As the Mavericks completed their second of back-to-back comeback wins, some strategy points started to become rather obvious.
If you watched the game, you would have noticed a curious absence of Gana Diop and Erick Dampier, especially in the second half. The pair only combined for 27 minutes. You'd think Avery Johnson would be going big trying to stop Yao, but the opposite was true. Instead of going big, he went physical. Instead of fronting Yao and trying to stop him from backing down with strong-arm traditional post defense by way of Diop or Dampier, Johnson opted to have the most aggressive defensive presence on the team, Brandon Bass, beat Yao up as much as possible. Bass played 35 minutes and was given open season to harrass Yao as much as he liked. His quickness and ability to stay in front of Yao kept the giant in different spots than he is used to. In addition to Bass's physical presence and quickness, most of the time another Maverick was coming over on help defense to help keep Yao at bay.
It should be noted that Yao still put a big night statistically and finished with 30 points, 15 rebounds on 61 percent shooting. To the naked eye, it looks like the strategy failed. Yao still put up his big numbers. What you won't find in those numbers is how Yao's altered court positioning changed the game for everyone else involved. With Bass harrassing Yao, he was forced to take more jump shots. Without Yao constantly hanging around the basket as much, with or without the ball, the rest of the Rockets players became out of sorts. Yao hit his jump shots, but took far more of them than we're used to seeing from him. 11 of his 18 field-goal attempts were jump shots and he only had one dunk. From a guy who scores at the hoop exactly 50 percent of the time, the Mavericks kept him on the wings and out of his comfort zone quite a bit.
In addition to the changed offensive positioning for the Rockets, playing a guy like Bass with heavy minutes opened up the Mavericks offense in huge ways. Incidentally, putting a guy like Bass on Yao helped create turnovers from Yao's teammates and the Mavericks exploited the Rockets on the fast break to the tune of a 15-5 point advantage. Without Diop or Dampier slogging up the court, the Mavericks were able to get down the court quicker and set something up immediately and have one of their big men right on their heels ready to clean up if a miss came on the break. Also, once Bass drained a few jump shots, it forced Yao out a little farther and thus opened up the lane for a driving Devin Harris who sunk 5 of his 7 shots at the rim.
Bass had himself quite a night also, finishing with a career-high 17 points. The Rockets finally figured out that neither Yao nor Luis Scola were going to cut the mustard on Bass defensively and put Chuck Hayes on him, albeit too late to make much of a difference.
In the end, the Mavericks used Yao's size against him. His slowness and inability to move quickly enough in the post to defend slashers killed Houston. With Tracy McGrady ailing a bit and not giving Yao the help he is used to, the Mavericks saw the weak point in their armor and went right at it. It's a strategy that you won't see the last of. So the next time you see Brandon Bass pushing around a 7-foot oaf, don't be surprised.
-Scooter Hendon, Hoops Nerd