Once trailing 35-21, the Clippers are lucky to be down by seven at the half.
After Elton misses a jumper on the first possession of the third quarter, the Mavs come down and Nowitzki runs a high S/R for Harris. Shaun Livingston hedges perfectly, such a beaut of a show that Cat is able to pop the ball away when Harris turns the corner so casually. Cat takes it all the way back for an easy two.
After that, the Clips score on 13 of the next 14 trips down the court in putting together a 28-13 run.
Welcome to the 2006-2007 NBA Season.
Cat Mobley went 10-15, (6-7 FT), 28 pts, with 7 rebounds and 3 assists. Fine. Whatever. The guy manned up against Dirk Nowitzki one-on-one and pulverized him.
Kaman started the night on Dirk, but picked up two quick fouls:
- The first foul comes on the weak side glass off a badly missed Harris jumper. Chris is probably a little deeper than he should be, but by and large it's a hustle foul, though Dampier gets the best of Chris on the tip-in and works the OF3PP.
- About a minute later, Dirk gives Kaman the Sam Cassell treatment - a quick stop, then a lunging jumper right into Chris. Dirk goes to the line & Kaman goes to the pine.
Thomas takes Dirk the rest of the way in the first. When I see Mobley on him at 5:54 in the second, I think that Dunleavy is batshit crazy. But the Mavs don't score in the first three Cat-on-Dirk possessions.
- On the fourth, Mobley fights through a Dampier screen and gets to Dirk at the top of the circle with :11 left on the shot clock. He's seriously giving up, like, 18 inches to Dirk. Dirk backs Mobley in deliberately, then stops, spins and pops an awful looking fade-away that barely scrapes the front rim at :06. After a jump ball, Mobley chases Dirk out to the perimeter where Dirk misses the 26-footer with the clock winding down past :04.
- On the very next possession, Dirk is one-on-one against Mobley on the left wing. Dirk, once again, backs Cat into the middle post. As Dirk goes to spin right, Mobley strips him, sending the Clippers the other way.
- Though Dirk sinks a 21-footer on his next possession against Elton, Mobley pickpockets him a couple trips later in almost an identical play: Dirk at the top of the circle; he spins right and Cat strips him clean.
Dirk hits exactly three FGs and two FTs the rest of the way and is, essentially, an offensive cipher. It's all Cuttino Mobley. Just like I called it. Cat scores the Clips' final seven points of the third quarter, including a monster three at 2:40 mark to give the Clippers a then-largest lead of the night at 71-63.
Shaun's game tonight was solid on both ends of the floor. I know we're all a little antsy for Shaun to break out and flash some outrageous shit, and I don't want to seem like I'm making apologies for what's been a forgettable - if adequate - offensive start, but he's been playing some incredible defense. The eight blocks and six steals are nice, but Dunleavy has made him the lynchpin of the rotation and he's shown up. On top of that, he helps on every play, and has been handling bigs, smalls, and in-betweens, whoever demands a stopper.
I've made a promise not to speculate as to what's going on with Elton's game, whether it's fatigue, the shitty circulation on Aeroflot planes, or the rigorous foreign sales market at Toronto...and whether there's anything that can be done about it. What I see, though, are guys running to Elton's spot on the left elbow before he can roll off the high screen. Teams are compressing the amount of space they're willing to give Elton in the half-court. They're doubling him off the ball in virtually every strong-side situation. When playing him one-on-one, opponents are sticking impossibly long defenders like Camby and Dampier on him.
Simply put, the NBA has adjusted to Elton Brand.
The question the league is posing to Elton: What are you gonna do about it? Over the course of his career, Barkley learned to expand his range and developed a couple of deceptive moves that could create some room in the open court. Will Elton scoot his way farther from the basket? Can he and Dunleavy find some stuff beyond the same three sets they've been working for the better part of three years?
Every marquee player must contend with inevitable plateaus in his development, points where his talents seem to reach their natural limit. A truly great player calibrates his game and counters the league's adjustment with one of his own. Jocks call this "taking it to the next level." Whatever you call it, it's the first major challenge in Elton's career. I'm not talking about the challenge of learning to pass out of the double team, or getting his FT% above .750, but an essential examination of his greatness.
Personally, I'm excited to see what EB will come up with. That's one of the unique pleasures of following the same team night in and night out. In the meantime, Elton (and we) should take comfort in the knowledge that he has a supporting cast, that he doesn't need to answer the challenge single-handedly, but can do so in the context of his team. For some guys, grasping that reality is more difficult than eluding the hard obstacles in the way.