Despite a nearly unprecedented level of play in his career’s twilight, Dirk Nowitzki understands his basketball mortality. The 36 year-old Dallas Mavericks legend is still the fulcrum from which his team’s league-leading offense swings, but no longer possesses the physical attributes that made him a devastating late-game playmaker. It’s a good thing, then, that Monta Ellis is around to pick up Dirk’s relative slack.
In the wake of Ellis making more big-time plays down the stretch of Dallas’ overtime win against the Brooklyn Nets on Monday, Nowitzki said he’s happy to cede control of the offense to the speedy guard when the game hangs in the balance.
Via Eddie Sefko of The Dallas Morning News:
These games prove that the Mavericks now are comfortable putting the ball in Ellis’ hands and letting him win or lose games for them. It used to be Nowitzki’s job. And it will be at times moving forward.
But more and more, it’s Ellis’ time to shine when the game is on the line.
“Especially down the stretch,” Nowitzki said. “We got [Rajon] Rondo, and he is a great setup guy. In crunch time, it’s not like he’s going to take the ball and take over and take the final shot.
“The ball is going to be in Monta’s hands a lot in those situations. And he’s come through for us so much, just in the year and a half that he’s been here. And he’s going to continue to get his chances and make plays for us.”
Nowitzki used a crucial play late in regulation of the win over Brooklyn to illustrate Ellis’ crunch-time prowess. Below is that possession in full followed by Dirk’s explanation:
“To have the ability to hang in the air — he’s so athletic,” Nowitzki said. “If he had my hops, he probably would have come down way before Plumlee would ever get there. He’s so athletic, he took off and hung in the air, waited on the contact and got the two shots. And obviously, it’s a lot of pressure. To step up and make both is phenomenal and shows that he’s a clutch player.”
Monta’s free throws tied the game and eventually forced overtime. Unbeknownst to most outside of Dallas is that he’s been making similarly clutch plays all season long.
Ellis’ 77 points when the score is within five points during the last five minutes of play is the third-most in basketball. His scorching 55.6 percent field goal shooting in the same scenario is basketball’s best among players who have scored at least 50 such points, and he’s made 20 of his 24 clutch foul shots.
By measures objective and subjective, it’s hardly a stretch to say that Ellis has been the best late-game player in the NBA this season. The Mavericks’ team-wide numbers support that assertion, too. Dallas is scoring 131.1 points per 100 possessions of crunch-time in 2014-2015, the league’s second-best mark behind that of the Golden State Warriors. Rick Carlisle’s team is 14-5 in close games, good for a third-leading winning percentage of 73.7.
It’s no wonder that Nowitzki is so comfortable letting Monta take the reins down the stretch – the results overwhelmingly support that choice. Though it bears mentioning that Dirk hasn’t exactly been sloppy in late-game situations, either: he’s shooting a ridiculous 17-of-29 during crunch-time.
The ball indeed might be in Ellis’ hands more and more often with the game on the line, and rightfully so. Even if it isn’t, though, Dallas certainly has a solid secondary option available.
*Statistical support for this post provided by nba.com/stats.
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