Dirk vs Aldridge, Hakeem vs Malone in ’95 and where the rubber meets the road in the playoffs
Two games into the Dallas-Portland series, Dallas has 2 Ws. Despite Dallas winning 57 games to Portland’s 48 in the regular season, Portland became the popular upset choice with their play after the Gerald Wallace trade and the overall “meh” feeling about the Mavericks roster. So far Dallas has proven the pundits wrong.
Both teams have played similarly. Dirk Nowitzki (30.5ppg) and LaMarcus Aldridge (25.5ppg) have scored a ton, the rest have been limited to ok shooting %s, due to strong defense on both sides. Both games were dead even at the start of the 4th, with a 61-61 tie with 10 minutes left in Game 1 and a 78-76 lead for Dallas with under 9 left in Game 2. Then the gap between Dirk and Aldridge became apparant. In Game 1 Dirk scored 15 points in the last 10 minutes while Aldridge scored 6. In Game 2 Dirk dropped 13 points in the last 9 minutes, Aldridge 3. Dirk assassinated the Blazers in both 4th quarters.
True, Aldridge has played well and arguably outdone Dirk in the first 3/4s of each game. But when the rubber met the road, it’s Dirk who drove the knife into the Blazers. LaMarcus Aldridge is a great player, but Nowitzki is both a better player and one more ready to win a playoff series like this. I don’t buy into the myth about “clutch” last second shooting because most of the time, the predictability and isolations chosen for plays like this lower the team’s chance of scoring. However when a game is tied at the beginning of the 4th quarter – it certainly does matter who shows up the rest of the way. Not only is every bucket huge in this scenario, but it also drives momentum to one team’s side when a star lights up.
These playoffs are looking more and more like a “4-6 teams can win the title” year, of which we don’t get many. One of these years was the 95 playoffs, where Michael Jordan was back but neither he or the Bulls were ready for a legitimate title run. In the first round Houston Rockets played the 60 win Utah Jazz. It went 5, with Utah leading by 7 midway through the 4th on their homecourt. Hakeem Olajuwon went off in the remainder of the game, Karl Malone didn’t score a bucket until a few minutes left in the game after the Jazz had blown the lead. Houston went on to win the game and eventually win the title. The Karl Malone-John Stockton Jazz won the West in 97 and 98 but lost to Jordan’s Bulls dynasty. The far more open 95 may have been the Jazz’s best chance to win the title, if they had won that Game 5. When the rubber met the road, they didn’t have it and the Rockets did and it had a tidal wave impact on both Olajuwon and Malone’s legacies.
Now I don’t expect either Dallas to be a title contender, nor would Portland if they’d advanced – but who knows, the LA Lakers looked significantly more exhausted in their opening loss to New Orleans than they have the last few seasons and everyone had counted out the 6th seed, 47 W Rockets in 95. Nevertheless the point remains that in general, this is why offensive superstars matter so much. A big 4th quarter in a playoff series can change a team’s entire year or even era, in the case of the Jazz and Rockets. If the Mavericks make a surprising run at the title, Dirk’s two big 4th quarters to start the playoffs are a big reason why.