Following a 92-89 loss to the San Antonio Spurs in Game 4 of their first-round Western Conference Playoffs series, down 3-1 and facing elimination, the Dallas Mavericks find themselves looking for answers. How do they come back after dropping a game in which they held Tim Duncan(notes) and Tony Parker(notes) to a combined 4-for-18 from the field? How do they shake Dirk Nowitzki(notes) free of the defensive pressure that held him in check throughout Game 4? And, to borrow a turn of phrase from a once-popular Web portal that hates on Larry Hughes, how do they stop Caron Butler(notes) from taking so many bad shots?
When "the Spurs took [Nowitzki] out of the flow with a series of double-teams," wrote Art Garcia at NBA.com, it left Butler, Shawn Marion(notes), Jason Terry(notes) and the rest of the Mavericks' supporting cast to assume the offensive burden. And coming off of Dallas coach Rick Carlisle's much-discussed Game 3 benching of Butler and Marion, Tuff Juice seemed pretty happy to oblige, tying Nowitzki for the Mavs' scoring lead with 17 points in Sunday night's losing effort.
Problem is, it took him 18 field-goal attempts (he only hit seven) to get there, though he did add six rebounds and three assists (and three turnovers) in 35 minutes of action. Nowitzki, meanwhile, only took 10 field goal attempts, a surefire recipe for disaster for Dallas, which had real trouble establishing offensive fluidity all night long, even when they held the lead in the first half and early in the third quarter.
Paul J. Weber of The Associated Press wrote that "Butler and ... Marion seemed to get the message" after their Game 3 benching, but that's only half right. Yes, Marion played with energy and intensity, popping for 14 points (on 13 shots, though) and seven rebounds, including three on the offensive glass, in 28 minutes. But Caron, especially in the first half, just kept commandeering possessions and trying, with Nowitzki blanketed and the team facing an unenviable set of circumstances, to be the Mavericks' best offensive option to even the series.
More than anything, it was the way Butler attempted to take control of the game that raised eyebrows. He jacked up nine shots in the first 11 minutes of Game 4, many of them ill-advised and/or contested jumpers. He clanged a 15-footer, a 20-footer and an 18-footer to go with a missed layup and an offensive foul before making his first basket (itself an 18-footer). The pattern of settling for mid-range-and-beyond tries continued throughout the game, as Butler only managed two free-throw attempts. In contrast, a double-draggled Dirk hit just four of his 10 attempts, but when his shot wasn't falling, he got to the line, draining all nine tries from the stripe to do what he could to keep the game close.
(As Caron's first-quarter shooting spree unfolded, the writers behind Washington Wizards blog Bullets Forever took to Twitter to let us know that it was nothing new: "Dear NBA Public: Caron Butler has been pulling this stuff the whole season. I know you don't watch the #Wizards much, but it's been going on." Kyle Weidie of Wiz blog Truth About It echoed the sentiment: "So Butler doesn't play in 2nd half of game 3, then comes out & jacks 8 shots in 1st 8.5 minutes of gm 4, makes 3. That's Caron, I guess.")
As a result, the day-after stories have seen no shortage of piling on Caron. Dallas Morning News columnist Tim Cowlishaw wrote that Butler "has been a disaster" in the series: "In addition to shooting below 39 percent, he has 14 turnovers. That's more than [Jason] Kidd and J. J. Barea who handle the ball all night long." At the Morning News' MavsBlog, Brian Townsend added that "Dallas obviously needs Butler to be much more efficient than his 7-of-18 shooting on Sunday."
At Talk Hoops, Adam Sweeney identified Butler's poor shooting, "unsightly +/- of -15" and difficulty getting in sync as the reasons why Dallas is going home down 3-1: "Yeah, I think we can safely say he killed the Mavericks." Richie Whitt of the Dallas Observer's Sportatorium blog wondered whatever happened to the "mental and physical edge" that Butler was supposed to bring south from the DMV, calling him "a passive bystander."
That particular criticism -- applied to last night, at least -- isn't fair, according to Rob Mahoney at Mavs blog The Two Man Game, who granted that Butler "really tried," but acknowledged that his effort "wasn't enough."
"... Where is the scoring option that can take advantage of the double teams on Dirk?" Mahoney asked. "Where is the scorer that will elevate the Mavs above their .416 mark from the field?"
As Townsend reported, Butler still feels like it's him.
"If I get an opportunity, I'm going to try to either shoot the ball or make something happen for a teammate," he said. "Tonight, I had to be very aggressive."
Two things: A) Repeatedly taking contested 18-footers off the dribble seems like a flawed definition of "very aggressive" and B) That "had to" makes you wonder if Caron suffers from the same affliction as dudes like Antoine Walker(notes), whose unshakable confidence convinces them that, at any given time, they are the best player on the court and should be the one taking the shots.
With the clock winding down and the game on the line, such self-esteem can serve a player well. But as the Mavericks saw last night, it can also put your season on the chopping block.