The Official Two Man Game Official Dallas Mavericks Versus Portland Trailblazers Official Playoff Preview for the Official 2010-2011 Official NBA Post-Season
Dallas’ playoff opponent is finally set in stone. Thanks to a Maverick win and Kobe Bryant’s ongoing crusade to burn the city of Sacramento to the ground, the Mavs will face off with the formidable Portland Trailblazers in the first found of the postseason. Rejoice, and be worried; this matchup is terrific for basketball fans but should be uncomfortable to the Maverick faithful, a conflict of identities for those who appreciate both the game and this particular team. We’re in for a fantastic series, but a hell of an opponent stands between Dallas and the second round.
The Mavericks are a better team than the Blazers by virtually every objective measure; win percentage, efficiency differential, point differential, Pythagorean win percentage, and the simple rating system all favor Dallas. In terms of their season-long numbers, the Mavs have outperformed the Blazers on both ends of the court, and enjoy all of the statistical trimmings that come with that superior level of performance. However, the fact that Dallas is a better team only matters tangentially. Playoff series’ are so much more dependent on the ways in which teams succeed than just how successful those teams are, a fact surely not lost on Mavs fans. This outcome of this series won’t be determined by determining the better team, but merely the more effective one given this specific matchup.
Dallas and Portland faced off four times during the regular season, but reading too much into the outcome of those four contests can be a bit misleading; the Blazers thoroughly dominated their latest game against the Mavs, for example, but Tyson Chandler’s absence hardly makes it a representative sample. The same can be said of the exclusion of Dirk Nowitzki and Brandon Roy in previous games, the mid-season acquisition of Gerald Wallace, and the unavailability of Caron Butler — we have four games’ worth of competition between the two teams, but little to speak of in the way of legitimate macro-level assessment.
So instead, the most prudent way to predict the performance of both teams is to look at smaller factors which could potentially turn the series. In my eyes, Portland creates particular problems for Dallas through their combination of versatile forwards and sizable guards. LaMarcus Aldridge — who averaged 27.8 points on 51% shooting against Dallas this season — is a huge part of the problem, and acts as a catalyst of sorts for the Blazers to exploit the Mavs on a number of levels. Regardless of whether Marcus Camby is on the floor, Rick Carlisle has largely opted to defend Aldridge with either Tyson Chandler or Brendan Haywood. Carlisle’s decision is understandable; putting Dirk Nowitzki on Aldridge wouldn’t present any kind of advantage (and needlessly puts Dirk at risk for foul trouble), and Shawn Marion doesn’t have the size to contend with Aldridge in the post. That leaves Chandler and Haywood as the most logical defensive options, as both are long enough to contest Aldridge’s shot and strong enough to fight him for position down low. Neither has been tremendously successful in stopping Aldridge in the post thus far this season, but they provide the best theoretical counters considering the Mavs’ lack of alternatives.
If that potential mismatch in Portland’s favor isn’t enough, more problems start to arise when we weigh Aldridge’s other abilities. Not only is Portland’s new frontman skilled in operating from either block, but he’s a credible mid-range shooter and a constant threat to slip toward the basket for a lob. Aldridge’s combination of size, range, and mobility makes him an incredibly difficult cover, and with Dallas’ assumed defensive configuration, his ability to put up points is only the first of several concerns introduced by his very presence. Defensive rebounding is also a legitimate issue, as Aldridge is able to pull one of the Mavs’ strongest rebounders away from the basket by stepping out to the perimeter. That not only limits the rebounding impact of Chandler and Haywood while Aldridge is on the court, but opens up more opportunities for the Blazers — one of the strongest offensive rebounding teams in the league — to attack the glass. Dallas is normally strong on the defensive glass, but it’s no coincidence that some of their worst rebounding performances of the season have come against Portland (the Blazers grabbed more than 27.9 percent of available offensive boards in three of the four games, with the only outlier being the quasi-blowout in the most recent game).
Even more problematic is what that same range does for Dallas’ defensive spacing. Every successful defensive scheme relies on bigs who are able to rotate from across the court and contest shots around the rim, but Aldridge’s ability to knock down an open 18-footer makes it far more difficult for Chandler or Haywood to leave him and rotate into the paint. Without consistent help on the back line (Nowitzki tries, but Dirks will be Dirks), the Mavs’ perimeter defenders are in trouble; one misstep could lead to an uncontested layup or a trip to the free throw line, and Jason Terry, J.J. Barea, and Rodrigue Beaubois certainly commit their share of defensive blunders. Plus, Aldridge’s ability to space the floor opens up the opportunity for the Blazer guards to set up against their undersized opponents on the block. Brandon Roy and Andre Miller are skilled post-up threats capable of both scoring and making plays, and together with Wesley Matthews and Rudy Fernandez, the Blazer guard corps towers over the Mavs’ backcourt.
Portland not only has that specific size advantage, but has shown in their last two games against Dallas that they fully intend to exploit it. Ultimately, the Mavs are put in a position in which fielding any of their crucial but diminutive guards — the aforementioned Terry, Barea, and Beaubois — invites an easy post-up opportunity for either Roy or Miller. The three-guard lineup is even more vulnerable, further limiting Carlisle’s rotational options. Terry and Barea will play, but we could be left pondering ways to keep them off the floor, particularly if either player fails to produce on offense.
Carlisle may adjust by redistributing minutes, but Corey Brewer and DeShawn Stevenson seem to be his only alternatives, and I’m not sure either is likely to actually play significant minutes. In a way, this is all an extension from last year’s playoffs: Terry is almost certain to be an on-court mainstay, and even more certain to be on the court to close games — even when his replacement makes intuitive sense. Last year, it was Beaubois, who ripped up the court in Game 6 against the Spurs before grabbing a seat prematurely, who could have replaced JET. This season, if Terry isn’t on his offensive game, it may make more sense for him to sit for defensive reasons. He isn’t uniquely responsible for Dallas’ potential defensive troubles, but he’s the undersized guard most likely to log the most playing time. The decision to slash the minutes of a player like JET is an immensely difficult one, and it may not even be the correct one. But those guard matchups could end up doing a lot of damage, and one can only hope that Carlisle has some counter — either in scheme or personnel — up his sleeve.
For their part, the Mavs don’t have a unique matchup advantage other than the fact that they employ Dirk Nowitzki, and that as a team they have the ability to hit shots of all kinds with consistency. That last fact should be especially evident against Portland’s relatively poor shooting defense; for all their defensive versatility and long-armed wings, the Blazers rank 22nd in effective field goal percentage allowed. Dirk Nowitzki will have his work cut out for him grappling with Gerald Wallace and Nicolas Batum (among others), but I nonetheless anticipate him having an MVP-type series. There’s only so much a defender can do. Wallace and Batum are sure to put in good work on D, but Nowitzki is that efficient, that prolific, that deadly. Expect consistently excellent work from the block, the wing, and the elbow, as Dirk turns in more typically stellar postseason numbers.
Dallas’ perimeter shooters should also be in for a field day. According to Synergy Sports Technology, the Blazers rank 25th in the league in their defense of spot-up jumpers on a per possession basis, while the Maverick shooters rank sixth in their points scored per spot-up possession. This is where being a “jumpshooting team” comes in handy; spot-up jumpshots are a substantial part — 22.7 percent — of the Dallas offense, and happen to be one of Portland’s greatest defensive weaknesses. Let there be a turkey in every pot and a kick-out for every shooter — it’s gonna be a feast from the outside.
To hone in a bit: Portland ranks in the bottom 10 in three-point shooting defense — a big reason why both their points per spot up possession allowed and their opponents’ effective field goal percentage are so high. The Mavs have four consistent perimeter marksmen (Terry, Stevenson, Brian Cardinal, Peja Stojakovic) outside of Nowitzki, and any who sees the floor should find open looks with some regularity. The problem is how many of those shooters will actually see notable time; Stevenson could end up starting, but he’d been out of the rotation for a while before his unearthing on Wednesday. His role is uncertain, to say the least. Cardinal could be left off the playoff roster altogether if Rick Carlisle elects to bring Brewer along for the postseason, and even if Cardinal does make the playoff roster, Dallas rarely plays him and Nowitzki at the same time, which would limit his potential application.
Regardless, Terry, Stojakovic, Jason Kidd, and J.J. Barea should have room to fire from outside. They may not always convert (particularly in the case of the latter two), but those openings are nonetheless an important part of Dallas’ advantage. The opportunities will be there, so it’s on the usually efficient Mavs to hit their shots.
Dallas shouldn’t have too much of a problem scoring, but they may have some issues in setting up a fluid offense. As counter-intuitive as that sounds, consider this: the Blazers are as good as any team in the league at creating turnovers, but as noted above, they don’t contest shots well at all. One shouldn’t expect some freewheeling Maverick attack, but once the ball gets to Nowitzki or Marion in the post (where they can either score or execute a basic kick-out), to a shooter off a curl via a Kidd assist, or to Terry or Barea to run the pick-and-roll, all should be right with the world. The problem is in the intermediary, those moments between the first and second options in a set where Kidd tries to thread an overly ambitious pass, Terry attempts to create off the dribble in vain, or a non-ball-handler ends up uncomfortably holding the rock as the shot clock dwindles. If the Mavs establish their play actions and work through them without trying to do too much, they shouldn’t have much of a problem on the offensive end at all. If they panic or rush rather than work through their options patiently, then Wallace, Miller, Matthews, and Fernandez will furiously swarm the ball like leather-eating piranhas.
With that in mind, this series feels like a shootout. Portland isn’t a particularly sound defensive team, and Dallas’ defense doesn’t seem poised to be particularly effective based on the matchup and their recent performance. The point totals may not soar due to neither team being a true fast-breaking outfit, but this is a series of offensive prowess unless the Mavs can prove otherwise. One defensive scheme isn’t enough, either; Nate McMillan is a smart, flexible coach, and he’ll have his players adapt to any single counter the Mavs utilize. Dallas will need multiple responses to both Aldridge and the Blazer guards, and somehow not neglect Wallace and Batum in the process. It’s doable, but difficult.
Which is why I regretfully predict that the Blazers will win in seven games. It’s not an easy call; these Mavs are skilled and can theoretically execute on both ends. I just think Portland’s mismatches will prove a bit too problematic. I think Jason Kidd won’t be quite as effective as the Mavs need him to be. I think Dirk Nowitzki and LaMarcus Aldridge will both be tremendous, and the rest of both teams will be left to tip the balance. I think the Blazers can hide Brandon Roy too easily on defense, which lets him stay on the court long enough to cause a problem. I think Wallace and Batum may only hinder Nowitzki, but they’re capable of significantly limiting Marion. I think that there is a distinct possibility that the Mavs win this series, but there are just too many concerns to consider it the most likely outcome.
The Mavs are the better team in this series. Sometimes that just isn’t enough.
Here’s to hoping I’m wrong.