The Dallas Mavericks were the most popular elite team in the Western Conference: Everybody wanted to play them in the first round of the playoffs. Denver Nuggets head coach George Karl openly said as much, but despite the fact that the Nuggets did everything they could to knock Dallas into the fourth spot (beating the Mavericks and losing twice to Oklahoma City in the season's final 10 days), Karl did not get the matchup he wanted. Instead, the lucky opponent is the Portland Trail Blazers, who would never dare say anything publicly about their desired first-round opponent but surely preferred Dallas to the Los Angeles Lakers.
Less than two weeks ago, we got a preview of this series when the Blazers beat the Mavericks comfortably at the Rose Garden, 104-96. It would be a mistake to read too much into that one game, especially because Dallas played without starting center Tyson Chandler and was finishing up a lengthy road trip. However, that meeting illustrated some of the matchups that could pose problems for the Mavericks in this series. It was also indicative of how well Portland has played since acquiring Gerald Wallace at the trade deadline. Since then, the Blazers have outplayed the opposition by an average of 5.4 points per game, adjusted for schedule and discounting Wednesday's meaningless season finale at Golden State. That's good for sixth in the league in that span, ahead of Dallas (+4.8, ninth).
WHEN DALLAS HAS THE BALL
Pace: 89.6 possessions per 48 minutes (19th NBA)
Dallas Offensive Rating: 111.8 points per 100 possessions (8th NBA)
Portland Defensive Rating: 108.4 points per 100 possessions (14th NBA)
For the 12th consecutive season--a stretch that not so coincidentally began during Dirk Nowitzki's breakout second season--the Mavericks ranked as one of the league's top 10 offenses. They were especially potent with their MVP candidate on the floor, and finding offense without Nowitzki will be a key challenge for Dallas in the postseason.
As his career has gone on, Nowitzki has increasingly made the high post his home, and that's where most Mavericks possessions end up at one point or another. Because of his height, Nowitzki can get off his jumper against virtually any defender. His turnaround jumper is virtually indefensible. The length of LaMarcus Aldridge gives Portland a sporting chance when he plays power forward and matches up with Nowitzki, but the German still shot 52.5 percent from the field and got to the free throw line an average of 7.3 times during the season series. Over the course of the year, Nowitzki was stunningly efficient given his heavy reliance on long twos, posting a .612 True Shooting Percentage.
Nowitzki's net offensive plus-minus of +10.4 points per 100 possessions was the league's seventh-largest impact, per BasketballValue.com. While it's tempting to ascribe that to the time players like Brian Cardinal and now-departed Steve Novak have played at power forward, the issue is almost entirely due to Shawn Marion playing the four spot in place of Nowitzki. Those lineups have averaged a dismal 100.9 points per 100 possessions (as compared to 112.8 with Nowitzki on the floor). If Rick Carlisle can find more time for Nowitzki during the postseason, the Mavericks will be that much more difficult to stop.
The rest of the Dallas offense depends on the guard pairings. Carlisle finished the season with defensive specialist DeShawn Stevenson at shooting guard alongside veteran Jason Kidd, and it appears that Stevenson will remain the starter at the beginning of this series. By virtue of making 37.4 percent of his three-point attempts, Stevenson posted the best True Shooting Percentage of his career (54.5 percent), but having three players on the floor who rarely create their own shot (Kidd and center Tyson Chandler being the others) puts a lot of pressure on Nowitzki and Marion.
The Mavericks are more dynamic with backup guards Jose Barea, Rodrigue Beaubois and Jason Terry on the floor. Beaubois has seen his playing time cut since he was demoted from the starting lineup, while he also sprained his left foot in Wednesday's season finale, which could render the question of how Carlisle juggles five guards moot. Dallas' deep bench also includes Peja Stojakovic, who has rediscovered his three-point stroke since signing with the Mavericks as a free agent, newly signed defensive stopper Corey Brewer and veteran center Brendan Haywood. The danger for Carlisle has been the temptation to mix and match rather than settling on a consistent rotation.
When the game is on the line, Dallas can count on the two-man game between Nowitzki and Terry. Both are among the league's best fourth-quarter players, and their shooting ability keeps defenders honest and opens up opportunities for the other player. While Kidd has slumped badly as a shooter this season (he's making just 33.5 percent of his threes), he is unafraid to take the big shot and often caps a poor night from the field with a crucial three in the fourth quarter.
WHEN PORTLAND HAS THE BALL
Pace: 86.8 possessions per 48 minutes (30th NBA)
Portland Offensive Rating: 110.2 points per 100 possessions (10th NBA)
Dallas Defensive Rating: 106.7 points per 100 possessions (9th NBA)
Through mid-March, the Mavericks' defense was steadily on the decline. Relying in part on a zone defense that confounded opponents, Dallas held 17 of its first 19 opponents below their season-long Offensive Rating. By midseason, the Mavericks were nothing better than average defensively. Something seems to have clicked over the last month, however. Starting March 18, Dallas has held opponents an average of 8.6 points per 100 possessions below their averages. Included were several dominant outings. Six times, three of them in the regular season's last three games, the Mavericks allowed less than a point per possession on defense.
As opponents have scouted the zone, Dallas has relied less on it over time, but this series might provide an opportunity to dust it off. The Blazers' not-so-secret weakness is that they struggle to shoot consistently from the perimeter. For the season, Portland shot just 34.3 percent from downtown, which put them 23rd in the NBA. Wesley Matthews (40.4 percent) was the only Blazer to shoot better than league average on threes. While Portland has to be encouraged by Rudy Fernandez breaking out of a lengthy slump, the fact remains that opponents have been most successful when they've packed the paint against the Blazers and forced them into a shooting contest.
The biggest concern for the Mavericks is matching up with Aldridge, who has evolved into a tough cover as Portland's go-to player on offense. Aldridge torched his hometown team for 27.8 points per game on 51.6 percent shooting. Dallas' best matchup for Aldridge is probably Chandler, who can counter his length and will force Aldridge to the perimeter more frequently. However, if the Mavericks put Chandler on Aldridge when both teams have their starters on the floor, that means Nowitzki has to contend with Blazers center Marcus Camby on the offensive boards, which presents its own set of issues. Portland ranked fourth in the league in offensive rebound percentage and Camby excels at keeping loose balls alive.
The Blazers' wild card is Brandon Roy. Roy has struggled since returning to the lineup just before the All-Star break, but no one was more thrilled to see Dallas as a first-round opponent. Nate McMillan can hide Roy defensively against Kidd, Stevenson and Stojakovic, all of whom are unlikely to beat him off the dribble. At the other end, Roy has the luxury of operating against the much smaller Mavericks' second-unit backcourt. Portland can put Roy in the post, where he sees the floor well and has enough strength to back smaller defenders down and create good shots.
Point guard Andre Miller has been quiet against Dallas this season, averaging just 9.0 points and 4.0 assists in head-to-head meetings. That's fewer total points than Miller scored in his career-high outing at the American Airlines Center in January 2010, when he went off for 52 points in an overtime win by the Blazers. When Miller gets in the paint, he breaks down defenses. To keep him from doing so, the Mavericks may put the bigger Stevenson on Miller.
While the last meeting was lopsided in Portland's favor before a rally by the Dallas reserves that was far too late, the other three head-to-head matchups were decided by no more than five points. Those are more indicative of the series we're likely to have, with a number of close games that will come down to late-game execution and more than a little luck.
Though the two biggest factors--overall performance and home-court advantage--favor the Mavericks, the Blazers come into this series playing stronger basketball. Portland's small, quick frontcourt of Aldridge and Wallace has been highly effective and has made the Blazers a different team since the All-Star break. Additionally, Portland matches up better with Dallas than any of the other West contenders.
I find myself torn on this pick. If the series goes the distance, I have a hard time seeing the Blazers winning Game Seven at the American Airlines Center. They've beaten just one West playoff team on the road with Wallace--the San Antonio Spurs when they were resting stars Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker and playing mostly reserves. If Portland can steal an early game on the road, though, the Blazers might just be able to make that early advantage hold up at the Rose Garden.
Portland in 6
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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