Methods to the Madness

Who says NBA teams don't game-plan? SI went behind closed doors with the Mavericks and the Suns to see how the two rivals strategized for their Western Conference showdown
April 08, 2007

With about fiveminutes left in Sunday's game at US Airways Center in Phoenix, the DallasMavericks went to a matchup zone, their dozenth defense of the afternoon. TheSuns appeared confused, but eventually forward Shawn Marion darted to his leftacross the lane and put up a righthanded floater that was nearly blocked. Itwas an awful-looking shot. It also went in, giving Phoenix a 109--96 lead thatall but sealed its 126--104 victory.

To some, the shot said it all about NBA basketball, 48 minutes of seeminglyspontaneous, even chaotic action packed into 24-second intervals. Whilefootball coaches plan with the precision of generals and baseball managers relyon cold, hard percentages (not to mention countless bromides), basketballcoaches can apparently do nothing to affect the outcome. They're left to pacethe sideline, scream at referees and add a sweat-ring pattern to their Armanisuits as their players ad lib.

Not the case. Whenthe league's two best teams took the court, they did so with meticulouslycalibrated game plans in place. In fact, every NBA team goes into a game with aplan, even the Memphis Grizzlies, who appear to have no plan at all except tolose as often as possible and add Greg Oden or Kevin Durant to their roster.The schemes of the Mavs and the Suns were more hastily constructed than ones inthe NFL (both teams had played last Friday night) and were extremely fluid. Butthey had been formulated--just as those in the NFL are--only after hours offilm watching and with an attention to detail that would amaze even anaficionado, never mind the guy who thinks the NBA stands for No BrainpowerAllowed.

With the winPhoenix tied the season series at 2--2, took a 12--11 edge (playoff gamesincluded) in meetings over the last three years and added further intrigue tothe MVP race. Dallas forward Dirk Nowitzki probably had a slight edge going inbut had a subpar game (21 points on 6-of-18 shooting), while Suns point guardSteve Nash had 23 on seven fewer shots to go with 11 assists.

But those statsare only numbers. Before the teams took the court, they gave SI a glimpse intotheir pregame strategies. It's possible they will meet in the playoffs for thethird straight year, so as Phoenix assistant Marc Iavaroni said, "We're notgoing to throw everything out there, and neither are they."

The Mavericks'Plan

Assistant coachJoe Prunty is in charge of the initial game plan because the Suns have been"his team" throughout the season. Most NBA teams do it that way,divvying up responsibility for all opponents among the assistants. If Nashstarts tying his sneakers a different way, Prunty will know about it. He beganstudying the Suns--"not that I ever really forget about them"--a fewhours after the Mavs beat New York 105--103 last Friday in Dallas. (The Knicksare Prunty's team, too, so he had been busy with them to that point.) Pruntywent home and watched parts of Phoenix's last three games, including thatnight's 125--108 win over the Denver Nuggets, looking for anything new the Sunshad been doing since their memorable 129--127, double-overtime win over theMavericks on March 14. He came away wondering about two things:

•Is Marioninjured, coasting or just less involved in the offense? His quickness had hurtDallas in recent seasons, but over the last month his play had been subpar.

•Should he includemuch about the Suns' reserves in the game plan? In their 124--119 loss atGolden State last Thursday, the bench players had staged a fourth-quarterrally.

Marion's inspiredplay in the win over the Nuggets persuades Prunty to emphasize him heavily inthe game plan and not to worry too much about the reserves.

The Mavs get achance to work on the Suns' tendencies twice: at a light practice on Saturdaybefore they leave Dallas, and on a Sunday-morning run-through in a ballroom atthe team hotel before the 12:30 p.m. tipoff. At practice, little-used rookieguard José Barea is excited because he gets to impersonate Nash."Especially what I do is keep my dribble longer, go through and around thebasket," says Barea. "I don't usually play like that. No one doesexcept Steve Nash." Prunty presents the rudiments of the Phoenixpick-and-roll, and coach Avery Johnson frequently stops the action to talkabout specifics.

An NBA game planis mainly about defense, more specifically about defending two things: thepick-and-roll (usually but not always involving guards) and post-ups (usuallybut not always involving big men). "Some teams, like Charlotte, run moreshooters off screens than they run pick-and-rolls," says Prunty. "But,of course, it's all about personnel. Everybody runs pick-and-rolls, but noteverybody has Nash."

By Sunday morning,after weighing the intelligence from Prunty and the other assistants, Johnsonmakes a general decision: The Mavs will start basic. They'll try to fightthrough pick-and-rolls or make conventional switches rather than trying toaggressively double-team. They want to make a statement that they are the teamwith a league-best 61--11 record, and that it's the 54--18 Suns who will haveto do the adjusting. "We've overthought this team in the past," sayssixth man Jerry Stackhouse.

But the Mavericksknow that they will have to add wrinkles as the game unfolds. Specifically,they have had some success "blacking" Nash--that is, forcing him awayfrom the center of the court by doubling him on the pick-and-roll. Plus, thoughthey will start with 6'2" Jason Terry on the 6'3" Nash, they know that6'7" defensive stalwart Josh Howard will eventually guard him, using hisheight to limit Nash's extraordinary range of vision.

Though the Dallascoaches have looked through piles and piles of paper--they can tell you howmany times, say, Nash dribbles to his left and pulls up and how many times hecontinues to the basket--they will give each player only one sheet, whichsummarizes the tendencies of every Sun. "We find left-behind reports allthe time," says assistant Del Harris. "Players should be able toremember these things, anyway."

The Suns' Plan

Thirty minutesafter Phoenix dusted off Denver, guard Raja Bell headed home for a couple hoursof TiVo'd programming. Normally it's CSI; tonight it's the Mavs-Knicksgame.

"I startedthinking about Dallas as soon as this one was over," says Bell. "Rightnow my own game plan is all about my principals and their tendencies. WhenJason Terry is coming off a screen-roll to his right hand, you must have yourbig [a Suns forward or center] up. You can't just let him step into the pocketand shoot a jump shot. And he likes to go right. With Dirk [Nowitzki], youcan't play off him. You have to stay up underneath him because he's all aboutfootwork and balance. [Guard] Devin Harris likes to go to the basket."

At the same timethat Bell is replaying the game, a bleary-eyed Iavaroni is in the middle of hisfilm study at home. Like Prunty, Iavaroni had responsibility for a team onFriday night, and because he's known for watching more film than Scorsese,says, "I'm going to look like hell tomorrow morning."

And he does, whenthe coaches gather in their upstairs office to assemble their game plan.Iavaroni is thrown a curveball when coach Mike D'Antoni says that he's going tostart guard Leandro Barbosa instead of forward Boris Diaw. While the Mavs'season has been a study in stability--few injuries, consistent play, a setrotation--the Suns have undergone several tweaks, all done in an effort tocatch the Mavs in the Western Conference race and stay ahead of the San AntonioSpurs.

Although thelineup change has a domino effect on defensive assignments--Marion will nowstart out guarding Nowitzki--the Suns' major game-plan questions and answersremain the same: How can they limit Nowitzki? (By stunting, or giving differentlooks with their double teams.) Whom can they leave open when they double-team?(Definitely Harris, and definitely not Nowitzki or Terry.) What do they do whenStackhouse enters the game? (Keep him out of his favored left corner.)

Even for anup-tempo team like Phoenix, the focus is primarily on D. The Suns decide on amenu of strategies: They will trap Terry when he runs a pick-and-roll withlumbering, nonshooting center Erick Dampier; they will "raid and getback" (attack the ball but move back before double-teaming) onpick-and-rolls with Nowitzki and Terry; they will go "way under" onpick-and-rolls involving Harris, meaning that they will give him space andallow--nay, encourage--him to shoot; and they will switch on pick-and-rollsinvolving Howard.

Like the Mavs'staff, Phoenix's considers individual tendencies in formulating the game plan.One example of the detail from the Nowitzki sheet:

KEY ON RIGHTSHOULDER. He will turn his back on the perimeter or post, looking to almostalways come back to fallaway over right shoulder. Also working on right hookfrom left block. Long rebounder!! Likes to strip ball on D. Get elbow out, drawcontact. Block from behind.

Although the Sunshave this and many other tidbits about Nowitzki, that didn't stop him fromgetting 30, 27 and 35 points in their three previous meetings.

The Game

The first half,which ends with Phoenix leading 60--56, is played at the Suns' preferredallegro pace. While they can't get a handle on Howard (18 points) or Stackhouse(13), they do a good job on the pick-and-rolls and on Nowitzki in particular.When Bell or Diaw is on him, the game plan calls for Marion to either"one-swipe" Nowitzki (slide over briefly and take a swipe at the ballso that he picks it up) or come late to contest Nowitzki's shot and perhapsblock it from behind. Nowitzki feels the pressure and struggles to 11 points.Dallas doesn't have the 7-foot Dampier, whose presence would have prevented theSuns from going with a small lineup; he strained his right shoulder in the winover the Knicks and is in street clothes.

When the Sunsstart the second half red-hot, the Mavericks begin varying their pick-and-rollcoverages. But the greater the number of options, the greater the chances forconfusion. As much as anything, in-game adjustments are about reconciling thecoverage scheme with the tendencies of individual players. For example, Dallaslikes to push perimeter dribblers toward the left sideline. But that's thewrong thing to do with Barbosa, who can accelerate past any defender whenallowed to go to his left.

Hoping to keep upwith the Suns, Dallas goes with a small lineup. A pattern develops on highpick-and-rolls--the Mavs' defensive switch puts a smaller player, typically the6'6" Stackhouse, on the 6'8" Diaw. While Diaw tends to pass too much,he doesn't turn down opportunities to post up a smaller man. He makes three offive shots in the second half, all of them crucial.

And when Dallasdoubles Diaw to get help for its smaller defender, he repeatedly finds histeammates on the perimeter. The Mavericks' game plan called for defenders tostay home on Barbosa, but in their eagerness to help down low, he gets too manyopen looks. The Brazilian Blur makes all three of his second-halfthree-pointers (finishing with a game-high 29 points), and the Suns pull away,snapping the Mavericks' nine-game winning streak.

The Mavs wereunquestionably disappointed in the coverage mistakes they made, and the Sunswere elated that their schemes limited Nowitzki's output and Terry'sopportunities. (He got up only 13 shots.) "Your margin for error is slimwhen you play the Suns," says Terry, "so you must stick to the gameplan and execute on both ends of the floor."

Of course, itdoesn't hurt when your team is making shots, and on this afternoon Phoenix madean astonishing 72.7% of its field goal attempts in the second half and 64.8%for the game. "We discovered the ideal game plan," says D'Antoni."We made just about every shot. I guess that means we're geniuses."

EXTRA
Making the Call
Read more from Jack McCallum, including his weekly Choosing Sides column.
ONLY AT SI.COM

An NBA game plan is MAINLY ABOUT DEFENSE, morespecifically about defending the pick-and-roll and post-ups.

The Suns take NOWITZKI'S TENDENCIES into account intheir game plan: "Key on right shoulder.... Get elbow out, drawcontact."

PHOTOPhotographs by Greg NelsonDETAILWORK
Two of the Suns' priorities were to keep Terry (opposite, with ball) fromgetting open looks off the pick-and-roll and to crowd Nowitzki (screeningBarbosa).
PHOTOPhotographs by Greg Nelson PHOTOPhotographs by Greg NelsonUNSTOPPABLE
The Mavs knew what Nash likes to do when he goes left, but the two-time MVPstill shook loose for 23 points.
PHOTOPhotographs by Greg NelsonLATESWITCH
Drawing Nowitzki after Phoenix changed its starting lineup, Marion kept theDallas star in check.
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)