Everyone knows that if the Mavs can win the franchise’s first NBA title, Dirk Nowitzki will be the Finals MVP. His production, both scoring and rebounding, has been constant and extraordinary, and his impact on his teammates’ play is unmatched.
But who has been the second most important Maverick?
Maybe Shawn Marion, whose unexpected offense—on the glass and in the post—and iron-nosed defense on LeBron James has utterly negated a presumed mismatch for Miami.
One might offer Jason Terry, who has played well late in both Maverick wins. He’s been inconsistent, but backed up his tough talk after Game 3 by driving at will against LeBron James in the final moments of Game 4. As Terry’s 4th quarters have gone, so have the Mavericks. He was shut out in two losses, but averaged 8.5 points in the 4th quarter of their two wins.
But if you factor in consistency, minutes played, and impact on both ends, there’s plenty of evidence that the Mavericks second most important player is Tyson Chandler. Rick Carlisle has needed the former #2 overall pick’s best, too. With Brendan Haywood injured and ineffective, Chandler’s minutes have increased in each game this series, from 33 in Game 1, to a whopping 43 in Game 4.
Chandler has contributed meaningfully in all the categories you would expect for a fast, active 7-footer with questionable touch: defense and rebounding. His rebounds have gone up in each game, from four in Game 1, to 16 in Game 4. In the Finals, with Chandler on the bench, the Heat’s rebounding rate skyrockets from 47.4% to 56.9% and its Offensive efficiency goes from 98.26 points per 100 possessions–worse than any team in the regular season–to 114.3 points per 100 possessions—better than any team in the regular season.
Specifically, Statscube tells us that the Heat shoot far worse from beyond the arc and on shots at rim, and attempt significantly fewer freethrows per possession when Chandler patrols the paint. That statistical combination implies that not only is Chandler a direct deterrent on rim attempts, but his very presence discourages the kind of drives that open up the Heat’s 3-point shooters. Clearly, Carlisle is leaning heavily on Chandler’s combination of length, quick feet and communication skills to quarterback the Mavs crippling half-court defense.
What’s more, Chandler is doing an admirable job on Chris Bosh, moving his feet exceptionally well to stay in front of the deceptive forward, and resisting the temptation to bite on Bosh’s upfake. Although Bosh got off a bit in Game 4, his buckets were mostly the result of contested midrange shots and layups/dunks off of pick and rolls.
Though Chandler presents a limited offensive arsenal, he’s also factored positively into Dallas’ offense with his shudder-inducing screens, rebounding, and presence as a lob threat. Wade spectacularly rejected a less than full throttle dunk attempt from Chandler, but generally speaking he’s been far more difficult to stop around the rim without fouling than Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer were in the Heat’s previous series. Chandler is shooting 57%, but his greater contribution may be in all the fouls he’s drawing without picking up any himself.
I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a player be so effective on the boards, so physical, without fouling. It vaguely reminds, dare I say, of Rodman. After Chandler survived Game 3 with only two fouls—and none in the first half—while drawing a half dozen looseball fouls, I kept an eye on his play in Game 4. I saw Chandler battling, and perhaps exaggerating contact, but very rarely doing anything I would construe as illegal. He has found that line at the edge of legal contact, and is consistently going all the way there.
With his size advantage, long arms and explosive hops, Chandler is causing all kinds of trouble for Miami on the offensive glass. In the Chicago series, Miami found ways to use guys like Mike Miller to block out Joakim Noah when rotations dictated such a switch. But Chandler is doing a great job of sealing position early and rebounding out of his area. The Mavericks have been turnover prone this series, and desperately need to win or at least hold their own on the boards to avoid giving the Heat an insurmountable advantage in number of possessions.
At the end of Game 4, Dallas showed an interesting wrinkle in their typical ball-screen heavy end of game offense. Instead of Dirk playing a pick and pop game with Barea or Terry, Chandler did the majority of screening, rolling hard to the basket and distorting Miami’s defense and rotations. With three solid shooters, including Nowitzki, surrounding the perimeter, the middle of the floor opened up, improving passing and driving angles previously clogged with Heat hands and bodies.
Before the Finals began, Rob Mahoney presciently told me “provided that Tyson Chandler and Brendan Haywood can manage some way to negotiate their responsibilities as both on-ball defenders against stretch bigs like Bosh and Haslem and as perfectly vertical monoliths protecting the rim from the James/Wade barrage, I’m not seeing what makes the Heat anything resembling an overwhelming favorite.”
Haywood is out, and could be lost for the series. An enormous burden has been placed on Chandler, and he’s responded brilliantly. In many ways, what he does for Dallas’ defense mirrors Nowitzki’s incomparable impact on it offense. It’s evident that more than any other player excluding Dirk, Chandler’s play will determine Dallas’ fate in the Finals.