My mother, who’s something of a casual basketball fan–and, like seemingly everyone else in that group, rooting passionately for the Dallas Mavericks in this series–asked me the other night why Dallas has played so much better in the playoffs than in years past. Her answer, and probably the best single response, was “the guy from the country,” which turned out to be Tyson Chandler. (Having not seen the halftime feature during Game Five, I always thought of Chandler as from inner-city Compton, but in fact he spent his formative years on a farm in Northern California.)
Really, I’m not sure you can isolate one factor that has come together for the Mavericks. Dallas wasn’t much better during the regular season than past campaigns that ended in heartbreak early in the playoffs, and other than Chandler the mix of players isn’t substantially different. My best answer is that the Mavericks are just a little bit better in a lot of places, and have gotten just enough breaks, to end up a win away from the championship.
One of the interesting factors that’s translating this year in a way it hasn’t in the past is Dallas’ success in close games. This has been a regular feature of the Mavericks’ regular-season runs since they added Jason Terry to Dirk Nowitzki, with Jason Kidd providing another heralded clutch contributor. Friend of the site M. Haubs from The Painted Area highlighted Kidd’s role in a post on Dallas winning close games in these playoffs that drew upon some of my research on close games in general and the Mavericks in particular.
My skepticism has never been about whether the final minutes of NBA games legitimately differ from the first 43 or so; it’s clear that teams adjust the way they run their offenses, meaning that the arguments used against the notion of clutch hitting in baseball aren’t relevant. Instead, the problem is that sample sizes are so small that it’s difficult to tell what is truly clutch performance apart from random chance. While his issues run larger than this, LeBron James sure looked a lot more clutch when his outside shots were falling against the Boston Celtics and the Chicago Bulls than in the NBA Finals.
That’s what makes building around the ability to win close games, to the extent Dallas has actually done so, a dangerous proposition. The Mavericks’ regular-season success failed to translate to the playoffs the previous three years, during which Dallas won just once in a game decided by five points or fewer. (Tom Haberstroh has a better definition of clutch than the final score, but for our purposes this is surely illustrative.) When the Mavericks did advance, beating the hobbled San Antonio Spurs in 2009, their closest win was by nine points. The teams’ rematch last spring was even worse in this regard, as three of the games were decided by five points or fewer, but the Spurs won all three and the series.
Nowitzki’s ability to get his shot off, Terry’s irrational confidence, Kidd’s calm demeanor and Carlisle’s excellent Xs & Os are all reasons why Dallas winning close games is not luck. It’s just that these traits can’t be counted on to always show through amidst the randomness of late-game situations the way they have this year.