A Substitute for War

Basketball philosophy

Dirk vs Aldridge, Hakeem vs Malone in ’95 and where the rubber meets the road in the playoffs

with 4 comments

Dirk Nowitzki playing with the Dallas Mavericks

Image via Wikipedia

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 MaloneJohn 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.

Written by jr.

April 21, 2011 at 1:00 pm

4 Responses

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  1. The Hakeem/Malone matchup is rather misleading as a comparative point, but maybe that *is* your point: hype versus reality.

    For the record, Malone scored 7 points in the fourth quarter of game 5, Hakeem had 10.

    For the game, Malone had 35 points, Hakeem 33.

    Where the issue becomes interesting is in supporting players, actually: the Rockets only won when Drexler scored at least 30, and had a game two where two players — neither Olajuwon — went for 30+ in a blowout victory.

    No one for Utah scored 30 in any game other than Malone, who averaged that for the series.

    Likewise, Hakeem’s scoring outburst in this series coincided with an injury to Felton Spencer; a serviceable NBA center at the least, but without him Utah was left with a guy nearing 40 picked up on the quick and Antoine Carr off the bench, a guy who was there not only to bang but be a scoring cog. This left Utah hurting on the frontline, and Hakeem only matched this scoring output when matched against Robinson in the WCF.

    From my memory of game 5 — as it was with game 7 against PHX, the two series which were arguably the most grueling and dangerous for Houston — it was Drexler, not Olajuwon, who triggered the game-deciding run.

    Malone’s support in this series, really, was arguably lacking from a pure-scoring standpoint.

    This is the same kind of trouble Utah got into — and Malone, in my opinion, was falsely scapegoated for — when facing the Bulls in the 98 Finals. That is, lack if secondary scoring options.

    Too often Malone *had* to be the main scorer, again and again, whereas Hakeem had surrounding talent to share the load more directly.

    I generally think that Stockton is one of the greats, but I think he fell down in this series, and particularly in this game.

    The telling stat is that 30 point figure: Malone never had support like that in a game in this series, nor over the course of multiple playoff runs (I think three times during a 9 span another player on the Jazz scored 20 points), while Olajuwon could basically expect it, and needed it to win a game in this series and the series altogether.


    April 22, 2011 at 6:04 am

    • First of all, Hakeem had 12 points and 5 boards as opposed to Malone’s 9 points and 3 boards in the 4th. Secondly, you’re being extremely hypocritical when you mention the fact that Utah didn’t have a C to defend Hakeem because Houston didn’t have a PF to defend Malone either. They traded Thorpe for Drexler, were forced to start their back up Herrera who went down with a shoulder injury late in the season which he aggravated. So they had no PF to defend Malone, either. This is evident in some of the games after they traded Thorpe away as Malone posted a 45 pt game against them and Barkley had a 34 point, 26 board performance late in the season. Houston also had to deal with Olajuwon suffering from anemia as well as some interal problems such as Vernon Maxwell’s inability to accept a bench role. You can blame it on Malone’s lack of support but the reality is Hakeem was a lot better than Malone down the stretch and he seized the opportunity while Malone crumbled under pressure. It was Hakeem not Drexler who had 10 points in the final five minutes, including a turnaround bankshot. On the other hand, Malone failed to put any pressure on the defense and didn’t assert himself. He did hit a tough three but it was too little, too late.

      Hakeem had a 45 point effort wasted in game one of that series and he had no support that game. Utah went on a 10-0 run when he went to the bench at the start of the 4th and they could have won on a three by Maxwell at the buzzer. All of a sudden, Maxwell makes one shot and Hakeem basically wins that game singlehandedly or at least that’s what everyone would say.

      The game-deciding run against PHX was also triggered by Hakeem though Drexler had a big first half to keep them afloat as Hakeem was missing free throws as well as suffering from foul trouble. Hakeem had 16 points in the 4th of that game.


      December 29, 2011 at 2:56 pm

  2. I’m late to the party (there’ve been 2 games since the post), which could obviously contribute to my dissenting opinion. But that said, what I’m about to say tends to fit with my general opinion anyway:

    I tend to think “late-game closer” (especially as roughly defined as ‘late-game scorer’) is one of the more overrated aspects of basketball analysis. The ability to create shots and points late in games is obviously a useful skill (but more-so for teams, IMO, than purely as individuals), but because it is so often attributed as part of the Jordan (and now Kobe) mythology I think it’s become overblown.

    And I’m pretty sure I’ve seen you (correctly, in my opinion) point out that initiating late-game scoring is more generally within the purview of perimeter players anyway. Which would make it not-at-all surprising that Dirk, quite arguably the best perimeter-scoring big man of all-time, is much better at creating those types of scoring opportunities (and delivering) than any other big counterpart.

    So, that said, I don’t buy that this series can be broken down purely on Dirk’s ability to score late in games vs Aldridge’s. Or even, really, Dirk vs Aldridge. I think that Dirk is still the better player, and he’s also obviously the better late-game scorer, but as we’ve seen now the Blazer’s can get their late-game offense from other sources and still be fine.

    In my pre-playoffs predictions I said the Blazers would beat the Mavs in 7, not in-small part because they had a very solid team (good lead player with solid role player support) then they added 1.5 All Stars on the wings in Wallace and attenuated Roy late in the season. In the first 2 games I thought I was mistaken in what Roy could contribute (even in his weakened state) in limited minutes, but now it seems that the Blazers are starting to use him the way I anticipated. If that continues, I think the Blazers’ team is just better than the Mavs. It’s close, in part because Dirk is still better than Aldridge, but I don’t think it’s Dirk’s ability to score late (relative to Aldridge’s) that necessarily makes the difference between the 2 teams. Even if the Mavs go on to win the series, I just don’t see that as the declarative difference.


    April 25, 2011 at 4:54 pm

  3. […] Dirk vs Aldridge, Hakeem vs Malone in ’95 and where the rubber meets the road in the playoffs (asubstituteforwar.com) […]

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