PORTLAND - It was impossible to watch the Dallas Mavericks and the Portland Trail Blazers on Sunday without considering the possibility that these same two teams will be meeting with a lot more on the line in just two weeks. While there is plenty of room for either team to move up or down, if the season ended today Dallas and Portland would meet in the 3-6 matchup in the Western Conference.
Those implications down the road are why the outcome--a 104-96 Blazers win that was nowhere near as close as the final score indicated--has to trouble the Mavericks more than it would otherwise. Independently, Sunday's loss would be easy to chock up as a product of the schedule. It was Dallas' final game of a six-game road trip, the third game in four days and the completion of a back-to-back that tipped off 22.5 hours earlier in the Bay Area. Additionally, starting center Tyson Chandler sat out due to lower back pain. Aside from Jose Barea and Shawn Marion, the Mavericks' energy waned accordingly.
The schedule almost certainly explains the magnitude of the lead, which was nearly 20 points in Portland's favor much of the fourth quarter before a late run evened things up. Dallas is rarely uncompetitive in games. Before Thursday's 28-point blowout at the hands of the Los Angeles Lakers, the Mavericks had been beaten by at least 15 points just once all season. And if there had been one constant in this year's head-to-head series, it was close finishes. Dallas won both games at the American Airlines Center by a combined eight points, while the Blazers came up with a three-point victory at the Rose Garden last month.
Still, Sunday revealed some matchup problems that will keep the Mavericks' coaching staff up at night should the two teams in fact square off in the opening round of the playoffs. That starts with LaMarcus Aldridge, for whom Dallas has no good answer, a problem exacerbated by Chandler's absence. Aldridge went for 10 points on 5-of-7 shooting in the first quarter before quieting after halftime and coasting to 18 points, which was far and away his lowest-scoring outing against the Mavericks this season. The Dallas native averaged 31.0 points in the first three head-to-head games.
The matchups get even worse for the Mavericks when both teams go to their benches. While Portland loves to play a small frontcourt of Aldridge and Gerald Wallace, the Blazers are actually one of the league's biggest teams on the perimeter now that 6'6" Brandon Roy has supplanted 6'0" Patty Mills as the team's backup point guard. Roy and Rudy Fernandez enjoy huge size advantages over Dallas' second-string backcourt of Barea (6'0") and Jason Terry (6'2").
Portland spent most of the second quarter posting Roy up against first Terry and later starter Rodrigue Beaubois (also 6'2"). When the Mavericks double-teamed the post, Roy happily turned passer and found teammates. Any time Dallas left him alone, Roy backed down his defender and either drew a foul or got a quality shot attempt. The single matchup dictated the entire quarter, during which the Blazers rang up 38 points and made 12 of their 15 shot attempts.
The Mavericks are equally Roy-friendly at the other end of the floor, where he can hide against players like Jason Kidd, DeShawn Stevenson or even Peja Stojakovic without having his limitations as an individual defender exposed. The combination allowed Roy to have one of his better games in recent weeks, scoring seven points and handing out four assists in the first half. Portland was +11 in Roy's 25 minutes of action.
Meanwhile, the Blazers' bigger starting lineup, which started a second consecutive game, has worked in terms of making Nicolas Batum an effective sixth man. Batum has brought great energy and strong production off the bench. He had 15 points on 5-of-9 shooting and four assists. Fernandez added three assists to give the Portland reserves 11 to the starters' nine. The ball is moving very quickly when the Blazers' bench is in the game, and all three players utilized the open looks to score at least nine points.
To make the matchups work, Dallas will have to be able to exploit its superior quickness in the backcourt. Barea did that at times en route to scoring 12 points in 17 minutes, and the Mavericks did score 29 points in the second quarter with an undersized perimeter group (which, at one point, included 6'4" Kidd at small forward) in the game. But with Kidd (0-of-6) and Terry (1-of-6) struggling to connect from the perimeter, the math did not add up for Dallas.
The Mavericks can take solace in the fact that Dirk Nowitzki is unlikely to have so little impact in the postseason. In the other two games he played against Portland, Nowitzki totaled 49 points on 16-of-28 from the field. He was never really in this game, aside from getting to the free throw line seven times. Nowitzki finished with a quiet 16 points in 35 minutes. He suffered through a poor shooting night in a loss on Saturday at Golden State and is surely looking forward to getting a couple of days off before resuming the stretch run.
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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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