After four games of unexpected struggle, San Antonio got back to offensive basics in Game 5 to mount its healthiest scoring performance of the series. Dallas, while crowded inside and pressured on the perimeter, failed to keep pace and lost, 109-103. The series shifts 3-2 in favor of the Spurs, positioning Game 6 on Friday as the Mavericks' possible playoff finale.
• Dallas' defense was bent until broken. Through much of this series the Mavs have pulled off an impressively competent team defense, held together by Rick Carlisle's guidance, Shawn Marion's pliability and a team-wide attention to detail. On Wednesday that defense unraveled. For four games San Antonio prodded, testing matchups and strategies for potential advantage with inconsistent results.
All of that exploration led to a more pointed game plan for Game 5. Rather than operate through a specific star or particular space on the floor, the Spurs made it a priority to involve Dirk Nowitzki in as many defensive situations as possible and force him to cover an uncomfortable amount of ground. That did the trick. Nowitzki was essentially paralyzed in pick-and-roll coverage, as he could neither pressure the ball handler nor recover quickly enough to get to the roll man. That liability opened San Antonio's repertoire wider than we've seen all series, resulting in a scoring rate of 127.6 points per 100 possessions whenever Nowitzki was on the floor.
While Dirk was an evident target (and an especially poor defender on this particular night), Dallas as a team deserves plenty of blame. After a few games of attentitive defense against San Antonio's wings, both Monta Ellis and Jose Calderon blew their assignments and surrendered open shots. Brandan Wright worked hard, though he was completely absent as a secondary pick-and-roll defender and couldn't quite peg the timing of players like Tony Parker (23 points, five assists) and Boris Diaw (eight points, six assists). Even a normally solid defender like Devin Harris was thrown off the scent on several occasions, beaten to the rim on backdoor cuts and shed on off-ball screens. It was an utter mess of a defensive performance, the kind that calls to mind exactly how lopsided this series was expected to be. The Mavs still managed (thanks to the 28 points of Vince Carter) to keep the margin close, though Carlisle's Thursday film session is likely to be bloody regardless.
• San Antonio facilitated Dallas' demise with outstanding interior passing. As if it weren't damaging enough that Tiago Splitter (17 points on 7-of-10 shooting, 10 rebounds) -- Nowitzki's primary defensive mark -- was usually able to roll to the rim unimpeded, the Spurs did a marvelous job of redirecting the offense whenever the Mavs overcompensated in his direction. Splitter himself had five assists that felt like 20. Diaw, while operating in a similar capacity, contributed six of his own.
The rhythm behind those feeds was perfect. Few rolling bigs can be trusted to make the right pass in sequence at exactly the right time, though the Spurs tend to sign and cultivate their screeners specifically to that end. It's an underrated skill considering just how much emphasis is placed on the finishing ability of power forwards and centers. Without that capacity to make the next pass, even the best pick-and-roll finishers can be stifled and stopped. With it, even a less commanding finisher can exploit natural defensive shifts to their fullest.
Splitter worked that beat masterfully in Game 5 to the point where Dallas had no effective response. Carlisle will undoubtedly come up with something to address this as the Mavs prepare for Game 6, though their vulnerability to this kind of passing seems to indicate a defense stretched to its reasonable limits.
• Nowitzki, at long last, found his bearings. The Mavs have done well enough in this series while using Dirk as a functional decoy, though they also ached for scoring in two close losses while Nowitzki shot poorly from the field. The Spurs' defense can only be credited to a point; while there's value in crowding Nowitzki and keeping to his right shoulder, so many of Dirk's misses have come on the same array of shots -- and at the same degree of difficulty -- that he hits on a regular basis.
The fourth quarter of Game 5 might finally have marked a turning point in that regard, as Nowitzki put up 14 points on 7-of-10 shooting (en route to 26 points on 10-of-20 shooting overall, along with 15 rebounds) to keep Dallas within range of a comeback. He was on the floor for the entire frame and responsible, directly or indirectly, for much of the Mavericks' 32-point output. Unfortunately, Nowitzki was also a key part in the Spurs' 30-point fourth quarter showing, a counter-effort that offset Dallas' late push and preserved a Game 5 win for the home team. If Nowitzki continues to guard the pick-and-roll with the maneuverability of a chair, it becomes all the more important that he contribute more concretely on offense. It's not as if he hasn't been trying; Nowitzki fought for position and made moves in the same ways as usual during the first four games of the series, albeit with strangely inconsistent results. That he finally capitalized on those looks in the later stages of Game 5 could be a promising development -- and possible return to normalcy -- for the Mavs if it somehow holds.