DALLAS (AP)—From being overconfident, to underestimating the spike in intensity, to just plain being flat, the Dallas Mavericks had plenty of theories why they opened the playoffs with one of their worst performances all season.
Few had much to do with the Houston Rockets.
Sure, the Mavs offered the typical lines about “having to give them credit” and were still shaking their heads at some of the shots Tracy McGrady made in Houston’s 98-86 victory in Game 1 of the Western Conference series on Saturday.
But after watching the game film Sunday, Dallas players came away focused more on what they did wrong than what the Rockets did right.
“We looked like a team that hadn’t won in a month,” said Mavs star Dirk Nowitzki, who had more turnovers (six) than baskets (five). “We were nervous. I know I was tense. Maybe I put too much pressure on myself.
“We went in with a regular-season attitude, not knowing that we had to pick our games up a notch,” added Michael Finley.
“We just didn’t have it,” point guard Jason Terry said.
For coach Avery Johnson, it was a reminder that his job is tougher than he’d made it look in the five weeks since he’d replaced Don Nelson. The Mavs had won 16 of his first 18 games and hadn’t lost at home. They went into the playoffs on a nine-game winning streak and a nine-game home winning streak. Heck, they were even 7-0 in Game 1s at home in franchise history.
“I think we got sucked into reading too many headlines about how good we are,” Johnson said, adding that he saw signs of overconfidence during a pre-game shootaround. “We haven’t even won a playoff game together, but we were supposed to be a team that was going to whip people and think everybody was going to lay down for us. It doesn’t work that way.”
The word all the Mavericks used was “energy.” Houston had it and Dallas didn’t. That’s why the Rockets zoomed ahead by 19 early in the second quarter and it’s why they were able to quickly rebuild their lead after the Mavs got within four early in the fourth quarter.
The Rockets came away with their eighth straight win and the comfort of knowing they’re going home with no worse than a split. Win Game 2 on Monday night and Houston would really be headed home with momentum.
Of course, coach Jeff Van Gundy won’t allow his team to think that way. And he’ll probably try hiding the historical quirk about the Rockets winning 17 of 18 playoff series in franchise history when they win the opener.
Instead, he’ll remind his team that after opening a 39-20 lead, they missed 10 of their 12 shots going into halftime. He can also note that because they relied on so many outside shots, they got to the foul line just 20 times; Dallas took 42 free throws.
Then there are the traditional coaching concerns—expecting Nowitzki to bounce back and wondering how the Mavericks will defend McGrady differently, although it might not matter if he’s as locked in as he was in the opener.
“We need to be humble and learn from our mistakes,” Van Gundy said. “We know the adjustment cliche is overdone in this game. It’s usually an adjustment of intensity, urgency and will. Because of their speed advantage, we’ve got to be the more willful, urgent team.”
One way the game might change is around the rim. When Houston put four smaller players around their big man, Dallas rarely attacked the lane. Nowitzki was especially critical of his failure to exploit his size advantage.
Mavs center Erick Dampier also could be more aggressive. He made 2 of 3 shots in the first quarter, then didn’t try another until early in the fourth, when he missed two straight tip-ins. He finished with seven points and seven rebounds in 25 minutes.
Then again, the Rockets can expect more from their starting center, too. Yao Ming was in foul trouble from the start and played just 20 minutes.
“I can do a better job,” said Yao, who had 11 points and eight rebounds. “Some of those fouls I didn’t need to commit.”