Ian Levy is the author of Hickory High, a contributor to Indy Cornrows, and a part of The Two Man Game family. He’ll be bringing his intelligent brand of — mostly quantitative — analysis here on a weekly basis. You can follow Ian on Twitter at @HickoryHigh.
There may not be two teams in the league with as much positional versatility as the Dallas Mavericks and the Portland Trailblazers. Both have players with unique combinations of size and skill, each capable of filling multiple roles. Individual matchups have been and will continue to be an important factor in the series, but so are the lineups employed by Rick Carlisle and Nate McMillan — the way those unique players are used in concert to achieve specific outcomes.
In a weird twist, neither team has been successful with their starting lineups. The Trail Blazers’ starters have been a -2 when on the floor together, the Mavericks’ have been a -3. For each team, change of pace units have done most of the damage. Two intriguing units played significant roles in Game 1 and disappeared in Game 2. These two lineups seem somewhat representative of the overall direction of each team.
The Jason Kidd – Jason Terry – Shawn Marion – Dirk Nowitzki – Tyson Chandler combination was the third most used lineup by the Mavericks this season, playing just over 187 minutes together. It was also one of the team’s most effective units, posting a Net Rating of +19.03 across the entire season. We’ll call this lineup “The Grays” in reference to their 8 gajillion combined years of experience.
For the Blazers we saw a new five-headed monster emerge in Game 1. The Blazers used the Andre Miller – Nicolas Batum – Gerald Wallace – LaMarcus Aldridge – Marcus Camby configuration for just over seven minutes. Wallace joined Portland for the last 23 games of the season and McMillan only ran that combination out onto the floor for a total of 54 seconds before the playoffs started. We’ll call this lineup “The Longs” in reference to their combined wingspan of 8 gajillion feet.
This group destroyed the Blazers in Game 1, outscoring them by 19 points in just over 9 minutes. They posted an Offensive Rating of 170.6 and a Defensive Rating of 50.0, for a ridiculous Net Rating of +120.59. They did most of their damage in a stretch from 5:47 left in the fourth quarter to 0:25 left in the fourth, when they took a 72-66 deficit to an 85-78 lead. This is an extremely small sample size, but they lineup obviously caused problems for the Blazers.
In Game 2, The Grays were not nearly as effective. They played just 6 minutes and 14 seconds together towards the end of the second quarter and were outscored by the Blazers 19-17. Some terrific shooting from Peja Stojakavic kept him on the floor for 27 minutes, and The Grays did not play as a unit at all in the second half.
This unit gives the Blazers a huge advantage in terms of length and athleticism. In Game 1, McMillan went to The Longs quickly, inserting Batum at the 8:18 mark of the first quarter, after Wesley Matthews had picked up two quick fouls. They were matched primarily with the Mavericks’ starting lineup, and outscored them 10-4 over a four minute stretch. They were also outscored by the Mavs 5-4 over the last three minutes of the first half. They were never on the floor together in the second half.
In Game 2, The Longs played together for the last minute and 24 seconds of the first half, being outscored by the Mavericks 4-3. They did not play at all together in the second half.
These two lineups were each very successful for a stretch in the first game of the series but saw much less floor time in the second. The Grays saw much less time in Game 2 because Peja Stojakavic was scorching from the outside. The Mavericks rode the hot hand, going away from one of their most common configurations in the process. They departed from what they normally do because something else was working on that particular night. Again, The Grays were one of the Mavericks most frequently used lineups during the regular season, comprised of the five players who led the team in crunch time minutes. We’ll certainly see more of them throughout the rest of the series.
The Longs are a slightly different story. They hardly played together in the regular season but were very effective against the Mavericks. Despite that fact, it seemed that McMillan made a conscious choice to avoid this lineup in Game 2. The Longs are comprised of the Blazers starters, with Batum subbed in for Wesley Matthews at shooting guard. Having a 6’9″ body matched up against any of the Mavericks’ shooting guards theoretically gives them a huge advantage at both ends of the floor, especially when that 6’9″ body is someone like Batum with the length and quickness to deny penetration and challenge jumpers.
During Game Two, Batum was subbed in four times. Each time he entered the game with the rest of the starting lineup on the floor. However, three of the four times he came in, McMillan chose to have him replace Camby instead of Matthews. Camby wasn’t in foul trouble, so one would have to think McMillan was making this choice based on matchups. The Mavericks were on fire from the perimeter and it makes sense add a long, quick defender at the expense of a big, rather than merely swap Batum for Matthews. This led them to a Miller-Matthews-Batum-Wallace-Aldridge combination which wasn’t used at all in Game 1, and played the Mavericks even 11-11 in Game 2.
The changes in Rick Carlisle’s rotation have been made to continue success; he rode The Grays to a big lead in Game 1, and made room for Stojakavic’s shooting in Game 2. Nate McMillan’s adjustments appear to be largely reactive; The Longs are a lineup which could theoretically help corral the Mavericks’ dribble penetration, bother jumpshooters, and create matchup problems on offense as well. They didn’t appear to be the best option to stop what the Mavericks were doing in Game 2, so they literally didn’t appear. The Blazers seem to be looking for answers instead of asking the questions.
The Mavericks have to be happy with where they are. They’re firmly in command of the series right now, not just because they’ve won, but because of how they’ve won. The Blazers reactive substitution pattern is a huge boon for Dallas, allowing them to stay one step ahead in the war of matchups.