Dirk has overcome obstacles like Bruce Bowen and Ron Artest this season and put together performances that boost his ego. The final stepping stone is a huge performance against Shawn Marion, last year's playoff nemesis. Speaking of confidence, Dallas needs to be feeling the momentum all game tonight - the Suns are a tough team to play, mentally and physical. They will drone all the energy out of you by running rampant like the Bulls (not the Chicago ones, the Spanish ones). And mentally, this scenario will happen at least once tonight - I put my house on it. Dallas will work extremely hard for a lead and then it will be shot down straight away with a barrage of 3 point attacks, and the lead will evaporate faster than Ice in the Sahara.

With Phoenix secured the two seed, the game means more to Dallas than to them. Dallas needs to regain composure after a meltdown against Golden State and needs to get that confidence back up for their first round opponent.

X Factor
Josh Howard, missed the 115 - 107 (loss) game against Phoenix, but against them in the other two game's he's averaging 14.5 rpg and 15.5 points per game. He is the top perimeter defender in the game, and needs to show France that America is still the leader (aka win the individual match up against Diaw)