PORTLAND - The Dallas Mavericks and Portland Trail Blazers spent their day off between Games Three and Four of the best-of-seven series the Mavericks lead 2-1 looking at film and making adjustments in preparation for Saturday's game. That was true of the Blazers even after they got back in the series with a 97-92 win on Thursday night at the Rose Garden.
In speaking with the media, Portland head coach Nate McMillan sounded reasonably pleased with his offense but indicated the team's pick-and-roll defense is still a work in progress.
"I think we were better defending the pick-and-roll," McMillan said, "but we can be--we need to be--even better."
Because Jason Kidd and Peja Stojakovic were unable to repeat their accurate shooting from beyond the arc in Games One and Two, and because the Blazers forced 16 turnovers, they were able to overcome poor shot defense, especially before halftime. Dallas' effective field-goal percentage was 65.7 percent in the first half and 59.6 percent for the game. Portland has been forced to give up something defending the pick-and-roll, and that has generally been open looks for the Mavericks' perimeter players on the perimeter. In Games One and Two, those went down at a high percentage. In Game Three, other than Jason Terry (5-of-7), Dallas made four triples in 15 attempts.
Naturally, the Blazers have been more effective defensively with their bigger starting lineup on the floor. Starters have given up 108.4 points per 100 possessions in this series, per StatsCube, as compared to 114.3 when Nicolas Batum replaces Marcus Camby and Portland goes small. McMillan used his starters down the stretch on Thursday, but wasn't ready to commit to that lineup in the future, saying "Each night is probably going to be different."
Rick Carlisle countered by playing a three-guard lineup with Jose Barea, Jason Kidd and Terry during the fourth quarter with the goal of getting more scoring from the perimeter. Asked about his team's very different production in each game of the series, Carlisle told reporters he doesn't know where scoring is going to come from on a night-to-night basis. One thing is clear: It's not going to come from starting shooting guard DeShawn Stevenson, who has scored six points in 36 minutes over three games. Stevenson made just a cameo appearance in Game Three, and at this point he's basically keeping the shooting guard spot warm for Terry, who is comfortable playing off the bench.
Defensively, Carlisle has some interesting options. Dallas has yet to use almost any zone despite playing more zone defense than any other team during the regular season. On Twitter, our Sebastian Pruiti noted that the Mavericks have played two possessions of zone and got stops both times. Pruiti's hunch is that Dallas will make more extensive use of the zone in Game Four. While the Blazers have been unable to use their own zone defense much because the Mavericks pick apart a zone so effectively, Portland's lack of outside shooting--especially in the starting lineup--makes the Blazers vulnerable to zones, which could also help Carlisle cover the lack of size in his backcourt.
McMillan's rotation might have a new addition in Chris Johnson. The rookie by way of the D-League was the media star Friday morning after playing an effective five minutes off the bench in the second half of Game Three. McMillan praised the way Johnson got the crowd involved with his high-flying blocked shots and a follow slam that did not count because of a loose-ball foul. McMillan explained that Johnson's playing time was something the Portland coaching staff had discussed before the game, as he played well in the last meeting of the regular season against Dallas. When McMillan had the opportunity to use Johnson to get Aldridge a breather with Camby in foul trouble, he did not hesitate and was rewarded.
One improvement McMillan would like to see on offense is more trips to the free throw line for LaMarcus Aldridge. Aldridge's efficiency was down in Game Three in large part because he shot just two free throws. Aldridge has attempted 14 foul shots in three games, down slightly from his average of 5.5 a night during the regular season. Since Aldridge is a solid 79.1 percent free throw shooter, more attempts for him are a boon for the Blazers.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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